John Hancock's Big Toe and the Constitution

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is the story of Shays’ Rebellion, which I contend is the most
important falsified event in American history. It is a story of
speculation in government bonds, political intrigue, propaganda,
and systematic deception. But it is ultimately the story of John
Hancock’s big toe.

As recently
as 2001, only one historian knew that the event that is acknowledged
as key political event in the success of promoters of the Constitution
was not what it appeared to be. That lone historian, Leonard Richards,
had not yet finished his revolutionary book, Shays’
Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle
. In
2002, the book appeared. His thesis has not yet moved into the
textbooks. It should.

Shays’ Rebellion
was an armed resistance movement of about 4,000 men in western
Massachusetts. Contrary to reports from the anti-Shays faction
in 1787, and contrary to historians’ accounts ever since, it was
not a revolt of impoverished, indebted rural radicals. It included
men of all economic classes. Many of them were veterans of the
American Revolution, including Daniel Shays, who served from the
battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill onward, and was a distinguished
officer who worked his way up from the ranks to captain. Lafayette
awarded him a sword for his valor. These men revolted against
a group of speculators who had recently gained control of the
governor’s office.

For over
two centuries, Americans did not know the truth. Then, in one
of those fluke events that every historian dreams about, Professor
Richards of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) stumbled
onto a fact that no previous historian had bothered to investigate.
After the defeat of the rebels, the state required each of them
to sign a loyalty oath. Unlike previous political rebellions,
there were archival records of those who had participated. These
records were right under Prof. Richards’ nose, yet it took several
months for him to learn that they were actually in his own university’s
library: on microfilm. He then made a detailed investigation of
the participants: the towns they lived in, their family connections,
their debt position in 1786, and their political offices, if any.
What he learned enabled him to re-write the story of Shays’ rebellion.
It was not a revolt of indebted farmers. It was a tax revolt.


During the
Revolution, the Continental Congress had issued irredeemable paper
currency to pay for the war, the infamous Continentals, as in
“not worth a Continental.” These notes quickly fell to zero value.
States issued IOU’s to pay militia members. Notes issued in April,
1778, in Massachusetts quickly fell 25 percent of their face value.
By 1781, they were at two percent of face value. Other states
followed suit. Virginia’s notes fell to one-thousandth of face
value. Soldiers in the field sold these notes in order to keep
their families solvent. The political question after independence
was attained in 1783 revolved around the redemption price. At
what percent of face value would states repay note-holders?

Unlike all
other states, Massachusetts’ legislature passed a law to redeem
the notes at face value. The legislature was dominated by Boston’s
mercantile interests. While it is not possible to trace the ownership
of all of the debt after the war, what can be traced indicates
that 80 percent of the speculators lived in or near Boston, and
almost 40 percent was held by 35 men. Most had bought these notes
at tremendous discounts. Then, to add insult to injury, interest
on these notes was retroactively made payable in silver. To pay
off these speculators, taxes were raised. The main ones were the
poll tax and the property tax, beginning in 1785. Prof. Richards
describes the nature of this tax burden:

farmer knew that he was going to have to pay for every son sixteen
years or older, every horse he owned, every cow, every barn, every
acre in tillage. Everyone also knew that the tax bite was going
to be regressive. Only about 10 percent of the taxes were to come
from import duties and excises, which fell mainly on people who
were most able to pay. The other 90 percent was direct taxes on
property, with land bearing a disproportionate share, and polls.
The latter was especially regressive, since it mattered not a
whit if a male sixteen years of age or older had any property
or not. Rich or poor, he was going to have to pay the same amount,
and altogether polls were going to pay at least one-third of all

But would
these taxes actually be collected? After the Revolution, the most
popular politician in Massachusetts was John Hancock, the ex-smuggler/merchant
whose signature is so large on the Declaration of Independence.
He was among the richest men in the state. He was lenient to all
poor debtors who owed him money personally. He let them pay him
in depreciated paper money. The rich had to pay in silver. He
was elected governor in 1780 and served for five years. He also
was elected in 1787 and served until his death in 1793. He did
not serve in 1785 – 87, the crucial period. He declined to
run in 1785 because of gout. Gout normally affects the big toe.
It can accurately be said that the great turning point in post-Revolutionary
America was John Hancock’s big toe.

