Ratification: The Struggle For Massachusetts
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 wi
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