Roots of Progress: Colonial Regulators as Early Occupy

I’ve struggled attempting to write this part, which is both the most relevant and most obscure part of this series, as well as being the last. I’ve based this largely on the work of William Hogeland, including his excellent Founding Finance series of articles (which have been moved due to a site redesign; if you have time, watch this talk he gave.). The simplest way is to begin with a story.

You know this story. Americans faced a large imbalance in wealth, with rich financiers largely having profited over the last decades as the poor were getting poorer. Money played an important role in politics; if you wanted run for office, you had to have it. Veterans were returning home from war. Lenders were giving out money at outrageously high interest rates to the poor, and a foreclosure crisis rocked the country. People were so angry they took to the streets to protest, demanding an end to economic injustice. Sometimes, these protests involved violent confrontation with law and order and the destruction of property.

But this isn’t the story of America in the early 21st Century, it’s the story of America in the 1700s. There’s no good way to name these people. When we think of American government in the 1700s, we tend to divide them between Alexander Hamilton on one side (the Hamiltonians) and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on the other (the Jeffersonians). Mr. Hogeland describes this other group as “small ‘d’ democratic populists”. Most often, they appear to have taken the name “Regulators”.

Mr. Hogeland’s made this point more eloquently than I, but the Regulators were Occupy long before Occupy. No one leader tends to outshine the others. Not only that, these were the types of people who actually tended to fight for the Revolution; the same Revolution overseen by the financial class that was forcing them into debt and continued to do so after the war.

Robert Morris, Godfather of American Finance

They were arrayed against by powerful interests, including Hamilton’s mentor Robert Morris, the Financier of the Revolution, and a war profiteer and corrupt politico. Hamilton himself opposed them, using military force to crush a rebellion in Pennsylvania, and then reduced the economic arguments to a protest against a whiskey tax, giving it the name “Whiskey Rebellion”. But the Whiskey Rebellion wasn’t just about whiskey, and the problems existed long before those western Pennsylvanians rose up.

In colonial times, hard currency was scarce, and the countryside often existed with a barter economy, which was impossible to buy improvements with. Merchants demand hard currency. So farmers borrowed from merchants to pay merchants for necessities. These merchants were the original payday lenders, sending families across America into debt. Many lost their homes.

As a result, people rioted. They did everything possible to stop foreclosures, from attacking officials and liberating those imprisoned for their debts to marching on the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts in an attempt to overthrow the state government; known in history books as Shays’ Rebellion. Eventually, the Regulators were suppressed and crushed. Today, when we discuss disagreements in the Founding Period, it’s only Anti-Federalists vs. Federalists, or Jeffersonians vs. Hamiltonians. Gone are the regular people who shed their blood, not only to free this nation, but to then keep themselves free.

The echoes of this failure to deal with these problems were heard in Rhode Island when Thomas Dorr was declared Governor in opposition to Samuel Ward King. We hear the echoes today, as Rhode Islanders face foreclosure, job loss, massive debt and increasingly elite political representation.

As progressives, we should always be looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking. But we should never forget that our roots lie in American history. We did not spring from the Populist movement, or the Progressive movement, or the New Deal. We came forth before the birth of America; our ideas travelled across the Atlantic to take root in this country. Many of our ideas and beliefs have been held as sacred for Americans since before 1776. American history is our history, too.

VN:R_U [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 7.0/10 (1 vote cast)
Roots of Progress: Colonial Regulators as Early Occupy, 7.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating

A native-born Rhode Islander, educated in Providence Public Schools, went to college in North Carolina and a political junkie and pessimistic optimist.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.