John Kaminski on post-war America in the 1780s
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Q: Paint a picture for me of the disarray that was post-war America in the 1780s, and the need or perceived need to consolidate power under a strong central government.
A: Immediately after the war, prosperity was rampant throughout the colonies. The pent-up demand for foreign commerce opened ports, and merchants were very, very successful. But that only lasted for about two years. And then the inevitable post-war depression occurred. Farmers had been encouraged during the war to produce more. They borrowed money from private lenders (there were no banks at the times), and they increased their production. They had to feed an American army, a British army, a French army, and the navies during the Revolution. After the war, however, the armies disbanded, the navies left, and here you have tremendous amounts of food being raised. Farmers couldn't sell what they were raising.
So here you had farmers that had accumulated a lot of debt, and they couldn't sell the produce. They were in deep financial difficulty. Much of their land was being seized and sold at public auction to pay for their debts and to pay taxes. The farmers asked, "What did we fight the American Revolution for? Life, liberty, and property. We can't pay our debts. We're being arrested. Our land is being taken away, and we're put into debtors' prison if the sale of the property will not bring in enough money to pay the debts and the taxes."
These farmers were in desperate straits. You had violence occur all over America. It started in September, 1786, in Exeter, New Hampshire, where a mob of angry farmers surrounded the state legislature and demanded the elimination of debt and the issuance of paper money. The government should issue paper money and loan it to farmers. That would tide them over. They could use that money to pay their debts and to pay their taxes. That uprising was put down.
But similar acts of violence occurred all over America. In Rutland and Windsor, Vermont. In Charles Country, Maryland. In Camden, South Carolina. All over Pennsylvania. In back country Virginia, they burned the courthouses. If you burn the courthouses, you destroy the tax records. No tax records, you don't owe any taxes. In Massachusetts, the largest of these uprisings occurred: Shay's Rebellion. It wasn't an attempt to overthrow the government. It was an attempt to close the courts so that they couldn't foreclose on the farmers' property. This was all reported in the newspapers.
John P. Kaminski
Professor of History
University of Wisconsin Madison
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