Daniel Shays and the Constitution
Robert A. Gross
From August 1824 to September 1825, the marquis de Lafayette made a triumphal tour of the United States to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution. In his late sixties, the aging hero of the War for Independence traveled up and down the land as “the Nation’s Guest,” greeting old comrades-in-arms and receiving tributes from a grateful people. Everywhere Americans flocked to see the onetime companion and “adopted son” of George Washington; everywhere they hastened to proclaim thanks to the French aristocrat who had so selflessly helped to create a free nation. Never let it be said of them, one speaker vowed, “as [it had been] of Rome and of Athens, that ingratitude is the common vice of republics.” The American people acknowledged their debts.1
One veteran of the Revolution was absent from these celebrations, though he had once served as an officer under Lafayette and gained notice for that connection. Daniel Shays lay dying, in obscurity and poverty, in the little town of Sparta in western New York. Back in 1780 Captain Shays had received an ornamental sword from General Lafayette as a mark of personal esteem. But in a moment of need, the Continental officer had sold that “pledge of affection” for a few measly dollars and in the process earned the condemnation of his peers. Denounced as an ingrate without “honour and spirit,” a bitter Shays quit the army in disgust, returning home to western Massachusetts, where he would shortly obtain notoriety as the “Generalissimo” of a debtors’ revolt. The movement was prompted by the program of hard money and heavy taxes imposed by the state government in Boston to pay the costs of the Revolutionary War. It started with popular protests at town meetings and county conventions, escalated into resistance to the courts, and culminated in a military assault on the federal arsenal at Springfield in late January 1787. For a brief moment Daniel Shays and his army of angry farmers seemed to threaten the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the future of the American republic. In fact, the uprising that came to be known as Shays’s Rebellion was easily suppressed, and its eponymous leader quickly forgotten. Despite a pardon from the state, Shays spent the rest of his life in exile, moving from town to town along the Vermont and New York frontiers. By 1825, as Lafayette was wending his way across the country, few traces remained of the figure who had once commanded a “horrid and unnatural rebellion.” Shays had declined into a poor, garrulous old man who drank too much, dependent for a living on a few acres of land and on a pension from the national government he had unwittingly hastened into being.2
It is no wonder, then, that Daniel Shays was never invited to the festivities for Lafayette. To Americans of the 1820s, intent on celebrating the unity and virtue of the Revolutionary generation, his presence might have been an unwelcome reminder of conflict and injustice at the nation’s start. But surprisingly, contemporaries had little to say when, a few weeks after Lafayette’s departure for France, Shays’s death was reported in the press. In a list of recent deaths, the New York Evening Post carried this laconic item: “In Sparta, on the 29th ult. Gen. Daniel Shays, aged 84; he was an officer of the revolution, and subsequently the leader of a party in Massachusetts called Shays’ men.” The notice was remarkably benign. Posthumously awarded a generalship he never claimed, Shays was remembered, vaguely, as a political figure from Massachusetts’s past. The details of his rebellion forgotten, he was just another of the old men of the Revolution, whose steadily dwindling ranks marked the end of America’s “heroic age.”3
Massachusetts, however, remembered. Newspapers in Boston, Concord, and Northampton were quick to report the death of Shays, whom they identified unfailingly as the military leader of the insurrection against the Commonwealth. But their comments were without asperity. To the Boston Commercial Gazette, whose long obituary set the tone for the press, Shays had been a reluctant and repentant rebel. Passing glancingly over his Continental service—he had quit the army for “reasons quite problematical”—the paper attributed Shays’s leadership of the “disaffected” to “the extreme pressure of the times.” Even in revolt, he had remained a true republican. Shays was no aspiring Caesar, bent upon military dictatorship: instead, as commander of the insurgency, he had readily taken orders from a committee of civilians, submitting every decision to a “vote of the whole.” Early on, Shays “got sick of his enterprise” and would have quit the affair on “perfect assurance of a pardon.” That promise never came. But after the rebellion was crushed and Shays had taken refuge in Vermont, he submitted “a humble petition” to the Massachusetts General Court “acknowledging [his] errors and imploring forgiveness.” Prompted by “good sense,” the legislature pardoned him and everybody else concerned in the disorders and put Shays’s Rebellion behind it. Thanks to that act, the Boston paper noted, Shays was able to secure a reward for his military services in the Revolution. Indeed, the grant of a pension to a former rebel against government drew considerable comment. It attested to the final reconciliation of all parties to the Massachusetts conflict. True, the Concord Gazette and Middlesex Yeoman could not resist the jibe that Shays had ended up poor and needy, as a result of his “crooked path and errors of former days.” But no one questioned his right to the annuity. And through the wisdom of the state, added the Commercial Gazette, the insurgents and their descendants had become loyal, respectable, even conservative citizens, prominent “amongst are [our] most exemplary yeomanry.” Generous government, reformed rebels: the bitterness of 1786–87 was gone. Daniel Shays, as well as Lafayette, could be admitted into America’s “Era of Good Feelings.”4
That brief moment of acceptance in 1825 was one of the few times in our history when Daniel Shays proved an uncontroversial figure. Before and since, both the man and the rebellion he led have occasioned intense debate. Naturally so, for they are bound up with the very meanings of the American Revolution and the Constitution. In 1786–87 Shays’s Rebellion exposed a fundamental crisis of republicanism in the new nation. To discontented farmers in Massachusetts and beyond, the insurgency expressed popular fury at the unresponsiveness and the elitism of the new state governments in the face of widespread economic distress. But many others, especially Patriot leaders who had long been striving for a powerful, central government, took the uprising as the symbol of a republic in peril. In their view, an unruly people, easily misled and manipulated by ambitious demagogues like Shays, was jeopardizing the very liberty for which the Revolution had been fought. It was to end such threats from below and to preserve the American venture in self-government that nationalists in the states launched the movement to replace the Articles of Confederation with a more effective, energetic government. As delegates gathered in Philadelphia during the spring of 1787 to accomplish this end, the “late disturbances” in Massachusetts were still reverberating throughout the land. Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution have been closely linked ever since.5
Not every opponent of Shays’s Rebellion endorsed the plan of government to emerge from the Philadelphia convention; a few even became leading Antifederalists in the contest over ratification. But over the course of the nineteenth century, ideological lines hardened. Shays’s Rebellion became a litmus test of political belief. Nationalist historians applauded the Fathers of the Constitution for rescuing the republic from the anarchy portended by Shays. By contrast, scholars on the Left, especially in the twentieth century, have seen in the Massachusetts protests the true democratic spirit of the common folk; for them, the Constitution was the Revolution betrayed, the American Thermidor. Such have been the terms in which discussions of Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution have been fixed, for nearly two hundred years, in our histories and popular culture.
