Shay’s Rebellion and the Myth of the American Revolution

In his 2009 lecture, “Myth of the Good Wars (Three ‘Holy’ Wars),” Howard Zinn obliterates the mythology surrounding the Infallible Founding Fathers™, deities worshiped relentlessly by white America. I have included highlights from the lecture below.

Our “Founding Fathers” were horrible, horrible people. We must accept this historical absolute truth, if we ever wish to move beyond it. They were incredibly racist, misogynist, classist, unapologetic exploiters of the common working person. Almost all were rich elites; the majority were land speculators, and were very heavily invested in businesses and corporations which were devoted to defying popular interest. Leading historians show these elites were interested in independence from Britain not for the sake of freedom for the vast preponderance of the population, who would remain non-citizens under law, but rather for the sake of boosting their own profits.

Many were also active in propagating the worst genocide in all of human history: the genocide of the Native Americans (murdering over 100 million people, 19 out of 20 of those who had lived on the continent before the arrival of the Europeans, according to American historian David Stannard, in his book American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World).

Yes, some of “Our founders read carefully and thought deeply about ideas of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy,” as both conservatives and liberals stipulate, but few actually believed in the principles. In fact, the “Founding Fathers” were very openly anti-democratic. They were pro-republicanism, not democracy, for they realized that, in an authentic democracy, the majority of the population, the exploited working class, would too seek democratic control over capital.

As Zinn writes in the conclusion of his magnum opus, “99 percent” of Americans, contrary to the wishes of the ruling elites, feel a common solidarity, rooted in both mutual suffering and mutual aid, and this is “exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent.”

Segment beginning at 29:42 (emphasis mine):

Shay’s Rebellion was serious. Shay’s Rebellion was thousands of farmers in those towns in Western Massachusetts surrounding the courthouses, not allowing the auctions to go on. And an army had to be brought out to suppress them–an army financed by the rich merchants of Boston. It was crushed. But it was a sign … to us of ‘Hey, what was this war fought for, and for whom was it fought, and who benefited from it, and who was betrayed by it?’ Working people were betrayed. And they had seen their brothers and friends die in that war. Now they were being betrayed.

Shay’s Rebellion takes place in 1786. Many of you know the date 1787, because that’s the date of the Constitutional Convention, that’s the date when the 55 men gather in Philadel–mostly rich, white men–gather–a representative group, you might say; as representative as our Congress and Senate are today. Why do they draw up a constitution? … They gather in Philadelphia and draw up a constitution. Why do they draw up a constitution? Well, I know what I learned in school, and I bet they’re still teaching that in school. We had a weak central government; we needed a strong central government; so we had a constitution; we created a constitution to give us a strong central government. We can be proud, because we want our government to be strong.

Well, yes, there’s some truth to that–well, it’s true that a strong central government was set up–for what reason? Well, if you want to know the reason the strong central government was set up, look at the correspondence that went back and forth among the Founding Fathers after Shay’s Rebellion. Shay’s Rebellion worried them. By the way, it was not only taking place in Massachusetts … There were similar rebellions in other states, of farmers. The Founding Fathers were worried about that. One of them, general Henry Knox, of Massachusetts … one of Washington’s colleagues in the army, after Shay’s Rebellion, he wrote to Washington, … and he says–I’ll paraphrase, in our own crude, 21st-century language–he says … ‘These people who fought in the revolution, they think that, because we won the war, that they are entitled to an equal share of the wealth of this country.’

The Constitutional Convention is convened in the shadow of Shay’s Rebellion, and with the fear of future rebellions. A strong central government was set up not just because, oh, it’s nice to have a strong central government; a strong central government was set up so you could have a government strong enough to suppress rebellions. To suppress working class rebellions, to suppress slave rebellions, to protect settlers and expansionists who move into Indian territory–a government that can raise an army. So, before you simply rush and say ‘Wow, how good to have a strong central government,’ strong for what? For what reason was that strength created?

Brings new definition to “with liberty and justice for all”–“all” meaning rich, land-owning, white businessmen.