had understood that the soldiers had been forced to sell their
promissory notes for a small fraction of their face value. He
was accused by opponents of refusing to collect taxes. When he
left office, he was replaced by James Bowdoin, a holder of at
least 3,290 in depreciated notes. He did not receive enough votes
to command a majority, so the legislature had to choose. The senate
insisted on him, and the house capitulated. Under his leadership,
the political faction whose members had bought up these notes
gained power. The government passed new taxes and insisted on
collecting taxes that were in arrears. That tax burden was now
higher by several times what they had been under Great Britain.

counties had petitioned the government for relief for several
years, but their petitions had been ignored. In July, 1786, a
revolt began. It soon became an armed political revolt by towns,
not by individuals. The rebels met as a convention to draw up
a list of 21 grievances. This was not a mob. Daniel Shays became
the head of this revolt after it had begun.

Until Richards’
book appeared, the standard account of Shays’ rebellion emphasized
the theme of farmers in the state’s western counties as being
heavily in debt to merchants in Boston. This account never had
much evidence to support it. Boston merchants traded little with
western towns, which were close to self-supporting. Also, western
towns in Connecticut did not revolt. If the decisive political
issue was debt, why not? There is no evidence of any debt-revolt
relationship in western counties, two-thirds of which had not
revolted. The revolt’s leaders were often from the higher classes.
Most of the insurgents were not heavily in debt. Kinship ties,
town by town, accounted for recruiting far more than debt did.

The state
of Massachusetts petitioned Congress to send in Federal troops,
but the U.S. Army at that time had approximately 700 men. Congress
responded by promising to add another 1,340 men, but Massachusetts
was supposed to raise 660 of these. Congress then made up a phony
war story to justify sending troops to quell a tax revolt. There
was a pending Indian war, Congress said. Few believed this ruse.
The U.S. Army raised a total of 100 recruits. Meanwhile, militia
members in Massachusetts were joining the rebels. Boston’s militia
responded to the call; western counties ignored it. Especially
revealing were Revolutionary War veterans. Of 637 veterans in
the militia in Northampton, only 23 volunteered for duty. The
two senior officers from Northampton who responded had between
them a total of 14 days of service in the War. All of the rebel
captains had at least three years’ experience. Baron von Steuben,
who had served under Washington, identified the problem in an
article signed “Belisarius.” Massachusetts had 92,000 militiamen
on its rolls. Why did the state need military support from Congress?
He provided the correct answer: the government was not representative
of the opinions of the people.

The rebellion
was defeated in battles and skirmishes in the winter and early
spring of 1787. The commander of the state’s militia was General
Benjamin Lincoln, who had served under Washington during the American
Revolution. Lincoln’s force had not been authorized by the legislature,
so 153 private citizens, mostly Bostonians, provided the funds
to pay the troops. None of the contributors served in Lincoln’s
army. One impoverished Harvard graduate did serve, Royall Tyler,
and soon wrote a play about the rebellion. It became the first
American play, and it made his reputation.

Shays and
other leaders escaped across the northern border into New Hampshire,
and from there went west into Vermont. Vermont’s governor refused
to extradite any of them, despite protests from the Massachusetts
government. Shays and several other rebel leaders were staying
at a farm next door to the governor.


the participation of George Washington at the Constitutional Convention,
there would not have been a Constitution. The nationalists who
were preparing to overturn the country’s legal order were convinced
of this. So are most historians of the Constitutional Convention.
Washington had resisted offers from Madison and others to attend
the Convention. He wanted to stay out of public life. Shays’ Rebellion
provided the motivational hook for the nationalists to persuade
him to reverse his position and attend.

Lincoln wrote to Washington, lamenting the rebellion and painting
it in terms of revolution. So did Washington’s former general,
Henry Knox, a former Bostonian. So did David Humphreys, who had
been his aide. He also was a New Englander. Knox’s letter of October
23, 1786
, was as persuasive to Washington as it was misleading.
This letter undermined Washington’s resolve to remain a private
citizen, although he did not consent to attend the Convention
until the following spring. Knox wrote that he had been east of
Boston on business, and had hurried back because of “the commotions.”
He immediately launched into a critique of the present political
structure under the Articles of Confederation.

political machine, composed of thirteen independent sovereignties,
have been perpetually operating against each other and against
the federal head ever since the peace. The powers of Congress
are totally inadequate to preserve the balance between the respective
States, and oblige them to do those things which are essential
for their own welfare or for the general good. The frame of mind
in the local legislatures seems to be exerted to prevent the federal
constitution from having any good effect. The machine works inversely
to the public good in all its parts; not only is State against
State, and all against the federal head, but the States within
themselves possess the name only without having the essential
concomitant of government, the power of preserving the peace,
the protection of the liberty and property of the citizens.