Half-forgotten at his death, Daniel Shays has become a folk hero. His rebellion has inspired novels, plays, ballads, murals, films, even the name of a folksinging group. For many activists, the insurrection is a cherished symbol of popular unrest: a signal moment in our history when working people rose up in arms against the forces of capitalism and elitism that dominate the nation. Preserving the memory of Shays helps to keep the spirit of protest alive. But one need not be on the Left to recall the protests of 1786–87. Local pride counts, too. Having officially forgiven Shays, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts dedicated a highway in his honor; the road leads through the hills and woods of the west into his old town of Pelham, which proudly announces to passersby that it is “the home of Shays’s Rebellion.” Even doctrinaires of the Right now adopt Shays’s cause. On the eve of its bicentennial, President Reagan celebrated the rebellion as a taxpayers’ revolt which altered the balance between government and people, making future insurrections unnecessary. “Shays’ protest was put down forcefully,” Reagan declared, “but it helped lead to the adoption of the United States constitution, a blueprint for freedom giving each of us the right to help direct the course of our government to fight against injustice, if you will, without having to lead an armed revolution.” No longer was Shays an uninvited guest at official commemorations of the Constitution. Two hundred years after the rebellion, Americans of every political opinion pay “homage to Daniel Shays.”6
This cheerful consensus is, however, an evasion of history. To bring Shays on board the Federalist ship of state is to deny the purposes of the contending parties in the contest over the Constitution. Back in 1787–88, some nationalists were quite open about their goal of erecting a government capable of curbing the disorderly “democracies” in the states. Soon after ratification, the Massachusetts Centinel took a detached view of the successful movement for the Constitution. “In investigating the causes which gave life to the happy form of government which we shall ere long be under,” observed editor Benjamin Russell, “the Historian will not forget the era of the late insurrections in this Commonwealth. The insurrections . . . must be considered as the causes of bringing in existence, at a much earlier period than would otherwise have been, the [Federal] government.” Safeguarding the republic against a future Shays was hardly the sole object of the Federalists, but it was one the insurgents and their sympathizers readily detected. Overwhelmingly, representatives from Shaysite territory opposed the new government, on the grounds that it threatened to fasten upon the nation the same system of corruption and tyranny that its local sponsors had already attempted in Massachusetts. We need not endorse this position to acknowledge the antagonisms in the fight over the Constitution. But making this admission does complicate celebration of our origins as a democratic nation. For how can we simultaneously fete the Constitution and Shays, if the one was intended to suppress the other?7
To break free of that contradiction, it is essential to face up to the social-political conflicts and ideological struggles of the Revolutionary age from which the United States was born. For too long, discussion of Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution has been locked into a narrow, anachronistic frame. Americans have presumed too easily that the contending parties in the 1780s were fighting their battles on modern ground, with political ideas and language that remain vital today. The age of Shays is more distant than we care to admit. But its significance is larger, as well. Restored to historical context, Shays’s Rebellion challenges existing understandings of the late eighteenth-century world. The uprising tested the commitment of Massachusetts citizens to republican institutions, revealing the diversity of ideas and allegiances that flourished in the state. It played upon long-standing divisions in the population, even as it provoked new coalitions and remade the political landscape. It was entangled with the coming of markets and capitalism to the countryside, in a far-ranging process that transformed an entire way of life. It exposed the social ferment of the backcountry, intensified religious upheavals, stimulated the founding of newspapers, and brought forth an outpouring of cosmopolitan satire and verse. Shays’s Rebellion was, in short, an epoch of a society in dramatic transition.
