A Massachusetts Farmer Favors the New Constitution

The ratification of the United States Constitution was the subject of intense discussion, debate, and dissent between 1787 and 1789. Though ultimately ratified by all thirteen states, the decision was contentious and ratification faced considerable opposition from many elements of the population. Among those who opposed the Constitution were many small farmers and yeoman, who feared the power of a strong federal government. In the summer of 1786, Daniel Shay, a Massachusetts farmer and Revolutionary War veteran, had led an uprising known as Shay's Rebellion over issues of taxation and debt, which the participants saw as unfairly burdensome. However, other Massachusetts farmers saw the Rebellion as a "black cloud" with the potential to lead to anarchy, and viewed the new Constitution as a viable and pragmatic remedy. Here farmer Jonathan Smith voices his opinion at the Massachusetts ratifaction convention.

Mr. President, I am a plain man, and get my living by the plough. I am not used to speak in public, but I beg our leave to say a few words to my brother plough-joggers in this house.

I have lived in a part of the country where I have known the worth of a good government by the want of it.  There was a black cloud [Shays’ Rebellion] that rose in the east last winter, and spread over the west….It brought on a state of anarchy and that led to tyranny.  I say, it brought anarchy.  People that used to live peaceably, and were before good neighbors, got distracted, and took up arms against government…. People, I say, took up arms, and then, if  you went to speak to them, you had the musket of death presented to your breast.  They would rob you of your property, threaten to burn your houses; oblige you to be on your guard night and day.  Alarms spread from town to town; families were broken up; the tender mother would cry, O my son is among them!...

Our distress was so great that we should have been glad to snatch at anything that looked like a government.  Had any person that was able to protect us come and set up his standard, we should all have flocked to it, even if it had been a monarch, and that monarch might have proved a tyrant.  So that you see that anarchy leads to tyranny; and better have one tyrant than so many at once.

Now, Mr. President, when I saw this Constitution, I found that it was a cure for these disorders.  It was just such a thing as we wanted.  I got a copy of I and read it over and over.  I had been a member of the convention to form our own state constitution, and had learnt something of the checks and balances of power; and I found them all here.  I did not go to any lawyer, to ask his opinion—we have no lawyer in our town, and do well enough without.  I formed my own opinion, and was pleased with this Constitution…

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 such a jealous make.  They that are honest men themselves are not apt to suspect other people…

Brother farmers, let us suppose a case, now.  Suppose you had a farm of 50 acres, and your title was disputed, and there was a farm of 5,000 acres joined to you that belonged to a man of learning, and his title was involved in the same difficulty.  Would you not be glad to have him for your friend, rather than to stand alone in dispute?

Well, the case is the same—these lawyers, these moneyed men, these men of learning, are all embarked in the same cause with us, and we must all swim or sink together.  And shall we throw the Constitution overboard because it does not please us alike? Suppose two or three of you had been at the paints to break up a piece of rough land, and sow it with wheat—would you let it lie waste because you could not agree what sort of fence to make? Would it not be better to put up a fence that did not please everyone’s fancy, rather than to not fence it at all, or keep disputing about it until the wild beasts came in and devoured it?

Some gentlemen say, don’t be in a hurry; take time to consider; and don’t take a leap in the dark.  I say, take things in time—gather fruit when it is ripe.  There is a time to sow, and a time to reap.  We sowed our seed when we sent men to the federal convention.  Now is the harvest; now is the time to reap the fruit of our labor.  And if we don’t do it now, I am afraid we never shall have another opportunity.

Source | Jonathan Smith, in Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, eds., The American Spirit, 7th ed., vol. 1 (D. C. Heath and Company, 1991), 141-142.
Creator | Jonathan Smith
Item Type | Speech
Cite This document | Jonathan Smith, “A Massachusetts Farmer Favors the New Constitution,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 26, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1279.