So far,
none of this has anything to do with Shays’ rebellion. It is clear
that Knox was a nationalist. He was offering a general critique
of the Confederation. He then offered what seems to be substantiating
specific evidence. But his account was neither accurate nor relevant.
The state of Massachusetts was in a position to suppress the rebellion,
assuming that the militia would respond to the call. The fact
was, the handful of speculators close to the governor could not
persuade the legislature to fund the counter-attack, nor could
local officers persuade militia members to respond to the call
to arms. This was a grass-roots rebellion, as surely as the American
war for independence had been, and with far better cause. None
of this impressed Knox, who continued, in the same paragraph:

the very first impression of faction and licentiousness, the fine
theoretic government of Massachusetts has given way, and its laws
[are] trampled underfoot. Men at a distance, who have admired
our systems of government unfounded in nature, are apt to accuse
the rulers, and say that taxes have been assessed too high and
collected too rigidly. This is a deception equal to any that has
been hitherto entertained. That taxes may be the ostensible cause
is true, but that they are the true cause is as far remote from
truth as light is from darkness. The people who are the insurgents
have never paid any or buy very little taxes. But they see the
weakness of government; they feel at once their own property compared
with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined
to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former.

That the
western farmers had not paid high taxes prior to 1786 was true.
Hancock had refused to collect them. But Bowdoin, as a holder
of Massachusetts notes, was ready to enforce the law. He had the
support of his cronies, who also held the state’s notes, but not
of the Massachusetts legislature, which never did vote to fund
Lincoln’s army. Knox did not convey any of this information to
Washington. Instead, he turned the revolt into a revolt against
property. It was in fact a revolt against the confiscation of
property by a tiny group of speculators in government debt. But
Knox painted the movement as an organized, inter-state conspiracy
of communists against property.

creed is, that the property of the United States has been protected
from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all,
and therefore ought to be the common property of all; and he that
attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy to equality and
justice, and ought to be swept from the face of the earth. In
a word, they are determined to annihilate all debts public and
private, and have agrarian laws, which are easily effected by
means of unfunded paper money, which shall be a tender in all
cases whatever. The numbers of these people may amount, in Massachusetts,
to one-fifth part of several populous counties; and to them may
be added the people of similar sentiments from the States of Rhode
Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, so as to constitute a
body of twelve or fifteen thousand desperate and unprincipled
men. They are chiefly of the young and active part of the community,
more easily collected than kept together afterward. But they will
probably commit overt acts of treason, which will compel them
to embody for their own safety. Once embodied, they will be constrained
to submit to discipline for the same reason.

None of
this was true. The men were led by adults, and these adults were
leaders in their respective towns. There was no connection to
Rhode Island, which had debased the currency, or any other colony.
They were fighting a system of oppressive taxation that was being
imposed in the name of paying off investors who had bought the
depreciated notes of the Revolutionary War era from the soldiers
who made that political rebellion successful. They were fighting
against the transformation, mostly at their expense, of the unfunded
paper money of the war era into post-war currency, with interest
payable in silver. They had been stiffed by the politicians during
the war, who paid them with unfunded promises to pay. Now they
were being stiffed by the politicians again – by the very
speculators who had taken advantage of them when they were on
the battlefield. But Knox ignored all of this. He had a political
agenda, and Washington’s presence at the Convention was the linchpin,
the sine qua non, of the nationalists’ political agenda.
Knox proceeded with the grand deception of the grand old man:

proceeded to this length, for which they are now ripe, we shall
have a formidable rebellion against reason, the principle of all
government, and against the very name of liberty. This dreadful
situation, for which our government have made no adequate provision,
has alarmed every man of principle and property in New England.
They start as from a dream, and ask what can have been the cause
of our delusion? What is to give us security against the violence
of lawless men? Our government must be braced, changed, or altered
to secure our lives and property. We imagined that the mildness
of our government and the wishes of the people were so correspondent
that we were not as other nations, requiring brutal force to support
the laws.