As event and symbol, the agrarian protests of 1786–87 naturally drew attention in Massachusetts during the recent commemorations of the Bicentennial of the Constitution. Shays’s Rebellion, after all, represents the unique contribution of the Commonwealth to the making of the national government. Virginia gave James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” who was joined by the New Yorkers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in composing the classic Federalist essays. At the Philadelphia convention, New Jersey and Virginia offered competing plans of government, while Connecticut devised the successful compromise between the two. Massachusetts produced Daniel Shays. To mark the significance of his insurgency for state and nation, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, based in Boston, and two institutions in the west, Amherst College and Historic Deerfield, Inc., held major conferences in the fall of 1986. The Boston meeting was a small, invitational gathering of historians, hosted at the society’s headquarters on Mount Vernon Street. The conference in western Massachusetts, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, linked public commemoration of the bicentennial in Hampshire County, the citadel of the rebellion, with presentations of the latest research. Altogether, some two dozen Shays scholars—a veritable cottage industry of students of agrarian rebellion, political economy, social history, and the Constitution—delivered and commented on papers on the two occasions. A selection of their efforts is assembled here, in an anthology that, in contrast to the circumstances of Massachusetts two centuries ago, constitutes a happy collaboration between east and west.
As readers will quickly discover, the essays herein arrive at no consensus on the insurgency or its consequences. Shays’s Rebellion remains as contested today as ever. The contributors to this collection are branded by two centuries of debate and discussion. No more than the Progressives escaped the hold of the nationalist historians they meant to reject do the current authors throw off the weight of their predecessors. They inquire into familiar themes. Predictably, they probe the motives and conduct of the governing elite, reexamine the grievances of the farmers, and explore the politics and culture of the backcountry. They also consider the larger implications of the Massachusetts insurgency for the making of the Constitution. As always, Shays’s Rebellion remains an event of both local and national significance.
Nonetheless, this collection marks a turning point in our scholarship. Drawing on work in literature, political science, religion, and social history, it highlights the numerous aspects of eighteenth-century life on which the events of 1786–87 touched. Most important, it enables us to move beyond the polemics that have framed the historiography since 1788 and to place all parties to the conflict within the confines of their own world. Notwithstanding their enmities and their differences of power and wealth, all sides in Shays’s Rebellion shared far more with one another than with us. Even so, viewed with empathy across the distance of two hundred years, they continue to speak compellingly about the ambitions and anxieties that people experienced as they struggled to cope with the unsettlement of Revolutionary change.
Shays’s Rebellion was, first and foremost, a conflict over debts and taxes, prompted by the fiscal policies of Massachusetts during the severe depression of the mid-1780s. As Richard Buel, Jr., notes in “The Public Creditor Interest in Massachusetts Politics, 1780–86,” the uprising was triggered by the decision of the General Court in early 1786 to lay the heaviest direct tax in specie ever imposed on the citizens of the Commonwealth. Why that choice? In addressing the issue, Buel enters a long-standing controversy over the motives of the governing elite, the coalition of merchants and magistrates who held sway during the crisis. Were these lawmakers high-minded men of principle, dedicated to the survival of the republic, as nationalist historians once claimed? Or were they attending principally to their own economic self-interest, as twentieth-century scholars on the Left have charged? Buel advances a fresh case for the government through close analysis of the immediate circumstances behind the 1786 tax. The levy was prompted by an event outside Massachusetts: a federal requisition of money from the states to support payment of the foreign debt. Under the Articles of Confederation, states were honor bound to meet such claims. But heeding the call proved no easy matter in the straitened postwar era. It required legislatures to tax inhabitants for national needs even as the states pressed for funds to pay their own debts. In the competition for money, state obligations often came first. But not in Massachusetts. Faced with congressional demands, the “Public Creditors” of the Commonwealth risked their own investments and supported new taxes, in what amounted to the highest levies in the country.
As Buel sees it, the leaders of trade and finance selflessly subordinated immediate interests to the imperatives of national independence. They rightly recognized the necessity of maintaining public credit. Without prompt payment of the debt, the new republic would never command support from men of property, at home and abroad. In a world of contending nations, its survival would thus remain in doubt. But the “most compelling” consideration was a matter of morals. If popular governments broke their pledges to creditor minorities, then the essence of republicanism, its integrity as a “sovereignty of justice,” would be lost. To forestall that calamity, Buel insists, the commercial elite put principle ahead of profit, pressed the taxpayers beyond their limits, and brought a rebellion upon themselves. It was a conscientious display of public virtue, not the sordid pursuit of private gain, that lay behind the crisis of the state.
Where Buel stresses the contingent choices of patriotic policymakers in the mid-1780s, Joseph A. Ernst traces the long-term strategies of Massachusetts merchants in the pursuit of financial gain. That approach, presented in “Shays’s Rebellion in Long Perspective: The Merchants and the ‘Money Question,’” produces an opposing scenario. Seeking to understand why merchants resisted the emission of paper money so adamantly in the 1780s, Ernst delves into the monetary history of Massachusetts from the 1690s on. From this survey emerges a story of cold, calculating, self-interest, pursued unswervingly over the decades.
