Excerpted from "The Legal and Ethical Environment of Business" by DeAngelis, M; Great River Learning (2016):
The gravel crunched beneath their feet punctuating the rhythmic tramp of their gait as the grim band sturdily marched through the Western Massachusetts countryside. Hundreds of men, their numbers swelling as they passed through each village and crossroads. Most were former soldiers, veterans of the fight for American freedom from the tyranny of Great Britain. All were friends, neighbors, farmers and tradesmen, unafraid of hard work but brought low by hard times. While they patriotically fought for their new nation, their families secured credit from the local merchants in order to sustain. The merchants in turn borrowed from European lenders to maintain their businesses. When the soldiers returned home from the war, their pockets were full of nothing but paper promises from the government that they would be paid someday when the government could get the states to cough up their shares of the war debt. The merchants’ European creditors were less patient than the American veterans and with the end of the war called in their notes of debt. The American merchants followed suit and called in the debts owed by the hapless farmers and rural tradesmen to whom credit had been extended. Hopelessly unable to pay, these veterans watched helplessly as the merchants obtained judgments against them in the state courts and their farms and homes and property were sold out from under them to satisfy the court orders.
But they would stand by helplessly no longer. They marched now with their well-worn flintlock muskets on their shoulders and their cartridge boxes on their hips. These weapons had already been leveled in deadly measure against the forces of foreign tyranny. What difference now that tyranny’s treachery was cast upon them by their own judges and statesmen? They were determined to shut down the courts at Springfield by force if necessary to end the foreclosures. They gave little thought to their actions as treason. After all, they were patriots, sorely used and discarded by the country in whose favor they suffered years of privation, hardship and the fear of death.
As the rutted wagon paths of the countryside gave way to the manure-fouled city streets they closed ranks and assumed the best military airs of their training. Ahead, within sight now, surrounding the courthouse stood a merchant’s militia of mercenaries, paid with the very money the loathsome creditors had eked from the land and homes stolen from their neighbors. As the rebels marched past they saw former comrades-in-arms and neighbors standing among the mercenaries, some of whom blanched and to the chagrin of their well-paid officers, defiantly bolted and swelled the ranks of the army of the disgruntled.
A show of force and determination coupled with demonstrated military tactics and training from maneuvers throughout the day were sufficient to convince the court to adjourn without conducting any business. No shots were fired that day in 1786. No more farms were lost. But the fate of the nation had been thrown into uncertainty. Americans marched in armed rebellion against Americans. Something had to be done.
The scene described above was part of an incident that has come to be known as Shays’ Rebellion, named after former colonial militia captain, Daniel Shays. Shays had been among the grim band that closed the court in Springfield and he would march with them five months later in an assault on the federal armory that resulted in rebel fatalities. Shays’ rebellion subsequently dissolved, but without decisive action, the issues that it illuminated would not. . . .
While Shays’ rebellion . . . served notice that the Articles of Confederation were unworkable, the events also illuminated a conundrum facing those who sought to craft a workable governing structure. A strong national government was necessary to pull the states together financially but a strong national government if controlled by persons of like mind, could wield tyrannical power. In order for the US to survive, let alone thrive, the country’s commercial classes and practitioners could not be placed in danger from marauding rebels and small-minded legislatures, alike. The repulsive tyranny of the British monarch must not be replaced with the specter of a tyranny of a rabble-rousing majority. The educated class, the merchants, the men of commerce, the statesmen, who knew the economic matters necessary to build a strong national economy were a decided numerical minority. These elite thinkers surmised that if “the people,” that is the farmers who owned land but knew little about how to run a country or an economy, elect themselves into the legislature, as in Rhode Island, then they could make laws that would suppress the good works of the merchants that were necessary for national success.
[Earlier in the text] we discussed the countermajoritarian difficulty and exposed the need, in a democracy, for protection of minority rights even while respecting the will of the majority. Thomas Jefferson said, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” James Madison wrote of his similar concern, “Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from the acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.” The minority that our thoughtful, educated forefathers sought to protect from the tyranny of the majority were not the same minorities that we, today, see as vulnerable. Madison and his like-minded contemporaries wanted to protect the businessmen of the day from oppression by the numerically superior farmers and tradesmen. Our Constitution in great part was written to protect the liberty of businessmen from the tyranny of government.