Or, as Yogi Berra famously stated, “This is like deja vu all over again.” As we muddle through the current economic recession and struggle with the uncertainty of new leadership, it might be a good time to reflect on our history and the idea that, yes, we have been through and survived hard times before. We’ve heard the talking heads compare the current economic crisis to the Great Depression, but there was an even earlier U.S. economic depression, one that came in the wake of the Revolutionary War as a result of ruined trade relations with Britain.
The remarkable similarity of the 1787 economic situation with today is that as thing worsened, farmers, “middle class,” and poorer citizens watched as the courts and federal government seized their property and gave most of the confiscated money to pay wealthy lawyers, creditors and big business interests - not unlike the tax breaks for the wealthiest 1% perpetrated by our most recent former administration or the misuse of recent bail-out funds by AIG and others to pay millions of dollars in bonuses to top-level employees.
In 1787, each time the courts convened, more citizens lost their homes and their freedom; back then, people who could not pay their bills often went to debtor’s prison. Frustrated by a runaway economy that appeared to favor the wealthy few at the expense of everyone else, and disenchanted by an unresponsive government (Yes, 1786, not 2008…), thousands of farmers across New England took matters into their own hands in a series of armed revolts as they prevented courts from convening and demanded redress of their grievances. Their leader was a 39-year-old Massachusetts farmer and former Revolutionary War captain named Daniel Shays. The uprising became known as Shays’ Rebellion. We have so far not had such an uprising in our current political landscape – only the overwhelming election last November of a new administration to try to right the ship. The ride is still bumpy but a new couse has been set.
Although Shays and thirteen other participants in the rebellion of 1787 were later pardoned, they were initally sentenced to hang for their part in the rebellion. Most U.S. leaders, including George Washington and John Adams, seemed to have quickly forgotten their own revolution and deemed the rebels as ignorant and treasonous. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, is the one founding father whose reaction to the rebellion was judicious and, in fact, stands as a lesson in leadership even today. He was willing to try to understand the motivation behind the actions of the rebels. He believed that the health of our liberty absolutely demands that people be willing to speak out and take a stand for their beliefs.
Jefferson’s handling of the Shays affair illustrates an important leadership principle. That is, he saw the value of dissent and conflict as a stimulus to growth and change, as others preferred not to rock the boat but rather stay invested in the status quo. In other words, when faced with discontent, leaders are often well advised to view the situation in a positive lignt, as an indication that those involved care deeply about the issues at hand. The effective leader finds a way to remain composed and assess the benefits that can come from dissent. [Thomas Jefferson On Leadership. ]