Starting in the 1690s, Ernst argues, the “great merchants” of Massachusetts Bay opposed all general issues of paper currency, insisted that government notes be redeemable in specie, and preferred funding schemes that would enrich themselves. Such views put the great merchants at odds with populist forces in the legislature, with whom they fought continuing battles over paper money from the 1720s on. Eventually, in alliance with the crown, the lords of trade got their way. Massachusetts established its own equivalent of the English funding system. Issuing public notes in exchange for private loans and supplies, government endowed merchants with a commercial medium of exchange, while paying them interest in specie—financed by taxes on the population at large. On the eve of the Revolution, great merchants and magistrates cheerfully serviced one another’s needs.
It was to restore this “era of public credit,” Ernst argues, that the General Court adopted the monetary policies of the 1780s that precipitated Shays’s Rebellion. Repudiating the paper schemes by which the Revolution had been financed, enacting new consolidating and funding plans, the legislature reverted to its familiar alliance with the great merchants. Once again, the trading interest enjoyed a medium of exchange that was safe, stable, and securely under its control. No wonder, then, that the masters of commerce, who saw the money question “in ways that squared with a self-seeking ideology of profit making,” refused to compromise with the backcountry.
While Buel and Ernst disagree about the conduct of the mercantile elite, they retain the assumption, common among historians of the subject, that the leaders in government and trade acted rationally and deliberately in pursuit of their goals and exercised considerable control over the course of events. Two other essays in this collection implicitly challenge that notion. In “Debt Litigation and Shays’s Rebellion,” Jonathan M. Chu reconsiders the role of courts and lawyers in precipitating the rural insurgency. From the 1780s on, Shaysites and their sympathizers have indicted the judicial system of Massachusetts for exacerbating the economic crisis by favoring the oppressive demands of creditors. But Chu radically challenges this view of a callous, class-biased legal system. Through a detailed investigation of the cases before the Supreme Judicial Court at its Worcester sitting on April 19, 1785—ironically, the tenth anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord—Chu turns the conventional wisdom upside down. Far from oppressing people in dire straits, he argues, the civil courts of Massachusetts actually aided debtors in the effort to stave off disaster. Such service was hardly intentional, but so inefficient proved the system in the swirling economic crisis that it could be as readily exploited by the weak as by the strong. Opportunities for delay were rampant. The common strategy of debtors was to default—that is, fail to appear—in cases at the county Court of Common Pleas, then appeal judgments to the Supreme Judicial Court. The issues in dispute hardly mattered; the point was to buy time, in hopes that somehow, something would turn up. Perhaps an importunate creditor might settle on favorable terms, rather than wait for a final judgment; alternatively, a lucky defendant might be able to collect his own debts. Admittedly, appeals cost money, but as Chu documents, lawyers were happy to post bonds for debtors and represent their case. To a miserable man on the verge of bankruptcy, why worry about the additional expense? At worst, court costs were only another bill that would go unpaid.
In this legal setting, Chu suggests, merchants, especially traders in middling circumstances, were at a serious disadvantage. Men of vast fortune could grant relief to their debtors and still ride out the economic crisis. But modest creditors faced an anxious effort to stay afloat. If they pressed too hard, too soon for repayment, they might set off a chain reaction of insolvencies; but if they waited too long to sue, they might lose claim to the assets of delinquent debtors. Exacerbating this dilemma were the costs and delays of the courts. Frustrated by a system that left them equally exposed to the claims of big creditors and the wiles of small debtors, middling merchants pushed for fundamental reform of the courts. Ironically, though their demands merged with the populist outcry against lawyers and courts, they were trying to ease the prosecution and collection of small debts. Had they obtained their way, the plight of debt-ridden farmers and laborers would only have gotten worse.
Chu’s essay opens up a new perspective on the Massachusetts court system in an age of Revolution: rather than a handy instrument of upper-class rule, it represented a fundamental arena of struggle between contending social groups. Under the firm control of no single class, the courts may well have served the interests of none.8
But then, as Stephen E. Patterson suggests in “The Federalist Reaction to Shays’s Rebellion,” the merchants in eastern Massachusetts were no more secure in their countinghouses than in the courts. They came under challenge from two directions at once. With the coming of peace, British factors—agents of export firms at home—began setting up shop in New England ports and competing with established American merchants for the custom of the countryside. In the face of this stiff, unprecedented rivalry, the wholesalers in Boston scrambled to expand their business. They aggressively promoted the latest consumer goods and offered liberal terms to retailers and farmers, only to get caught short in the credit crunch of the mid-1780s. Anxious to protect their positions, merchants clung for safety to the legislature and the courts. But in the depression of the 1780s, the commercial elite had now to contend against rural demands for paper money, tender laws, and suspension of the courts. Challenged from without by British interests, the magnates of Massachusetts were equally beset by hostile farmers from within.
In this setting, the embattled elite discovered unexpected benefits from the developing uprising. Leading merchants and politicians seized upon the disorders in the countryside to galvanize support for a strong, national government, armed with the power to protect American trade. This crusade was carefully calculated: “Shays’s Rebellion . . . was less a cause of Federalism than it was an opportunity to expand and popularize it.” Indeed, Patterson concludes, “if Shays’s Rebellion had not occurred, the Federalists would have had to invent it.”
