America’s Tiananmen Square

When the framers of the United States’ (second) Constitution gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to scrap the failed Articles of Confederation (1781) and “to form a more perfect union,” they were driven by events not dissimilar from those that moved the leadership of China two hundred years later, in 1989, to seek their own more perfect union. And not unlike its north American antecedent, the students and workers who emptied into Tiananmen Square were inspired only by the most righteous, if misguided, motives.

Let’s look first at the original. “Shays’ Rebellion,” as it would forever be called, was both a populist and a popular uprising triggered by the resumption, ex post ante, of the very conditions against which militias believed (and were led to believe) that their members had fought in and died for “the Revolution.” Returning to their homesteads following their victory, however, soldiers found that nothing had really changed. The wealthy had rigged the system. Indeed, what they thought had been their homes turned out in fact to be the land of wealthy Massachusetts elites. They now owed rent not to British, but to Massachusetts landlords. And since they owned no land, they also had no claim upon political representation. “All power to the Soviets,” or, in this instance, to the parishes. But, no. That is not how matters in post-revolutionary Massachusetts worked. But that was not all. Having fought for the revolution, members of Massachusetts’ militias had, at a bare minimum, expected to collect the wages they had earned for serving. But, sorry, since the Federal Government enjoys no constitutional authority to raise a militia, to compensate its members, or even to issue a bond to compensate our men in uniform, we cannot actually compensate you for your much valued service. And, so, like so many impoverished and disenfranchised veterans, Shays’ men set upon the institutions that most represented their hardship; the courts and municipal halls that archived the deeds and records which now were being leveraged against them.

The response from the new nation’s political establishment was swift and to the point. They called a Constitutional Convention to remedy the causes for Shays’ Rebellion. When he introduced the causes for convening the convention, Edmund Randolph of Virginia did his best to cover over the gulf separating the Articles from his own “Virginia Plan.” The official record reports:

In speaking of the defects of the Confederation, he professed a high respect for Its authors, and considered them as having done all that patriots could do in the then infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies; when the inefficiency of requisitions was unknown — no commercial discord had arisen among any states — no rebellion had appeared, as In Massachusetts — foreIgn debts had not become urgent — the havoc of paper money had not been foreseen — treaties had not been violated; and perhaps nothing better could be obtained, from the jealousy of the states with regard to their sovereignty (Debates May 1787:126-127).

According to the official record, Randolph then enumerated the defects of the Articles:

First, that the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion; Congress not being permitted to prevent a war, nor to support it by their own authority. Of this he cited many examples; most of which tended to show that they could not cause infractions of treaties, or of the law of nations, to be punished; that particular states might, by their conduct, provoke war without control; and that, neither militia nor drafts being fit for defense on such occasions, enlistment only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money.
Secondly, that the federal government could not check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.
Thirdly, that there were many advantages which the United States might acquire, which were not attainable under the Confederation; such as a productive impost, counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations, pushing of commerce ad libitum, &c., &c.
Fourthly, that the federal government could not defend itself against encroachments from the states.
Fifthly, that it was not even paramount to the state constitutions, ratified as it was in many of the states (Debates May 1787:127).

What was unusual about 1787 was not that it was a uniformly federalist body that drew up the new US Constitution. What was unusual was that it was introduced by a Virginian and signed by his southern compatriots. No southerner, least of all Randolph himself, would ever have found himself supporting federalism in 1781. In 1787, all were on board. And that is remarkable.

Now the Tiananmen Square connection. Among the many self-serving and naive conceits bandied about in the 1980s was the belief that all the leaders of socialist nations needed to do to deliver freedom to their people was to tear down the ramparts and implement free market, self-governing capitalism. This was the equivalent of the 1781 Articles of Confederation. The consequences were an unmitigated disaster. Asset stripping, rent seeking, asymmetrical information; you name it. It was there “in spades” in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Beijing could read the headlines as carefully as anyone. They followed the collapse. They observed the cynicism of “the victors,” the rent-seeking, the asset-stripping, the descent of noble peoples to the level of savages.
Let us take a couple steps back. Were the complaints of Shays’ men valid? Most certainly they were. Prior to the revolution, these men had “owned” their land. To bring them to join the patriots, Shays’ men had been told that they would enjoy freeholder status, would earn a soldiers’ wage, and, as landholders, would win the franchise. Self-evidently, this is not dissimilar to the promises delivered during Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution. And, yet, now the people, Shays’ men, the Tiananmen generation, were emptying into the streets. Something had gone very wrong. So, what is the solution?

The philosophical wisdom of the day had suggested that we simply break down all the institutional bearers, eliminate all constraints, and let freedom roll. But, as Randolph pointed out in his Virginia Plan, this had not worked. We live in a material world, Randolph noted, where real interests rule, and where freedom reigns only under conditions of the rule of law and protection of basic rights.

Of the dozens who actively participated and the hundreds who supported Shays’ Rebellion, only two received a hanging. Many escaped to and received protection from New Hampshire, which, prior to the 1787 Constitution, had no legal obligation whether to Massachusetts or to any of the other independent states.

Shays’ Rebellion was the last straw, the clearest indication yet that the 1781 Articles were deeply flawed. Six years later the Philadelphia Convention published a document that in nearly every detail save a monarch was indistinguishable from its British counterpart: two houses and a prime minister. The only constitutional novelty was a Supreme Court with preemption over federal courts. In other words, the second US Constitution was an overwhelmingly centralist document, ceding extensive authority and power from state to federal institutions. Under its terms New Hampshire would be obligated to deliver Shays’ men to the courts of Massachusetts and northern states would be obligated to return escaped slaves to their southern owners.

Back to China. Tiananmen was a wake up call to Beijing’s leaders. They could see the destructiveness of the revolutions unfolding in eastern Europe. Yet, they also knew that absent the rule of law, the efficiencies of markets, which nearly everyone in Beijing now recognized were absolutely vital, could not be realized. First remove the threat of rebellion, then impose the rule of law consistently throughout the republic. Just as the wisdom of 1787 is visible in the economic expansion the US enjoyed up until 1861, so the wisdom of 1989 is visible in unprecedented Chinese economic expansion since the rebellion, specially when compared to the lackluster performance of eastern Europe’s oligarchic and plutocratic states.

More ominously, as the US rolls back the gains of 1787, 1865, 1934, 1964 and 1965; that is to say, as the Republican majority seeks to build an anti-federalist and anti-republican society based on privilege and private wealth, it is no wonder that its manufacturing sectors have suffered horribly, validating the wisdom of 1787. Where Daniel Shays’ men failed, the (anti-)Republican Congress has succeeded, destroying the very institutions and undermining the values from which their own party took its name.

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