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George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
Can a representative government succeed in balancing the local needs of communities against the needs of the nation? While the Constitution was being ratified, James Madison argued in Federalist #10 that a larger national government would protect citizens from extreme shifts in policy by factions and, as a result, protect minority groups better than the smaller state governments. But this also required political minorities to submit to and respect the decisions of the majority. In theory most agreed this was fair but in practice there were still lingering tensions. For many it was difficult to suddenly accept that national interests superseded their local needs. Conflicts could turn violent when local political majorities found themselves political minorities at the national level. This struggle contributed to the Pennsylvania Regulations of the 1790s, known more commonly as the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries’s Rebellion. These Regulators struggled to connect with those beyond their communities. They cast themselves as virtuous citizens doing their part to correct corrupt laws and officials but nationally they were seen as rebels and anarchists. In part, it was their use of arms that made these Regulators unpopular as public opinion shifted and disparaged violent protest while favoring peaceful petitions, elections, and legal reforms. The time for localized armed regulation movements by citizens, even when organized through the local militia, was drawing to an end.

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How do you determine when a revolution is over? When the fighting is done there are several, often competing, points of view or goals that spurred the revolutionaries to action. What happens when the revolution has not achieved its goals for everyone and how can those who disagree express their dissent? The case study of the Massachusetts Regulation illustrates how popular dissent was influenced by the rhetoric of the revolution and interpreted by citizens who viewed themselves as "the body of the people." But some political leaders not only criticized popular dissent but used this unrest to promote a stronger federal government. By rebranding the Massachusetts Regulation as Shays’s Rebellion, these politicians moved to tame the discourse of the Revolution and control popular dissent. The Revolution was over and the only legitimate voice of "the body of the people" was now to be expressed by elected officials within the halls of a new, stronger national government.


Does the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights protect a "right to insurrection" wherein armed protestors or regulators can check the government without dissolving it outright? An extended examination of events that influenced political and popular opinion before and after the American Revolution provides a better understanding of how the Founders and "the people" viewed actions against government from regulation to revolution to rebellion. This first article uses case studies from North Carolina and the New Hampshire Grants to examine the patterns and actions of popular dissent that were used by the people to regulate government before the American Revolution.


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