However much they exaggerated the radicalism of the farmers, merchants and magistrates correctly perceived a fundamental gap between the backcountry and their own commercial-cosmopolitan sphere. As several essays in this anthology make clear, Massachusetts was indeed riven into opposing worlds of thought and action. In “Reinterpreting Rebellion: The Influence of Shays’s Rebellion on American Political Thought,” a close reading of the polemical literature of 1786–88, political scientist Michael Lienesch finds that the rival parties spoke different languages of politics. Champions of the backcountry affirmed a radical republicanism that was at odds with the developing political faith of the cosmopolitan elite. In their own eyes, the insurgents were rational, patient, long-suffering citizens, driven by principle to resist arbitrary government. When such protests failed to stop the advance of tyrants, there was no alternative but revolution, which meant, to Shaysites, a happy return to a state of nature and a restoration of liberty in public life.
By contrast, the “Friends of Government” regarded the disorders in the backcountry as the very antithesis of rational liberty. Popular protests were nothing more than the irrational outpouring of violent passion on the part of an unruly mob. In an elective government based on consent, they insisted, jealousy of rulers was obsolete; indeed, to question authority too harshly was to subvert the regime. Revolution was now illegitimate: it threatened a descent into anarchy, which would end inevitably in brutal despotism. In this elitist brand of republicanism, the duty of citizens was simply to vote in elections and then to obey the laws. “Real liberty,” remarks Lienesch, “consisted in being ‘good subjects.’”
In “‘The Fine Theoretic Government of Massachusetts Is Prostrated to the Earth’: The Response to Shays’s Rebellion Reconsidered,” William Pencak also depicts a polarization between town and backcountry. But his appraisal of the two sides offers a dramatic contrast to Lienesch. In Pencak’s view, it was not the backcountry rebels but rather the leaders of eastern Massachusetts who proved the authentic defenders of the Revolution. Pencak bases his judgment on the public conduct of the antagonists. Although the insurgents claimed to be acting on the defensive, in order to obtain limited reforms, they pursued aggressive, antirepublican ends. In their collective actions, they went well beyond the restrained practices of pre-Revolutionary crowds and conventions. Forming themselves into a full-scale army, converting county conventions into a counterregime, Shaysites were waging “a revolution against the Revolution.”
Actually, according to Pencak, the inhabitants of western Massachusetts had never displayed much enthusiasm for the Patriot cause. They had hardly suffered in the war, unlike beleaguered Boston; they had profited on high farm prices and spent their new wealth on luxuries; they had done little to establish the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, whose Constitution of 1780 they had generally opposed. Indeed, for all the sprigs of hemlock in their hats, few of Shays’s troops had even served in the War for Independence.
In the face of this challenge, Pencak maintains, the Friends of Government proved loyal sons of the Revolution. Self-disciplined veterans of the Continental and state forces, they fought in the General Court and in General Lincoln’s army for the same principles that had animated their sacrifices in the conflict with Britain: an ideal of the republic as a commonwealth, “a moral whole,” devoted to justice and enlisting the active engagement of virtuous citizens. In this spirit, they tried valiantly to ease popular grievances and to avoid bloodshed. Even after the clash of arms, the constant aim was reconciliation, not retribution. In the end, Pencak maintains, the leaders of Massachusetts made an important contribution to the theory and practice of republicanism. Through a disciplined but firm defense of principle, they devised republican remedies for popular rebellion and helped to secure the future of self-government in the new nation.
Although Pencak echoes the progovernment apology of George Richards Minot two centuries ago, his essay is best read as an inquiry into the political cultures of town and backcountry. Indeed, his view of the insurgents as inveterate localists, hostile to the cosmopolitan world of Boston, is supported by other contributors to this collection. In “Shays’s Neighbors: The Context of Rebellion in Pelham, Massachusetts,” Gregory H. Nobles investigates society and politics in Shays’s own town as a case study of the insurgency. Far more sympathetic to the protests than Pencak, Nobles nonetheless offers a similar picture of the rural mentalité. In 1786 Pelham was an insular farming community of a thousand souls. Founded by feisty Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in 1740, the place had passed beyond the frontier stage and emerged as a typical hill town, producing little for market and supporting only a few mills and shops. This subsistence-oriented economy, argues Nobles, sustained a distinctive political culture, through which people responded to public policies in 1786–87.
Shays’s neighbors had a long tradition of egalitarian localism. Hostile to outside authorities not only from Boston but from the more developed towns in the Connecticut Valley, Pelhamites went on the offensive whenever their community was threatened. In the Revolutionary crisis they were quick to denounce British taxes and to lead mobs against supporters of the crown. Determined to keep government close to home, they opposed the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 with equal firmness. It was out of this heritage of proud parochialism that the people of Pelham set forth to “regulate” the state government in the fall and winter of 1786–87. Contrary to Pencak, Nobles believes the protesters were merely resuming the extralegal practices of the Revolutionary crowds. But times were changing; to the new magistrates of Massachusetts, the only legitimate way to conduct politics lay in the authorized forms of citizenship under the state constitution. Repudiating the political culture of the colonial era, the commercial-cosmopolitan elite demanded conformity to the new regime. As the Pelhamites forcibly learned, republicanism was now the norm.