Hence, it
was time to brace, change, or alter the national government, so
as to supply the required brutal force.

we find that we are men, – actual men, possessing all the
turbulent passions belonging to that animal, and that we must
have a government proper and adequate for him.

Knox was
writing what turned out to be the most influential direct-response
sales letter in the history of the United States, and perhaps
in modern history. Every direct-response letter needs a powerful
close, what is called the “act now” offer. He called Washington
to join with the besieged men of property in Massachusetts –
speculators in government bonds – to turn back these rural communists
of the lower sort. The leaders are ready to defend the true interests
of society. What about you, George? Will you wimp out at this
crucial juncture? Knox was a master of the close.

people of Massachusetts, for instance, are far more advanced in
this doctrine, and the men of property and the men of station
and principle there are determined to endeavor to establish and
protect them in their lawful pursuits; and, what will be efficient
in all cases of internal commotions or foreign invasions, they
mean that liberty shall form the basis, – liberty resulting from
an equal and firm administration of law.

They wish
for a general government of unity, as they see that the local
legislatures must naturally and necessarily tend to the general
government. We have arrived at that point of time in which we
are forced to see our own humiliation, as a nation, and that
a progression in this line cannot be productive of happiness,
private or public. Something
is wanting, and something must be done, or we shall be involved
in all the horror of failure, and civil war without a prospect
of its termination. Every friend to the liberty of his country
is bound to reflect, and step forward to the dreadful consequences
which shall result from a government of events. Unless this
is done, we shall be liable to be ruled by an arbitrary and
capricious armed tyranny, whose word and will must be law.

In a series
of letters to Washington, the nationalists put pressure on him
to attend. In his replies, he made it clear that he was on the
side of law and order, and that he was becoming pessimistic regarding
the future of the country. He resisted making a commitment to
attend, but eventually he consented. He was already a nationalist,
as letters reveal from 1783 on. He had written to John Jay the
previous spring
, “That it is necessary to revise, and amend
the articles of confederation, I entertain no doubt; but
what may be the consequences of such an attempt is doubtful.
Yet, something must be done, or the fabrick must fall.” The gun
was already loaded. The misinformation passed on to him regarding
Shays’ Rebellion was the trigger. Eventually, Washington pulled
it. He attended the Convention and even agreed to keep Madison’s
secret notes of the debates, which were not made public until
every participant had died.

Shays’ Rebellion
was used effectively by the nationalists to scare voters into
accepting both the legitimacy of the Convention and the legality
of the Constitution. Richards writes: “Within months, Shays’s
Rebellion gave the nationalists the edge they needed. It provided
the spark on which to advance the nationalist cause and play on
the fears of others.” In the post-Convention debates over ratification,
anti-federalists were labeled “Shaysites.” With respect to Massachusetts,
the accusation was inaccurate. Two-thirds of the towns opposed
ratification. Yet only one-third had joined the rebellion.

Had John
Hancock not been struck by gout in 1785, he would have run for
governor. He would have won, just as he did in 1787, the year
that the rebellion was put down. Because Governor Bowdoin’s faction
gained control of law enforcement in 1785 – 87, the rebellion
took place. This was what forced Washington’s hand. The Constitution
turned on John Hancock’s big toe.


The Constitutional
Convention did not take place because of a democratic movement
of the people. The people were generally uninterested in national
politics and jealous of a transfer of sovereignty to the central
government. This outlook was not shared by the men who became
the Constitution’s Framers and then, retroactively, the Founders.
Yet what they did was illegal. It was far more illegal than what
Daniel Shays did. What is more, they knew they were acting illegally.

Shays’ Rebellion
provided an opportunity for a majority of a group of 55 men, more
than half of whom were lawyers, to break the law of the land and
get away with it. This is not how historians of the Constitution
have treated the Convention in Philadelphia. This fact provides
additional support for the ancient rule of historiography, indeed,
its only known rule: the victors write the textbooks.

9, 2004

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is the author of Mises
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