4/30/08 - the farmer versus the elite

In today's excerpt - acrimony and bloodshed between American yeomen-farmers and American elite in pre- and post-Revolutionary America, culminating in the infamous 'Shay's Rebellion':

"Contrary to still-persistent American myths of rural rugged individualism, the yeoman households were tightly connected to each other—and, increasingly, the outside world. ... But all was not flourishing tranquility. Especially in backcountry areas, conflicts between and among yeomen, would-be yeomen, great proprietors and government officials, as well as combat with Indians, led to continual wrangling and sporadic violence, all of which worsened after the revolution.

"Much of the conflict concerned access to the land, as farmers seeking independent land titles found themselves squeezed out by gentlemen who had exploited their political connections to gain large (sometimes huge), loosely defined land grants. ...

"Yeomen battled back, with a vehemence born of fear, prejudice, and insular hatreds—as well as an admixture of egalitarian ideals. The largest of the yeoman rebellions before the Revolution, the so-called North Carolina Regulation, began in 1764. ... The uprising turned into full-scale war against autocratic eastern gentry rule that ended only when the rebels were crushed by combined colonial and British forces at the Battle of Alamance (near present-day Burlington) in 1771. Earlier, New Jersey yeomen defied land laws that favored their proprietors, and New York settlers rebelled unsuccessfully to gain rights over land that, as one of them put it, they had worked 'for nearly 30 years past and had manured and cultivated.' ... In central Pennsylvania, the 'Paxton Boys,' furious at the lack of military backing from the colonial assembly against Indian raids, massacred some government-protected Indians and undertook a menacing march on Philadelphia. (Government officials led by Benjamin Franklin met with the protestors and quelled the unrest.) After the Revolution 'Liberty Men' in central Maine, 'Wild Yankees' in northeastern Pennsylvania, and 'Green Mountain Boys' in western Vermont all challenged local landlords and the courts. The most notorious of these struggles culminated in the New England Regulation of 1786-87 associated with Daniel Shays. ...

"Evangelical religion added a spiritual basis to these fearful egalitarian politics. Out of the postmillenialist stirrings of New England's Great Awakening ... came a growing cultural divide between the backcountry and the seaboard, where more staid, rationalist Anglicans (later Episcopalians) ... held sway. Converts to the evangelical gospel found themselves in a new direct and individual relation with God that sliced across hierarchies of wealth and standing but insisted on humankind's utter dependence on the Lord. By contrast, the gentry and urban mercantile elite were apt to regard the evangelical effusions of the countryside, ... as ignorant, degraded, and dangerous to civic order."


Sean Wilentz


The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2005 by Sean Wilentz


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