The changing methods and meanings of collective action also constitute the subject of Alan Taylor’s essay, “Regulators and White Indians: Forms of Agrarian Resistance in Post-Revolutionary New England.” Taylor contrasts the rapid collapse of rural rebellion in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1786–87 with the longer-lasting and more successful resistance by the squatters of central Maine to the claims of the great land companies. Organizing themselves as “White Indians,” the determined yeomen of Maine avoided large-scale confrontations with the state and obliged the landlords to compromise their demands.
Why the different outcomes in the two cases? As Taylor sees it, the backcountry rebels of New England subscribed to a complex of political and social assumptions that simultaneously inspired their protests and limited their gains. Their political culture was more traditional, more hierarchical than the mentalité Nobles detects in Pelham. Accepting an inherited society of ranks and orders, these rural people had no intention to displace their betters in the seats of power. Common folk intruded into affairs of state only when the rulers let them down. In the face of betrayal by their superiors, they might rise up in protest, denouncing public policies from a distance and threatening violence in bloodcurdling terms. The point, however, was to reclaim rulers to the public trust, not to seize power, nor to upset the social order.
Unfortunately for the dissidents, in the postwar republican era the governing class no longer accepted this “protection covenant.”9 In Shays’s Rebellion, the elite confidently stood its ground and quickly dispersed the insurgents. Easily intimidated by the gentlemen, the protesters cut and ran, for they had never expected to fight at all. They soon relapsed into familiar patterns of deference. By contrast, the “White Indians” learned from the defeat of the Shaysites to confine protests to their own turf and established an effective cordon around the backcountry. Like the Shaysites of Massachusetts, they were suspending the execution of the laws in hopes that the legislature would honor its obligations to the people. But the world of rulers and subjects was no more. The squatters and tenants of Maine were obliged to turn to politics to win their ends. Unable to secure justice from the traditional elite, they got their way—part of it, at least—by voting for Jeffersonians. In that shift of loyalties from the “Fathers” to the “Friends of the People,” Taylor discerns the disappearance of the backcountry’s eighteenth-century political culture.
These several forays into the political cultures of the opposing parties differ in key respects. Where Pencak hails the civic republicanism of the magistrates, Lienesch, Nobles, and Taylor detect a class-conscious elitism that only deepened in the course of suppressing the popular protests. But the republicanism of rural folk is equally at issue. To Lienesch and Nobles, the people of the backcountry are radical republicans, hostile to distant rulers, and tenacious in defense of their own rights. By contrast, the rebels in Pencak’s and Taylor’s studies prefer the protection covenant, with its culture of localism, to the demands of active citizenship. Whatever their inclinations—egalitarian or hierarchical, participatory or submissive—the inhabitants of rural New England emerge from all these essays with one thing in common: a fierce commitment to the ideal of local community as an organic whole.
But how homogeneous were the settlers in the backcountry? Were they any more united than their adversaries in the towns or any better at directing their own affairs? The essays by John L. Brooke and Stephen A. Marini reveal a countryside in dramatic transition, moving to new, pluralistic patterns of social, economic, and religious life. These were no static “peaceable kingdoms” invaded by a hostile, outside world. Rather, the rural communities that were caught up in the insurrection felt the direct upheaval of revolution and social change from within.
John Brooke maps the social landscape of central and western Massachusetts in “A Deacon’s Orthodoxy: Religion, Class, and the Moral Economy of Shays’s Rebellion.” From this survey, the backcountry takes on a new, more complex configuration. By the 1780s, it had ceased to be a tight, uniform world of subsistence farms, whose pious inhabitants, descendants of the Puritans, centered their lives around town and church. The countryside was splintering into discrete, differentiated communities, owing to the combined forces of commercial capitalism and religious dissent. The old orthodox, yeoman towns, which had once typified the New England Way, now had to compete with other models of community. In some places a cosmpolitan gentry actively linked the population into the markets and culture of the wider world. In others, evangelical sects rose up to compete for converts and to demand the separation of church from state. Surrounded by these alternative communities, the orthodox, yeoman towns struggled to preserve a familiar way of life. Theirs was an embattled, declining world, beset by the relentless incursions of modernity.
The great power of Brooke’s perspective is that he supplies the fullest social analysis of Shays’s Rebellion to date. Through collective profiles of insurgents, Friends of Government, and neutrals in six communities in Worcester County, he upsets the conventional wisdom that invariably debtors were Regulators, while creditors demanded law and order. In fact, in the gentry citadel of Brookfield, many debtors joined the militia and were “pillars of the government cause,” while in the orthodox, yeoman towns of Spencer and Oakham, half of the creditors enlisted in the insurrection. It was thus not financial standing alone but rather the interplay of religion and social structure that shaped popular responses to the widespread economic distress.
Shays’s Rebellion took place, then, in a divided countryside, where the advancing forces of capitalism and voluntarism were driving the old corporate world into retreat. Only in small, insular farming towns, according to Brooke, did the ancient ways of New England survive, but in a grim, reactionary mood, akin to the aggrieved spirit of the Puritan settlers of Salem Village a century before when they set forth to do battle against the devils and witches of modern life.10
It may be an illusion, however, to treat the Shaysite communities as the remaining bastions of tradition, waging “custom’s last stand.”11 In “The Religious World of Daniel Shays,” Stephen Marini suggests that even in these places, the Standing Order was in disarray. Marini provides a sustained survey of religous life among all churches and sects—Congregationalists, Baptists, Shakers, Universalists, and numerous others—in the principal Regulator towns during the 1770s and 1780s. The result is a stunning picture of a far-ranging revolution in religion, penetrating even the most isolated parishes in the countryside. The majority Congregationalists were troubled not only by vacancies in the pulpit but also by conflicts and contradictions of their own making. For decades, they had been fighting over everything from ministerial salaries and parish taxes to theology and church admissions.12 In a fractured world, Congregationalism could no longer carry out its central mission: providing “sacred legitimation” for the social order.
