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Ratification: The Struggle For Massachusetts

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[This passage is excerpted from Murray N. Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.] 

As the epochal struggle for Massachusetts began, it was clear that the majority of the people of the state opposed the Constitution. Furthermore, in contrast to Pennsylvania where the Federalists had the important advantage of recently acquired control of the state government, the story in Massachusetts was almost the reverse. For in 1787, in reaction to the harsh measures taken to suppress Shays’ Rebellion, the people had swept the ultra-conservative Governor James Bowdoin out of office and reelected the highly popular John Hancock. Hancock, a dedicated opportunist who might be described as slightly left of center, certainly gave no comfort to the Federalist cause. It was clear that the Federalists would need every item in their large bag of tricks to win, if indeed they could possibly do so.

The Federalist forces were concentrated in the commercial eastern seaboard cities and towns, and the surrounding areas of commercial farms and fishermen serving them. The seaboard merchants and shippers were desperately anxious for a strong national government and the (all-seaboard) delegates had been some of the leading nationalist forces at the Constitutional Convention. It was the Massachusetts merchants and shippers who were most anxious to grab the export trade from their more efficient British competitors by means of national navigation acts, and who were particularly anxious to force open the West Indies trade and the northern fisheries by aggressive pressure upon Britain and the other European countries. The artisan masses of the urban towns were also allies of the eastern merchants, as they yearned for protection from British imports, as well as the commercial river towns along the Connecticut River in the West. The Federalists were led by Caleb Strong of Northampton in the Connecticut Valley, and Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge. In contrast, the remainder of the interior of Massachusetts strongly opposed the Constitution. Similarly, in Maine the maritime towns along the northeast seacoast tended to support the Constitution while the interior areas tended to be opposed.

In contrast to many of the other states, by no means were all of the eminent leaders of the state in the Federalist camp. Indeed, the struggle began with a formidable army of leaders, especially those inclined to liberalism, on the Antifederalist side. As Governor Hancock remained silent, such eminent liberal leaders of the state joined heartily in the Antifederalist cause: Samuel Adams, James Warren, Nathan Dane, James Winthrop of the founding Massachusetts family, Benjamin Austin, and of course Elbridge Gerry.

The Federalists tried desperately to push a convention through by December, and while the Senate approved, the House insisted that there be time for discussion, so the date was fixed for January 9. While more precious time was given to the Antifederalists, the Federalists as usual were predominantly in control of the press, especially in the early days, and very little of the Antifederal side could be published in the press before the convention elections in early December. Federalist control of the press was viciously abetted by the fanatically pro-Federalist printers of Boston who agreed not to publish any articles or pamphlets on the Constitution without knowing the writer’s name. The Federalist George Richards Minot observed in his journal that by this means, “The press was kept under the most shameful license. … all freedom of writing was taken away, as ye mechanicks had been worked up to such a degree of rage, that it was unsafe to be known to oppose it [the Constitution], in Boston.” But Elbridge Gerry’s statement attacking the Constitution was published and had an electric effect in stimulating Antifederalist sentiment. A particularly intense publication for the Antifederal cause was James Winthrop, an entrepreneur and former librarian at Harvard. Writing as “Agrippa,” Winthrop argued the liberal case against the Constitution as a cripple on the freedom of enterprise. He argued that Congress’ unlimited power over trade, taxes, and commercial regulations would gravely injure the commerce and prosperity of Massachusetts.1

In the election struggle, the Federalists stooped readily to the depths of chicanery. An example was Berkshire County in the extreme western area of the state. In the town of Stockbridge, the Federalists published a report shortly before the election that John Bacon, a popular Antifederalist leader of the town, had been converted to Federalism by Theodore Sedgwick. Bacon had no time to circulate his denial, and the Federalist candidate won. Illegal means were pursued by the Federalists throughout Berkshire County. In Great Barrington, former-Judge William Whitney, a Shaysite leader, stumped against the Constitution and was elected despite election fraud. But the town refused to allow the election and pushed through a pro-Constitution delegate. And in Sheffield the town officials pushed through John Ashley, a supporter of the Constitution, by pure fraud over the Shaysite Antifederalist candidate. Overall, the Federalist George Richards Minot privately admitted that the Federalists were obliged “to pack a Convention whose sense would be different from that of the people,” and systematically used “Bad measures in a good cause.”

