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“All Men Are Born Free and Equal”: Massachusetts Yeomen Oppose the “Aristocratickal” Constitution, January, 1788.

The constitution of the United States was composed in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Afterward, ratifying conventions were held in the states. In Massachusetts, site of the previous year’s Shay’s Rebellion against government enforcement of private debt collection, ratification did not go uncontested. Farmers from the western part of the state, such as the “yeomen” who signed this letter published in the Massachusetts Gazette in January, 1788, were suspicious of the power that the constitution seemed to centralize in elite hands. Rural smallholders were not the only ones who felt this way, however. Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as the United States' minister to France, felt similarly. Massachusetts ratified the constitution on February 7, 1788.

To the Publick.

Many are the arts made use of by our aristocratick gentlemen, to accomodate the federal constitution to the yeomanry of the country. But it is very unlucky for them, that they should be so far misled, as to attempt to trump up one thing which appears by no means to be founded in truth, viz that none but placemen and pensioners are opposed to it. This is so far from [equating] with truth, that we conceive it to be an absolute falsehood. We would ask the disinterested part of the community just to look over the characters w[h]ich are so fond of swallowing this creature, which exhibits all the pourtraits of an over-bearing aristocracy, and see if they are not chiefly composed of salary men and pensioners, and those who at least think themselves fair candidates for places of honour and emolument, whenever the aristocratick wheels of the federal chariot shall be set in motion.

When we see the adherents to this constitution chiefly made up of civil and ecclesiastical gown men, and their dependents, the expedient they have hit upon is not likely to have the intended effect. There are many men destitute of eloquence, yet they can see and hear—They can think and judge, and are therefore not likely to be wheedled out of their senses by the sophistical reasonings of all the advocates for this new constitution in the country combined. We know this is not true; and as we well know the design of such representations, we would have those gentlemen know, that it will not take. They must pull upon some other string, or they must fail. Another thing they tell us, that the constitution must be good, from the characters which composed the Convention that framed it. It is graced with the names of a Washington and a Franklin. Illustrious names, we allow—worthy characters in civil society. Yet we cannot suppose them, to be infallible guides, neither yet that a man must necessarily incur guilt to himself merely by dissenting from them in opinion.

We cannot think the noble general, [Washington] has the same ideas with ourselves, with regard to the rules of right and wrong. We cannot think, he acts a very consistent part, or did through the whole of the contest with Great Britain: who, notwithstanding he wielded the sword in defence of American liberty, yet at the same time was, and is to this day, living upon the labours of several hundreds of miserable Africans, as free born as himself; and some of them very likely descended from parents who, in point of property and dignity in their own country, might cope with any man in America.We do not conceive we are to be overborne by the weight of any names, however revered. “ALL MEN ARE BORN FREE AND EQUAL;” if so, every man hath a natural and unalienable right to his own opinion, and, for asserting this right, ought not to be stimatized with the epithets of tenacious and dogmatical. If we were to pin our faith on any sleeves but our own (without derogating in the least from the merit of any one of the Massachusetts delegates in the federal convention) we should be as likely to pin it on the sleeve of the hon. mr. Gerry as any one of them. But we mean to see with our own eyes, and thus seeing to act for ourselves. In this view, as a tribute due from us to that hon. gentleman, we must acknowledge his tenderness, his care for the preservation of the liberties of the people, and his desire on all occasions to preserve them from invasion. This hon. gentleman was one who assisted in rearing the pillars of a republican government, he has ever since aided in the support of them, and thus hath acted a much more consistent part than those his brethren, who, after all the expense and fatigue of rearing the building, are now for razing the foundations, destroying instead of repairing the frame, and erecting another, which by no means can answer the good purpose of sheltering the people from storms. But, to lay aside the metaphor—

This gentleman is much more consistent, than those who are for turning our republican government into a hateful aristocracy. And we must think it very dishonourable in the aristocratickal party, to treat the worthy gentleman, in the manner they have done in the publick papers. We can assure them it has been far from helping their cause. We do not wish to tire the publick, but would hint to those gentlemen, who would would rob the people of their liberties, that their sophistry is not like to produce the effect. We are willing to have a federal constitution. We are willing another trial should be made; this may be done without derogating from the gentlemen, who composed the late convention. In framing a constitution for this commonwealth, two trials were made before one would stick. We are willing to relinquish so much, as to have a firm, energetick government, and this we are sensible may be done, without becoming slaves, to the capricious fancies of any sett of men whatever. It is argued, that there is no danger that the proposed rulers will be disposed to exercise any powers that this constitution puts into their hands, which may enable them to deprive the people of their liberties. But in case, say they, they should make such attempts, the people may, and will rise to arms and prevent it; in answer to which, we have only to say, we have had enough of fighting in the late war, and think it more eligible, to keep our liberties in our own hands, whilst it is in our power thus to do, than to place them in the hands of fallible men, like ourselves, who may if they please, entirely deprive us of them, and so we be at last reduced to the sad alternative of losing them forever, or recovering them back by the point of the sword. The aristocratick party are sensible, that these are the sentiments of the majority of the community, and their conduct plainly evinces the truth of a well known ancient adage— " Nothing cuts like the truth."

Source: The Massachusetts Gazette, Vol.7, No. 403, Boston, January 25, 1788.