Then again, many New Englanders were indifferent to the tradition; they had long since deserted the Standing Order for the new evangelical sects, whose numbers were increasing rapidly in the 1780s. Yet the dissenters were also struggling with their own internal divisions. Baptist and Separate congregations rose and fell in short order; competing sects raided one another’s members; personal rivalries, doctrinal differences, institutional weaknesses hobbled the formation of stable churches. In 1786–87 some sects were anticipating an apocalyptic end to history; others, like the Shakers, disdained public affairs as “the spirit of the world” and offered a refuge from political choice. “Shays’s Rebellion, the first major episode of political dissent in post-Revolutionary New England,” Marini concludes, “occurred at precisely the same moment that Congregationalism lost its religious hegemony in rural Massachusetts and a new world of religious pluralism commenced in the New England hinterland.” Religious disorder thus accentuated the crisis of civil authority.
Marini’s survey of religion, together with the work of Brooke, Nobles, Taylor, and others, produces a powerful impression of a society in profound upheaval. New England was experiencing revolution in every aspect of its life. Population was pouring beyond the limits of settlement and scattering into the vast north country of the region. There newcomers scrambled to create communities overnight, with little guidance or interference from the eastern elite. But in long-settled districts, society was also fluid. With the departure of Loyalists, new men rushed into positions of wealth and power. Social mobility was abetted by the fluctuations of the wartime economy, as well as by the Revolutionary erosion of hierarchy and deference. The merchant class, many of whom were recent entrants into trade, had to compete in an unfamiliar world in which old markets were closed and new ones were yet to be gained. Clergymen struggled to sustain their livings, cope with competition, and keep up their status. Lawyers increased their ranks and gained a new public visibility. So, too, did printers, who established a growing number of newspapers. There was, in short, an unsettling of New England society, as people and institutions pressed beyond existing limits, in a process that expanded aspirations and stirred anxieties at the same time.
Challenged by this explosion of energies, many New Engenders, especially in the elite, hastened to stop change and to secure the social order. Seen in this perspective, Shays’s Rebellion crystallized the consolidation of politics and society. The essays in this anthology testify to this campaign to contain the forces of revolution in the 1780s. Along with Nobles and Taylor, Lienesch suggests that the defeat of Shays’s Rebellion was a turning point in American political thought; it prompted conservatives to jettison forever the old Whig heritage of resistance to unjust rulers. It also checked secessionist movements from Massachusetts and other states. As James Leamon documents in his essay, “In Shays’s Shadow: Separation and Ratification of the Constitution in Maine,” a bid to win statehood for the District of Maine was gathering momentum among merchants and professionals in the commercial towns “down East” when the protests against taxes and debts escalated in central and western Massachusetts. Frightened by the spectacle of popular “anarchy,” the leading gentlemen in Maine backed away from the independence movement. On the other hand, the campaign for Maine statehood equally undercut the Regulation. It drained off energies that might have gone into forging an alliance between farmers in Massachusetts and squatters and distressed yeomen in Maine. Far from weakening established authority, the three movements of the 1780s—Shaysism, separatism, and Antifederalism—simply got in each other’s way. In the process, government was consolidated on the level of the state as well as the nation.13
Shays’s Rebellion was an epoch in culture as well as politics. The popular protests brought the refined, enlightened gentlemen of the towns into stark encounter with the unpolished, vernacular world of the backcountry. In my essay, “The Confidence Man and the Preacher: The Cultural Politics of Shays’s Rebellion,” the efforts of two aspirants to literary fame—Stephen Burroughs, the notorious “rogue,” and Royall Tyler, the author of The Contrast (1787), the first American play to be produced on the professional stage—can be seen as contributions to the consolidation of elite culture. In 1786–87 neither figure held a secure status in society: Tyler, a rakish young lawyer, was perched on the edge of bankruptcy before he remade his career by serving as an officer in General Lincoln’s army; Burroughs, a Dartmouth dropout, had been drummed out of Pelham for impersonating a minister and then sentenced to prison for counterfeiting. Despite their questionable credentials, the two writers emerged from their experiences to produce comical portraits of the backcountry that endure to the present day. Their versions of Shaysite territory are as revealing, however, of the narrow-mindedness of so-called cosmopolitans as they are of the parochialism of the farmers. Like the framers of the Constitution, the eighteenth-century creators of a national literature were determined to keep their distance from rural folk, even as they absorbed the irreverent language and wit of the rural “Jonathans” into their texts.14
In Shays’s Rebellion, we may discern a model of revolution and reaction for the new nation. The growth and spread of population, the churning up of the social order, the weakening of old hierarchies and the establishment of new, voluntary associations, the shifting loyalties of citizens to state and federal entities: this expansion of society beyond its traditional confines, this explosive challenge to inherited limits of class and space gave the early republic the same distended quality that Robert Wiebe discerns in the reckless abandon of the United States in the Gilded Age. And it was to produce the same efforts at consolidation, at ordering and containing a society seemingly out of control, that scholars have identified in that later period. In this context, the contemporaries of Samuel Adams and Daniel Shays may well represent the first generation of Americans to have experienced acutely the relentless dialectic between expansion and consolidation that has marked the social history of the United States from the late eighteenth century on.15