Despite the massive Federalist fraud and trickery, when the convention opened, the delegates opposed the Constitution by a clear majority. Estimates of the size of the Antifederalist majority, out of the 360 delegates, range from twenty to forty, or around 10 percent. And this is true despite the fact that over fifty towns did not bother to send delegates, and the bulk of them were interior towns that probably would have been Antifederalist. The delegates were generally not formally instructed by the towns that elected them, but the position of the candidates at the convention was well-known, and they were elected on that basis. The Antifederalists, however, suffered in the convention from a crisis of leadership, for their eminent, able, and influential leaders—the Gerrys, the Danes, the Winthrops, et al.—came from the eastern seaboard towns. And being in a small minority in that region they could not possibly get elected to the convention. Elbridge Gerry, for example, was defeated as a delegate for the convention. Sam Adams was one of the few eastern leaders to be elected, but he remained largely silent at the convention, possibly disheartened over the recent death of his son. Hence, the Antifederalists at the convention were essentially rank-and-files, including around twenty Shaysites from the interior, who were no match against the superior Federalist leadership and articulation. The famous convention speech of Amos Singletary of Sutton, in Worcester County in western Massachusetts, came as a veritable cri de coeur:

These lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, that talk so finely and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us, poor illiterate people, swallow down the pill, expect to get into Congress themselves; they expect to be the managers of this Constitution, and get all the power and all the money into their own hands, and then they will swallow up all us little folks, like the great leviathan….

The first thing that the Federalists did was to empower the selection of their own man, George Richards Minot, as secretary for the convention, for purposes of chicanery. As a result, Federalist speeches were recorded and published for mass consumption while Antifederalist speeches somehow went unnoticed. To gain time for their tactic of confusing and out-maneuvering the opposition, the Federalists induced the convention to take their time and describe each clause of the Constitution separately. In debates, the able and well-to-do Federalists bewildered and completely out-maneuvered the passionate but inarticulate opposition. A favored tactic was to tar the opposition as anarchists at their slightest resistance to unchecked government power. In his private journal, Minot ruefully admitted how the process worked:

The most serious principles in government were argued away to nothing, by able casuists, & the mouths of the opponents being shut, they were ashamed to say that they were not convinced. Annual elections, rotation in office, qualifications of officers, standing armies, & declarations of rights, were all shewn to be too trivial to be insisted upon. And it was demonstrated that to withhold any powers of taxation, or of any other kind from government, lest they should abuse them, was an unreasonable principle of jealousy which would prevent any government at all.

Thus, to answer Singletary, the Federalists trotted out an obscure farmer delegate, Jonathan Smith. Opining that the choice was either the Constitution or “anarchy” and the “wild beasts,” Smith’s naïveté was surely too excessive to be true:

But I don’t think the worse of the Constitution because lawyers, and men of learning, and moneyed men, are fond of it. I don’t suspect that they want to get into Congress and abuse their power. I am not of such a jealous make. They that are honest men themselves are not apt to suspect other people.

Aided by Minot’s selective reporting, the Federalists stepped up their propaganda barrage during the convention and put pressure on the Antifederalist delegates. One of the Federalist pamphlets was particularly illuminating in pushing the logic of the Federalist power to its proper conclusions. This was Thoughts Upon the Political Situation by Jonathan Jackson, a British lawyer and member of the powerful “Essex clique.” This faction was a group of a dozen or so prominent merchants and lawyers, most of whom had been born and lived in Essex County, although some had moved to Boston during and after the Revolution. This faction constituted the extreme right-wing of the Federalist ranks in Massachusetts. Jackson supported the Constitution, but he attacked it for not going far enough “in restrictions upon the people, and towards a union of the whole.” To Jackson, the federal House should have been much smaller and elected by a series of intermediate electoral colleges, and the Senate should also be chosen by electoral colleges. This would make the elected officials as remote as possible from the people and popular choice, and to enhance this effect, the president should have sole and unimpeded power of appointment and should be appointed for a life term.

