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Book Review

Taxation, revolution, and some other rebellions

In his essay on Boston's Liberty Tree, historian Alfred F. Young described it as a focus for an "upsurge of popular resistance [to British rule] from below." And in "The Unknown American Revolution," historian Gary B. Nash gave urban craftsmen, slaves, "dockside tars," and "club-wielding farmers" a more prominent place than they have traditionally held in the history of the Revolution.

That same populist vision characterizes Woody Holton's revisionist account of the origins of the Constitution, "Unruly Americans," a National Book Award finalist.

Holton is an associate professor at the University of Richmond. In his previous book, "Forced Founders," he argued that Washington, Jefferson, and other members of the Colonial elite joined the Revolution in response to grassroots rebellions.

With "Unruly Americans," Holton carries that thesis forward to the making of the Constitution, arguing that "the rebellions, threats, and warnings of the postwar years" - which he explores in detail - "cast light on the origins of the Constitution."

Advocates of tax and debt relief, mainly farmers, he writes, "frequently launched uprisings" of which perhaps the best known is Shays's Rebellion in Western Massachusetts in 1786-1787.

"The gentry class was frightened and infuriated," Holton continues, "and one reason the Founding Fathers favored the Constitution was that it would, for the first time, give the federal government the funds it needed to field an army capable of suppressing farmers' rebellions." That was in the Framers' minds when they said one of the goals of the Constitution was "to ensure domestic tranquility."

But if that seems ungenerous to the Founding Fathers, Holton carefully builds his case that it was the tax-and-debt issue that led at least indirectly to convening the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The debts were incurred from the bonds issued to finance the Revolution - bonds that were frequently held by speculators - and the taxes were needed to pay off those debts. The insurgent farmers, Holton writes, "extorted substantial tax and debt relief from reluctant state legislatures."

In tracing this chain of events, Holton cites the federal Congress's "requisition" of $3 million from the 13 state legislatures in September 1785 as "one of the . . . most pivotal red-letter dates" in the momentum for the Constitution. Some two-thirds of the requisition was to pay off bondholders and to fund pensions for Continental Army officers (ordinary soldiers would have to wait until 1818 for their pensions). "A host of Americans," Holton writes, "recoiled" from the requisition order. James Madison commented that complying with Congress's request would "try the virtue of the States." And, Holton notes, "he was right."

The tax revolt was felt beyond Western Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, angry voters threw out the state's governor and more than half the legislature after the state levied a tax to fund the federal requisition, a tax that Connecticut's legislature flatly refused to enact.

And in Madison's Virginia, a county sheriff had made "fifty distresses," attempting to auction off tax delinquents' property, but "no person would attend to purchase."

Holton suggests that many of these insurgents would have balked at even sending delegates to the Constitutional Convention if they had realized that a transfer of power from the states to the federal government would be the result. But the "prospect of federal taxation endeared the Constitution" to bondholders "who had suffered at the hands of delinquent taxpayers," and to state legislators now relieved of the necessity of levying state taxes to pay federal debts. "What remained doubtful," he writes, was the reaction of ordinary voters.

In his preface, Holton looks forward to the ultimate concession to the skeptical voters: the Bill of Rights, the enduring glory of the Constitution. "Had there been no opposition to the Constitution," he writes, "its supporters would not have felt the need to make concessions, and there would be no Bill of Rights." So thank not the Framers, he argues, but the people who forced them into it.

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
By Woody Holton Hill & Wang, 370 pp., $27

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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