This perspective releases us from the assumptions and stereotypes that have framed the historiography of Shays’s Rebellion for two centuries. In the Revolutionary era both backcountry and commercial society were equally wracked by disorienting, disordering change, which provoked powerful, political reactions and intensified ideological struggles. The adversaries in 1786–87 did not inhabit mutually exclusive worlds, nor were they engaged in deliberate conspiracies against one another. In fact, so diverse had Massachusetts become, so fractured into competing groups with separate interests of their own, that it is an illusion to polarize the society into two hostile camps. Many rural people shared the grievances of the Shaysites but declined to close courts or to take up arms. Baptists and other dissenters were seldom willing to make common cause with neighbors who were still forcing them to pay taxes to the established church. A few souls fled the hard choices of politics entirely for the comforts of “unworldly” religious sects. In the seaports and country towns, not everyone was a hard-liner, nor were the Friends of Government propelled by a single motive. The townspeople of Concord, Massachusetts, for example, disdained paper money but endorsed rural complaints against the distant government in Boston. When insurgents in Middlesex County marched on Concord to close the courts, town leaders desperately maneuvered to avoid a clash of arms. In the end, the town that prided itself on its resistance to Britain on April 19, 1775, came down on the side of law and order. It sent a company of soldiers to aid General Lincoln’s army; nobody joined the insurgents. Even so, Concord refused to support the Bowdoin administration’s Draconian measures against the rebellion. Instead, in the spring elections of 1787, an upsurge of voters decisively repudiated the government that had so maladroitly provoked and then crushed the insurrection. Such vacillation between compromise and repression was common in the crisis of 1786–87. It surely reflected the ambivalence of many people in commercial towns, as well as the contrary positions of rival groups in local and state governments.16
Still, scholars can no more escape the ultimate confrontation between the government and the Shaysites than could contemporaries at the time. For all their hesitations, thousands of people took sides in an escalating series of episodes that briefly threatened a descent into civil war. At the peak of the crisis, the leading actors—Governor Bowdoin and his allies, on one hand; Daniel Shays and his followers, on the other—enlisted in opposing crusades to defeat the enemies of liberty. What brought them to their fateful encounter at Springfield armory in late January 1787? The answer, I would suggest, lies in a common social process, played out on the arena of Massachusetts politics at a time of severe economic depression and reinforced by the self-propelling dynamic of events. Amidst the unsettlement and uncertainties of the mid-1780s, challenged from without and within, neither side could understand its situation in historical perspective or view its antagonists outside the eighteenth-century categories of conspiracy. Lacking intellectual and social flexibility, both Friends of Government and Shaysites hardened their familiar world views: the former, unsure of their own authority and never enthusiasts of popular power, became ever more determined to impose an elitist design on state and nation; the latter asserted with equivalent, counterrevolutionary fervor the ideology of the corporate, Puritan town even as that world was fast disintegrating before their eyes. In the tumultuous effort to come to terms with the collapse of inherited ways, both groups saw themselves as the object of dangerous, illegitimate force. But in the perspective of social history, we may view them as fellow travelers in an unexpected, unwelcome journey toward a destination no one could foresee.
The participants embarked upon this trip with different advantages, derived from their distinctive social locations. Naturally, the elite went first-class, empowered by wealth, office, and culture to impress its claims upon the recalcitrant passengers crowded into the steerage. However sympathetically we may see the different parties in Shays’s Rebellion, the fact remains that in Massachusetts, a new republican elite did consolidate power, and the backcountry protests against the advancing modern, capitalist order were silenced for a generation. Admittedly, the governing class was not entirely united, before or after the decision to end the disorders, and the new legislature, elected in the “revolution of 1787,” was prepared to conciliate the disaffected, though it declined to issue paper money or to offer more than temporary relief from taxes and debts. It is equally the case that many in the backcountry—farmers profiting on wartime markets, consumers eager for fashionable goods, local politicians ambitious to shine on a larger stage—had readily entered into the economy and politics of the wider world.
Notwithstanding these concessions, the outcome of the conflict was to impose new rules for political and economic action upon all the inhabitants of the state. Although Massachusetts had hardly moved toward laissez-faire, it would sustain the legal structure of capitalism against populist attacks. And it would insist upon conformity to the Constitution of 1780. In later years, politicians and scholars alike might hail the opportunities of the new order—the liberty of trade in the market, the right to vote in the state—as central to the liberal tradition. But the republican regime of Massachusetts closely circumscribed the freedoms it meant to protect. Dragged as well as drawn into the marketplace, coerced as well as induced into the Commonwealth, ordinary people were obliged to comply with terms to which they had never agreed—or be utterly without influence in the larger world. In the construction of the republican citizen, the people of the backcountry were forced to be free.17