The Trumpet Sounds Again

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When from the quiet of Mount Vernon Washington expressed regret that “more objects were not embraced” at the Annapolis meeting than merely trade, back from John Jay came a suggestion that he must have found extremely disturbing. It was aimed at the realization of a strategy which he had long since urged but which threatened to carry him back into the public arena. Might it not be a good idea, Jay asked, to have the Annapolis meeting initiate a call for “a general Convention for revising the articles of Confederation. …”? Jay was “fervent in my wishes” that, should such a convention meet, Washington would, for that “important and single occasion,” return to public life as a delegate.

To Jay, Washington wrote emotionally, “We are certainly in a delicate situation, but my fear is that the people are not sufficiently misled to retract from error.” But while he was not convinced that the time was ripe for calling a convention to remake the government, he was close to despair over the state of the nation. “I think often of our situation, and view it with concern. From the high ground we stood upon, from the plain path which invited our footsteps, to be so fallen! so lost!” Washington made no comment on Jay’s suggestion that he himself get in harness again.

Anxiously interrogating visitors and sending for the mails, Washington awaited word from the Annapolis Convention. The first news was bad: only five of the thirteen states had sent delegations. Then came the electrifying announcement that the delegates had boldly called for a general convention to meet in Philadelphia and “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

Washington hardly had time to wonder whether this effort should not have waited, as he had advised, until some more serious crisis had developed, when there floated in across the autumn landscape reports of a situation so grievous that it seemed as if all effort to bring strength to the government might prove to be too late.

Washington’s first inkling of the new crisis probably reached Mount Vernon with the Pennsylvania Packet for September 23, 1786. A mob of some four hundred men, who were described as ragged, disreputable, and drunken, had threatened a court in western Massachusetts. One insurgent had cried, “I am going to give the court four hours to agree to our terms, and, if they do not, I and my party will force them to it.” The court had adjourned hastily “to prevent coercive measures.”

Soon the mail brought a letter Humphreys had written from Hartford: “Every thing is in a state of confusion in Massachusetts.” There were also “tumults” in New Hampshire, while “Rhode Island continues in a state of phrenzy and division on account of their paper currency.” Washington wrote in reply: … for God’s sake tell me what is the cause of all these commotions: do they proceed from licentiousness, British-influence disseminated by the Tories, or real grievances which admit of redress? If the latter, why were they delayed ’till the public mind had become so much agitated? If the former why are not the powers of Government tried at once?

The news of what came to be called Shays’ Rebellion (after its leader, Captain Daniel Shays) grew increasingly disturbing as the insurgents menaced the arsenal at Springfield, where there were ten to fifteen thousand stands of arms, more than enough to supply an army of rebellion. Congress was considering raising troops but feared that this would boomerang, since the central government lacked money, and, if unpaid, the federal soldiers might join the insurgents.

Secretary of War Knox, who had been sent into western Massachusetts by Congress to investigate, wrote Washington a hair-raising report on the insurgents: ”… they see the weakness of the government; they feel at once their own poverty compared with the opulent, and their own force; and they are determined to make use of the latter to remedy the former.”

The rebels, Knox continued, numbered about one fifth of several populous counties. By combining with people of similar sentiments in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, they could “constitute a body of twelve or fifteen thousand desperate, and unprincipled men” well adapted by youth and activity for fighting.