Lessons of History Lost on Some Conservatives

Much like her fellow neo-con buddies (and, I’m sure much to their chagrin, much like the Progressives they so love to loathe), Ann Coulter is not one to let history get in the way of a good argument, especially when trashing Democrats and their allies.  Her most recent offering is a critique…no, it’s more of a bashing…of the Occupy Wall Street crowd.  Now, I’ll be honest, I think the OWS movement is misguided in that they’re focusing on the wrong problem.  The source of our problems is Washington, D.C., not Wall Street, but that’s beside the point.  This blog is focusing on Coulter’s misreading, misinterpretation or misapplication of history.

Coulter took exception to the OWS crowd being compared to the Tea Party.  Fine.  Not being a fan of the Tea Party movement myself, I couldn’t care less one way or the other.  To highlight the subversive nature of OWS, Coulter compares them to other violent protest movements of the past, including Shays’ Rebellion (later also [inexplicably] including the Weathermen and Charles Manson).  She sees Shays’ Rebellion as the driving force to the Constitution replacing the Article of Confederation (“Shays’ Rebellion so terrified and angered Americans that they demanded a federal government capable of crushing such mobs.”)  Some did, but not everyone.  Just ask the Anti-Federalists.  The inference to be drawn is that OWS is in the tradition of Shays’ Rebellion, both of which are outside the tradition of the founding fathers, while the tea parties are fully in line with the founding fathers.  This is where Coulter’s myopia becomes problematic.

A little background on Shays’ Rebellion–after the American War for Independence, both the independent states and the confederation government were deep in debt.  Many veterans of the war were still stuck with IOU’s for their service in the Continental Army.  To pay for their debts, many states, like Massachusetts, demanded hard currency (gold and silver) because that’s all their creditors would accept.  Many rural farmers didn’t have gold and silver to make payments and ended up losing their property, real estate and personal property.  Rural farmers organized to petition the courts to delay foreclosure and confiscation hearings until the legislature met and could address the concerns of the farmers.

When protests and petitions were unsuccessful, the farmers organized to shut down the courts themselves.  Local militia was largely unsuccessful in stopping them because many of the farmers were the local militia.  Since the state’s militia was largely sympathetic to the Shaysites, Massachusetts’ governor sent a private militia, financed by wealthy merchants of Boston to quell the rebellion.  Through petitions, protest and finally taking up arms, the Shaysites had followed the pattern of dissent that colonists had used to protest British taxation and had been put down by the Massachusetts government and merchants like the British had tried to put down the colonists in the 1770’s.

OWS, it seems, is content to protest corporate greed, but the truth is that its the collusion between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue they should be protesting.  The Shaysites were protesting what they saw as harsh taxation and were put down by a collusion of state (Governor Bowdoin) and wealthy merchants (financing a private army to put down the rebellion).  Thought provoking to say the least.

So were the founding fathers unanimously opposed to Shays’ Rebellion as Coulter’s assertions seem to imply?  Hardly.  Most prominently, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that in 1787, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.” (Although given Coulter’s predilection to disparage Democrats both now and throughout the past, I can’t help but wonder if she would give credence to much Jefferson said, given that the Jeffersonian Republicans are the progenitor of the Democratic party.)  Jefferson went on:

The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. … The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Shays’ Rebellion was indeed used as an excuse to form a stronger national government, especially given the difficulty of getting things done under the Articles of Confederation.  But to say that Shays’ Rebellion was in the same vein as a violent terrorist group as the Weather Underground or psychopathic murderer Charles Manson is ridiculous.  It does seem that Coulter is right to say that “the Wall Street protesters have no specific objections and no serious policy proposals”, but that assertion flies in the face of trying to compare Shays’ Rebellion, the participants of which seemed to have known what they opposed and what to do about it.

Perhaps the most fearful statement in Coulter’s diatribe is this: “This is what our Constitution was designed for: to use the force of the federal government to uphold the law when the states couldn’t…or wouldn’t…”  The argument assumes the primacy of the federal government over the states.  I can’t help but wonder where the Tenth Amendment fits into her statist fantasy world. Alexander Hamilton would be proud.


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