Expounding the social philosophy of the Essex clique as the groundwork for his proposals, Jonathan Jackson asserted that society was “one large family … a perfect whole, in which the general harmony may be preserved, each one learning his proper place and keeping to it.” Of course, the proper place in the seats of power belonged to the aristocratic elite. As Professor Fischer shows, “without possessing any extended notion of egalitarianism, the Essex gentlemen were collectivists. They spoke in mystical terms of the ‘general will’—not the will of the majority but the ‘interests of the whole.’”2 Needless to say, the interpreters of the general will, the social family, and the interest of the whole were to be the ruling elite. Professor Fischer continues: “The Essexmen had no fear of an enlarged economic role for government, as long as it was administered by ‘the natural leaders of society.’ They favored bounties, tariffs, rebates, drawbacks, licenses, subsidies, and also prohibitions, inspection, and all manner of restrictions.”3 Jackson and his fellow Essexmen scorned checks and balances, and Fisher Ames, an Essexman delegate to the Massachusetts convention, later described constitutional restraints on popular power as “Cobweb ties for lions.”

Jackson saw that the fundamental problem of such absolute aristocratic rule was to instill and maintain the confidence of the ruled people in their rulers. The way to do it was through mass education in the public school system. As one Essexman put it: “The people must be taught to confide in and reverence their rulers.” This is best done in the schools; as Jackson explained: “it is necessary to pay great attention to the education of the youth; teaching them their just rights, at the same time they are taught proper subordination.” But not only the schools; the military was also an important institution for inculcating the proper civic spirit, i.e., the willingness to obey authority. Jackson’s pamphlet therefore advocated universal military training explicitly as a way of indoctrinating in the masses that noble “discipline of the mind—subordination … Mankind are abundantly happier,” opined our philosopher, “when obliged to confirm strictly to rules.” The right churches were also important in teaching how to respect the government. In the words of one Essexman, churches propagated the “knowledge and practice of our moral duties, which comprehend all the social and civil obligations of man to man, and of the citizen to the state.” Another vital method of education was the press, but, alas, the press was not Federalist enough for Jackson and the Essexmen. For on the market, writers and pamphleteers are obliged to cater to the mass of customers. Only a formal and truly independent subscriber could do, and this, wrote Jackson, could only be accomplished by a state-owned newspaper established “at the publick expense.”

But the Federalists did not win their way in the convention solely by debates, either in the public print or in the convention itself. The key to their eventual victory was a wholesale shift of position by the top Antifederal leadership in and out of the convention. And the key to inducing their sudden “conversions” was “influence.” There was, for example, the case of Nathaniel Barrell, a wealthy citizen of the seaboard town of York in Maine, and one of the leaders of the Antifederalist cause in the convention. Barrell’s wealthy father-in-law, an influential judge, put intense pressure upon him, and there are hints by the knowledgeable in the town of persuasion by letters “and other matters.” So Barrell came to his particular “conversion.” Oliver Phelps, an Antifederal delegate for Berkshire County, was induced to withdraw from the convention. The Federalists stated that his withdrawal was due to his view that resistance was futile and his belief that his fellow Berkshire delegates would support the Constitution, which was patently false if judged by the actual votes. The real reason was subtle influence by the man he owed money to—Samuel Osgood—and his partner in land speculation, Federalist leader Nathaniel Gorham.

Outright bribery was another Federalist technique. The bulk of the Antifederal delegates were poor and would be hard put to decline money. The state had paid their way to the convention, but the Treasurer told them that there were no funds available for the return trip. At this point, several Federalists graciously stepped in to help. Writes one: “We have circulated, If the Constitution is adopted, there will be no difficulty respecting the Pay—If it is not they must look to the Treasurer for it.”

