Monday, October 22, 2007

"Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution"

Woody Holton is an associate professor of history at the University of Richmond and the author of the award-winning book Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, and reported the following:
Page 69 of Unruly Americans describes one of the many forgotten conflicts that led to the Constitution. In 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War, officers of the Continental Army threatened a military coup unless Congress granted each of them a pension equal to five years' pay. Congress approved the pensions (which were disbursed in the form of interest-bearing "Commutation certificates") and asked the thirteen state legislatures to levy sufficient taxes to pay the veteran officers their annual interest.

Citizens of the new nation were already reeling from taxes that were, on average, four times higher than they had ever paid as British colonists. Much of this money was destined for the speculators (including, surprisingly enough, Abigail Adams) who had bought up earlier war bonds at a fraction of the face value. Numerous Americans balked at forking over additional money for the officers (many of whose Commutation certificates also ended up in the hands of speculators). Especially strong opposition came from men who had enlisted in the Continental Army as private soldiers; their own pensions had consisted of a paltry one-time payment of $200.

Some state assemblies complied with the financial demands Congress made on behalf of the officers, but often the ensuing taxes provoked farmers' rebellions, the most famous being Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts. These revolts generated grave concern among elite Americans such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Other state legislatures refused to vote money for the officers, and their recalcitrance intensified earlier elite demands that Congress be given authority to impose taxes directly on citizens. The Constitution was in part a response to this grassroots and legislative tax resistance; it gave Congress the authority to levy taxes of its own. With ratification the officers got their pensions, and taxpayers who rebelled found themselves facing a well-financed federal army.

The battle over Commutation illustrates one of the major themes of Unruly Americans: that financial conflicts between ordinary and elite Americans played a critical role in the genesis of the Constitution. Today most people assume that the Framers of the Constitution knew what was best for the country, but as I read the arguments for and against Commutation, I became increasingly convinced that there were two sides to the story. So the Commutation fight neatly encapsulates the two principal themes of my book: that ordinary citizens of the founding era were neither as insignificant nor as irresponsible as historians have portrayed them.
Read an excerpt and learn more about Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution at the publisher's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue