On this July 4th, 2022 – 246 years removed from the Declaration of Independence, 234 years removed from the ratification of the United States Constitution, 544 days removed from January 6, 2021, and 10 days removed from the overturning of Roe v Wade… Consider the following report:
A large concourse of people, from several parts of [the country], assembled at the [Capitol]… many of whom were armed with guns, swords, and other deadly weapons, and with drums beating and fifes playing, in contempt and open defiance of the authority of this Government, did, by their threats of violence and keeping possession of the [Capitol] until twelve o’clock on the night of the same day…
I have, of course, changed a few phrases (shown in brackets). This report is of Massachusetts governor James Bowden, recounting the first of many such sieges on August 29, 1786 which are known to history as the Daniel Shays Rebellion.
The Daniel Shays Rebellion
Daniel Shays was an officer in George Washington’s Continental Army. He was one among many men who left their farms to fight for Independence from England. Having left their farms, many of these men incurred debts during their service. Many of the same never received their rightful pay and saw their property seized as a result.
The civil unrest of the Shays Rebellion was a driving factor in the subsequent calling of a Convention of the States. The earlier Articles of Confederation lacked two key things: First, there were no uniform bankruptcy laws to protect the people from unscrupulous debt collection practices. Second, there was no sufficient authority at the federal level to respond to such an internal rebellion.
It was from this lack that the Constitution of the United States was born. In its creation of three co-equal branches of the federal government – each with its own signature power designed to check the power of the other two branches – the central lack revealed in the Shays Rebellion was addressed. A federal government was created with various enumerated powers – one being the creation of uniform bankruptcy laws – for purposes such as to “insure domestic Tranquility.”
Thomas Jefferson was, at this time, the U.S. Ambassador to France. Upon hearing of the civil unrest in Massachusetts, Jefferson wrote to James Madison on January 30, 1787:
I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is medicine necessary for the sound health of government.
Other revered voices such as Madison, Abigail Adams, and George Washington himself were alarmed by the uprising. Jefferson was more measured:
The late rebellion in Massachusetts has given more alarm than I think it should have done. Calculate that one rebellion in 13 states in the course of 11 years, is but one for each state in a century and a half. No country should be so long without one. Nor will any degree of power in the hands of government prevent insurrections. France, with all it’s despotism, and two or three hundred thousand men always in arms has had three insurrections in the three years I have been here in every one of which greater numbers were engaged than in Massachusetts and a great deal more blood was spilt.
But this post isn’t just about January 6th. From January 22, 1973 when the Supreme Court released Roe v Wade to its overturning on June 24, 2002, is shy of fifty years by only seven months. On January 6th of 2021 the legislative branch was under siege. Today the judiciary is similarly under siege with equally illegal protests in front of the houses of conservative Justices.
Jefferson’s measured judgment ought to speak to us today – about both such sieges. And the response of our forebears – revisiting the fundamental arrangements of the American experiment – ought to be our response as well.
Freedom is a landscape marked out by landmarks
It is 10:00pm Pacific Time on July 4th as I write and launch this project – the Digital Liberties Amendment – which I have been working on for a while. While I did expect Roe v Wade to eventually die “the death of a thousand cuts,” I honestly did not expect an outright overturning. While I consider myself “pro-life,” I also consider the “landmark” metaphor very helpful when thinking about the rulings of the Supreme Court. There is a “landscape of freedom” which we navigate every day by taking note of the “landmarks” of this landscape. When the government overreaches past the powers enumerated to it, we rely on the Supreme Court to push back by setting these “landmarks.”
And so as surely as I see a need to bring our Constitution into the digital age, I am sure I have neighbors with whom on most things I will disagree are beginning to see the need to reassert women’s rights with respect to pregnancy. While some ascribe the saying to Voltaire, it is more likely Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall reflected Voltaire’s beliefs in saying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Here I join other conservatives to call for a Convention of the States to amend the U.S. Constitution. Here I offer the Digital Liberties Amendment to bring the Constitution into the digital age. We must secure our liberties with respect both to today’s new forms of money and to our property right interests in the immense amount of data originated during our everyday lives.
But, as far as I might have any say in the matter, such a convention must also entertain my neighbors’ desire to address women’s rights. I might disapprove of their proposal, but I will defend their right to bring it forward and advocate for it.