But the critically important “conversions” were two: Sam Adams and Governor Hancock. Adams, though instinctively liberal, had grown old, weary, and (their usual concurrent) conservative over the years, but his liberal instincts reasserted themselves when he drew back from the extreme nationalism embodied in the Constitution. To Adams, the proposed national government smacked strongly of the British system, against which he had led a revolution decades before. But one thing in the world could influence Adams more than anything else—more even than consideration of principle—the wishes of his old-time constituency, the city of Boston. The mechanics and tradesmen of Boston had always been Sam Adams’ mass base, and these he could not deny. Knowing this, the Federalist path was clearly discernible, and it was not difficult for the Federalists to mobilize mass support in a Boston that overwhelmingly favored the Constitution. In contrast to the old Tories, the Federalists were not shy about courting and welcoming mass support for their own benefit. Old colleagues of Adams were mobilized, and two days before the start of the Massachusetts convention they organized a mass meeting of artisans and tradesmen symbolically held at the Green Dragon Inn, the home of Adams’ cherished revolutionary movement of years before. The meeting thundered its unanimous support of the Constitution in resolutions drafted by Paul Revere and others. To Adams, this was conclusive; he felt that he simply could not go against their wishes. When hearing of the meeting, Adams is said to have declared “Well, if they must have it, they must have it.” Sam Adams reluctantly swung to support the Constitution.

Even more important was the conversion of John Hancock, governor of the state and also president of the convention. Like Adams, Hancock was basically opposed to the Constitution, but also like Adams, the governor had a crucial weakness that the crafty Federalists could exploit. Like virtually all politicians, Hancock’s weakness was one of character: a vain and ambitious opportunist, Hancock had decided not to announce his position publicly until he could see which way the wind was blowing. As the Federalists suspected he would, John Hancock quite literally “sold out.” The price was a Federalist promise to support him for the vice-presidency, or, if Virginia should not ratify—which the Federalists convinced him was going to happen—for the exulted and eminently prestigious position of president of the United States. At the very least, the Federalists would support him for reelection as governor. John Hancock could not possibly resist such a temptation.

Hancock’s miraculous conversion quickly propelled the shift of about a score of delegates who had pledged themselves to oppose the Constitution. These turncoats were the wealthiest and most eminent Antifederalists at the convention and the leaders of the opposition, most of them coming from the eastern part of the state near the coast. They included Sam Adams; John Winthrop, a wealthy merchant of Boston; Samuel Holten, a wealthy doctor from Danvers; Charles Jarvis, a Boston doctor; William Symmes, a lawyer from Andover; the

Reverend Charles Turner of Scituate; Nathaniel Barrell of York; John Sprague, an anti-Shaysite lawyer from the Lancaster; and a ship-owner of Harpswell, Captain Isaac Shaw. Bereft of the few able and wealthy leaders at the convention, the Antifederalists had suffered a blow from which they could not recover. And outside the convention, such eminent eastern Antifederalist leaders as Nathan Dane, Silas Lee, and Samuel Osgood had shifted to favor the Constitution.

Despite their success at subduing the opposition, the Federalists also realized that they would not be able to induce enough Antifederalists to betray their constituents without sugarcoating the pill. The coating consisted of restrictive amendments that the Massachusetts convention would strongly recommend to the central government, but not insert before ratification. Thus, the route that the Pennsylvania Federalists, in the driver’s seat, scornfully rejected—urging amendments along with ratification—was now seized upon by the astute Federalists as the way by which renegade Antifederalists could appease their conscience and constituency and approve the Constitution. Massachusetts set the pattern: from then on out, every ratifying state except Maryland (where there was firm majority support for the Constitution) took the same route. The amendments included jury trials in civil cases, prohibitions on congressional direct taxes and erection of monopolies, and a clause reserving powers not delegated by the Constitution to the separate states. To include this clause in a bill of rights was surely the definite Antifederal answer to the James Wilson argument that a bill of rights would be taken to exclude popular liberties that had not been expressly enumerated. The Antifederalists placed a great deal of importance on this clause as making the national government one of enumerated powers, but failed to realize that the clause would be reduced to a tautology by shrewd politicians, lawyers, and judges stretching the loopholes in the various enumerated clauses as far as they desired. These amendments, even the fuller amendments of the eventual Bill of Rights, were no real substitutes for rejecting the Constitution outright as far as liberty was concerned.

The amendment sop was very cunningly arranged by the Federalists. After drawing up the amendments themselves in secret, the Federalists slipped them to Hancock, who, as part of his political deal, presented them to the convention as his own, along with support of ratification. The result was a total bombshell, followed rapidly by the rash of defections by eminent men in the Antifederal ranks, led by Sam Adams in seconding Hancock’s motion. Utilizing the shock and surprise, the Federalists drove through adoption of the Constitution on February 16 by a slim vote of 187–168. The victory was the consequence of the induced betrayal of the voters who elected them—and of the majority of the citizens of the state—by twenty to thirty of the Antifederalist leaders at the convention. Most of these defections were not the rank-and-file delegates but the relatively wealthy and prominent leaders from eastern towns.

