Essay, Research Paper
Life and Views of a Western Farmer
In the Late 1780s
State of the Union
After the Revolutionary War, the United States was in a state of economic chaos. Depression and inflation were prevalent as a result of the war. Established trading patterns were in disarray. The Congress had no power at this time under the Articles of Confederation. In the thirteen states, where power was centered, the separate currencies were in shambles. The United States was in need of a government with power and control because the Articles of Confederation were lacking many things and had left the government powerless.
Life as a Western Farmer in the 1780s
Life as a western Massachusetts farmer at this time was difficult to say the least. Farmers produced just enough from their land to support their families. If they were lucky and had a good year, there might be enough extra crops to sell or trade for goods. Farmers lived in the constant fear that they could lose their land and/or freedom to debt collectors. Unable to trade with foreign countries, the New England area merchants had to collect on loans made to farmers to make up for the lack of income from foreign trade. If the farmer could not pay the debt, his land could be taken to cover the debt (Szatmary 19). In many cases, farmers were imprisoned for failure to repay their debtors. To a farmer, owning land was a form of independence and freedom. Losing land meant losing freedom and independence to a farmer. This threat was leading to increased tension between the farming class and the commercial world.
As more and more merchants began attempting to collect debts owed to them by farmers, tensions between the two were beginning to boil over. The merchants really had no choice but to try and collect debts for a source of income. The Articles of Confederation left the government without any power. Foreign trade could not be established without government power. Merchants could not trade with other countries on their own and, as a result, were losing significant amounts of income. To keep afloat, the merchants had to collect their debts from those who owed them. Most of those that owed debts were poor farmers.
As farmers were losing their farms and being imprisoned, other farmers were banding together to protect their farms. Farmers were upset with the unsettled economic conditions that were prevalent after the Revolutionary war. They felt that politicians and laws were grossly unfair to farmers and working people. In addition, farmers protested excessive taxes on property and poll taxes that prevented the poor from voting. They were especially unhappy with the court system and tried to stop the courts from operating. Another concern for farmers was the lack of a stable currency. This not only affected the farmers, but the rest of the United States. Many states had their own currencies, which caused problems for farmers trying to sell their crops. Different currencies meant that crops could be worth more in one state and less in another. Farmers, therefore, rallied for the government issue of paper money (Davis 83).
The tension between poor farmers and the wealthy commercial merchants and courts eventually boiled over into a full-blown rebellion in 1786. The rebellion, Shays’ Rebellion, was lead by a western Massachusetts farmer named Daniel Shays. The rebellion consisted mainly of poor farmers threatened with loss of property and imprisonment for debt. The farmers put up a good fight, but were eventually defeated within a year by the militia. Without intending it, the farmers actually bolstered support for a strong national government with a military force of its own to contain rebellious efforts such as Shays’ Rebellion (Szatmary 6).
The men who gathered to develop the Constitution were representatives of the commercial society that the farmers so despised. There were wealthy bankers, businessmen and lawyers present at the convention. Men such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were in attendance. The working class and farmers were not represented in this group (Miller 12). Having been left out of participation and representation during the writing of the Constitution, how could the working class and farmers be heard or support the document that was being developed by the so-called enemy?
Views of the Western Farmer on the Constitution Itself
The events that were taking place in Philadelphia would have been of great concern to the farmer. Though he may not support everything in the Constitution, it is conceivable that he may have supported certain provisions of the Constitution.
A farmer must have felt threatened by the idea of a federal government made up of those who supported commercialism. The growth of commercialism was threatening the farmer constantly. The men who had gathered were establishing a Congress that would be staffed by the rich and powerful, who would be given the authority to tax in order to collect money to run the new government. Taxes and debts were sensitive subjects with farmers and supporting that idea of a powerful taxing government would be difficult for the farming community.
Even though the new government would be run by the rich and powerful, I feel that some farmers may have supported the Constitution. The Constitution was going to give the government the power to engage in foreign relations and trade. This would re-establish merchants ability to trade with others increasing their forms of income. In the long run, this may cause the merchants to back of the intense debt collecting from farmers because the pressure to generate income would be relieved somewhat by the regained foreign trade income. In addition, the Constitution ordered Congress to establish a central currency backed by gold. The farmers who had been pushing for government issue of money during Shays’ Rebellion would have favored this effort.
Overall, I believe that the majority of farmers, particularly western Massachusetts’s farmers, would generally oppose the Constitution. The idea of a strong national government run by the supporters of a commercial society struck fear in the hearts of the western farmer. Farmers for the most part feared that these commercial proponents would overtake the rebellious farmers with the federal military force that they were including in the development of the Constitution.
Views of the People in General on the Constitution
When it came time to ratify the Constitution, support was varying. Determining support meant looking at different types of people and where they where located in the United States. Most of the resistance to the Constitution and a strong national government came from the working class and farmers in the New England states (Miller 15). These people must have feared that this new powerful government would somehow impede upon their freedom or their property. They felt that they had more to lose under this new government than if conditions remained the same.
The most support for a strong national government came from the merchants, bankers and lawyers. The wealthy society appeared to be staunch supports of the new Constitution. Merchants and court employees especially realized the need for an organized military after being targets of the rebellious farmers during Shays’ Rebellion. In conclusion, one can fairly accurately determine support or disdain for the Constitution simply by looking at the working conditions and locations of the people. Generally, poor farmers and working class people abhorred the idea of a strong federal government while the wealthy merchants, bankers and lawyers supported these concepts.
Davis, Kenneth C., Don’t Know Much about History, Avon Books, N. Y., 1990.
Miller, John C., The Federalist Era, Harper & Row, Inc., N. Y., 1960.
Szatmary, David P., Shay’s Rebellion, University of Massachusetts Press 1980.