Early American History Seminar: Woody Holton, Richmond University

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, May 19, 2005

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“ ‘A Murmuring Underneath’: Revolts, Rumors of Revolt, and the Road to the Constitution”
Woody Holton, Richmond University
The U.S. Constitution promises to “ensure domestic tranquility,” and historians have long understood that one of the Framers’ goals was to fund a national army mighty enough to crush plebeian insurrection. There was also another link between insurgency and the Constitution. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, rebellion - and more commonly, the threat of rebellion - repeatedly forced the thirteen state legislatures to adopt tax and relief. These relief laws appalled nearly all prominent Americans (not to mention most modern historians), and finding ways to prevent their passage was high on the agenda when the Constitutional Convention delegates assembled in May 1787. By that time, men who had once ascribed relief legislation to the fear of rebellion now blamed it on what Elbridge Gerry and Alexander Hamilton both called an “excess of democracy.” Like most modern historians (especially Gordon S. Wood), the convention delegates detached the issue of rebellion from the problem of legislative relief in a way they had not done as state legislators. Putting the two issues back together alerts us to the need for a closer look at the ways in which desperate debtors and taxpayers manipulated their social betters’ fear of agrarian insurgency.