The sectional-economic conflict in Massachusetts over the Constitution was certainly clear: on the one hand, the commercial east coast and Connecticut River towns; on the other hand, the rest of the state. Of 160 towns in the former region, 131 favored the Constitution; of the 195 in the latter area, only fifty-six favored, and the others opposed. All the towns of the lower Connecticut River favored ratification, while in Maine, the coastal towns supported the Constitution by 22-5, while the interior opposed it 17–2. The old Shaysite areas were almost uniformly Antifederal and the anti-Shaysite areas Federalist. Of ninety-seven Shaysite towns, ninety opposed the Constitution; of ninety-seven towns that expressed anti-Shaysite views, eighty-five supported the Constitution.

Almost all the wealthy men—the propertied, the merchants, and the educated—in the state were Federalist as well as the artisans of the eastern areas, while the great bulk of landless and poor farmers formed the mass base of the Antifederal opposition. This class division was admitted by both sides of the struggle. A very large majority of merchants, builders, large manufacturers, ship-owners, lawyers, college graduates, high army officers, and members of the Society of the Cincinnati were Federalists. Even within the same counties, the Federalist towns were wealthier than the Antifederal. At the convention, the title “esquire” was held by seventy-five Federalists and fourteen Antifederalists, while plain “mister” was used by thirty-four Federalists and eighty-nine Antifederalists. Overall, the largely upper strata delegates voted 107–34 for ratification, while the lower strata voted 126–61 in opposition. It must be remembered, however, that the poorer Boston artisans were happy to vote for their upper Bostonians to represent them in favor of the Constitution.

Boston’s mechanics wildly celebrated the news of ratification in Massachusetts and happily threw an effigy of the “Old Constitution” into a bonfire. The Federalists fulfilled the least important part of their bargain by supporting Hancock for reelection in 1788. For their part, the Antifederalists confirmed their command of the majority of the voters of the state by retaining control of the Massachusetts House throughout the year. Sam Adams, however, was crushed during 1788 in his attempt at political advancement while running for U.S. Congress for Suffolk County against the brilliant young reactionary lawyer of the Essex clique, Fisher Ames. While Adams worried about a centralized despotism and called for libertarian amendments to the Constitution, Ames, on the other hand, denounced crippling amendments and derided Adams’ cherished “Spirit of 75” as old fashioned and outdated. While Adams got few votes in Suffolk County, the Federalists performed the feat of carrying Boston heavily for Ames by using all the old Adamsesque techniques of mobilizing mechanics in conventions and town meetings and handing out rum to the voters. While his old mechanic supporters were repudiating him for being basically against the Constitution, the Antifederalists understandably spurned him for betraying the cause. As a result, even Hancock was not able to drive through the selection of Adams as Lieutenant Governor in 1788; the Antifederalists voted for James Warren, and this split in the Left permitted the Federalists to elect Benjamin Lincoln to the post. It was only in the following year that Hancock was able to squeeze Adams in as his Lieutenant Governor. The two aging veterans of the Revolution were now united again at the last. But this time it was too late.

Massachusetts was indeed the turning point. Six states had now ratified the Constitution, including Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and Maryland would be an easy win. By mid-February 1788, the goal of formal adoption of the Constitution by nine states was definitely in sight.4

  • 1. Joseph Dorfman, The Economic Mind in American Civilization, 1606–1865, vol. 1 (New York: Viking Press, 1946), p. 276.
  • 2. David H. Fischer, “The Myth of the Essex Junto,” William and Mary Quarterly (April 1964): 201–02. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., p. 215.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 204n.
  • 4. [Editor’s footnote] Jackson T. Main, The Antifederalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788 (1961; repr., Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 200–10, 257; Forrest McDonald, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 182–202; Robert J. Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1954), pp. 168–77; Harry E. Miller, Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1936), pp. 374–89; Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions, on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, vol. 2, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1836), p. 103. 

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.

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