THE FEDERALIST REACTION TO SHAYS’S REBELLION
Stephen E. Patterson
From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conference on Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution, 1986, sponsored by Historic Deerfield, Inc.
Early in this century, Massachusetts judge Jonathan Smith wisely remarked to his fellow amateur historians at the Clinton Historical Society that their understanding of Shays’s Rebellion was laden with bias. For over a century, he said, the story had been told by men who had no sympathy with rebellious farmers. They were conservatives who had taken part in suppression of the rebellion or who, subsequently in the nineteenth century, were never able to rise above the limitations of the original conservative analysis. What was needed, he concluded—quite disingenuously—was an impartial examination of both sides.
Yet before this reasonable entreaty had scarcely passed his lips, Smith went on to propose that the first and presumably chief cause of the rebellion was “the absence of a strong national government, commanding the confidence and the obedience of the people.” With the best will in the world, he obviously could not escape from the Federalist frame of reference: the structure of government under the Confederation was the problem. Congress and the states had issued “worthless and hopelessly irredeemable paper currency,” and the economy was in a shambles characterized by a ruined commerce and “the crushing burdens of public and private indebtedness.”1
What Smith illustrated, even better than he knew, was the very considerable difficulty in separating Shays’s Rebellion from the Federalist analysis of it. This Federalist analysis merits examination. Granted, it tells us more about the men who suppressed the Shaysites than about the Shaysites themselves. But on the other hand, there are important questions about the Shaysites that can never really be abstracted from the perceptions of their opponents. Were the Shaysites a serious threat to the government and constitution of Massachusetts? Was the rebellion a significant cause of the movement for a federal constitution? Massachusetts Federalists thought so. In fact, many of them agreed with Henry Knox, who later said that the Massachusetts Antifederalists were all Shaysites; in his mind the rebellion, the subsequent Philadelphia convention, and the ratification struggle were of a piece, one long continuous story. This view is what Judge Smith confronted ninety or so years ago. The mistake he made was in assuming he could get a clear picture of a farmer uprising through this Federalist lens. He would have done better to settle for the interesting reflected image of the Federalists themselves.
To get at the farmers’ side, Smith should have focused on the changing scene in the rural west, noting that the American Revolutionary War had made western Massachusetts a much different place from what it had once been. From 1775 to 1780 farmers had a tremendous opportunity to sell their surplus production to feed the Continental army. Men who had once been subsistence farmers were encouraged to grow vegetables, grain, and livestock for commercial purposes and with the cash they received in return, even if it was paper, to invest in more agricultural land to expand production. Paper money was so plentiful down to 1780 that even those who might still be called subsistence farmers got used to having cash to pay taxes and to buy consumer items. The demand for French and West Indian imports was intense.2
The period after 1780 was not nearly so good for farmers. The vigorous deflationary program of the commercially dominated legislature drastically reduced the available money supply. The state began to exercise a much stronger centralizing pull on the lives of its people through commercial regulation, high taxes, and an energized court system.3 The legal system became an omnipresent factor in the lives of rural people, given the almost phenomenal increase of lawyers—from thirty-four in 1780, according to one source, to a total of ninety-two in 1785—many of whom took up residence in the rural towns of the interior.4 And other vocational pursuits opened up, such as in Springfield, where the federal arsenal continued to employ artisans after the war. Newspapers in Worcester, Springfield, and, by 1786, Northampton brought news of the world westward. Perhaps more important, the newspapers kept alive people’s perceived need for cash by advertising commercial wares available at retail stores in market towns. In a tangible way, the war and postwar experiences of western farmers substantially changed their values and their expectations.5 If only gradually and incompletely, rural people began moving away from the static and timeless patterns of traditional culture. In the search for causes, surely any objective historical interpretation of Shays’s Rebellion would want to take account of this transformation.
In political terms, this change was observable in the dramatic increase in interest and participation of small rural towns in the legislature of the state. Here the elected representatives of hundreds of small farmers—often farmers themselves whose attendance at the General Court in Boston had to be fitted around the tilling, planting, and harvesting—adopted positions that reflected the concerns of their constituents. They favored paper currency and resisted when an eastern majority voted to end the legal tender provision of the state paper still in circulation after 1780. They sided with thousands of veterans in their demands that vouchers, given them during the war instead of pay, be accepted in payment of state taxes. They resisted impost and excise taxes that fell heavily on consumers, and they balked at the notion of a half-pay settlement with Continental officers when nothing had yet been done for the rank-and-file veterans. In House votes, they usually lost; but they were close enough in some votes to frighten the conservative majority, and along with the odd victory, they convinced their opponents that they represented a serious threat to the commercial and propertied interests of the state.6
It was these commercial and propertied interests which, of course, produced the Federalists in Massachusetts.7 They enjoyed enormous advantages in the factional contests that took place in the legislature during the 1780s. They came from the larger towns of the state, they were better educated, they found it easier to attend the General Court and to remain through summer sessions, and they enjoyed the support of the newspapers, the courts, and the political system in general. When they occasionally lost votes in the House, they counted on the Senate to represent property, and they were not disappointed. But whatever their advantages, they rarely felt comfortably in command and anxiously observed the spreading populist tide. The extralegislative political activity of farmers fed their anxiety. During the Revolution, rural towns began organizing county conventions to state their grievances and to concert their political actions.8 In 1782 an angry crowd of rural debtors attempted to disrupt the court in Northampton, and the old Revolutionary leader Joseph Hawley warned that law-abiding westerners were considering going over to the “mob” unless there was prompt legislative action to solve agrarian grievances.9 By 1784 conventions in rural counties were commonplace, and conservative critics were condemning them as threats to property and a danger to the constitution of the state.10 The divisions of Shays’s Rebellion, in other words, were in evidence long before the insurrection broke out in 1786.
Thus, when Federalists came to write about the rebellion, they saw its causes in the political discord of the previous several years. They viewed the Shaysites as one and the same with the large number of inland farmers with whom they had been arguing for most of the 1780s: mad, distracted husbandmen who wanted to cheat their creditors with worthless paper money and who had no understanding of how a state must protect the property of its citizens by maintaining a stable monetary and financial system. Moreover, the Federalist analysis suggested that the insurrection had its roots in anarchic or democratic ideas—the two were interchangeable—all of which were let loose at dangerous and unconstitutional county conventions. They claimed that farmers were “ignorant” and easily manipulated by unscrupulous “gentlemen.” When the Federalist George Richards Minot summed up this analysis in his History of the Insurrections, published in Worcester in 1788, he claimed that the society which produced the rebellion was characterized by what he called “a distinction of interests” at the root of which, as he interpreted it, lay a natural propensity for man to behave as his social and economic condition dictated. Sounding very much like the James Madison of Federalist No. 10, Minot suggested that the clash of interests was an inevitable feature of civil society. “These classes of people,” he said of creditors or “men of property,” “will ever be opposed by debtors and persons otherwise interested against them.” Only the state and its constitution could stand between them and protect the few against the many.11
Without subscribing to the social biases of the Federalists, one can agree that it makes sense to look for the causes of Shays’s Rebellion in the political turmoil of the 1780s. But if the political clashes of the decade explain the insurrection, did the insurrection cause the Federalist movement? Historians have reasonably seen a connection, arguing that the social threat posed by the Shaysites drove conservative merchants and other men of wealth to seek refuge in a stronger central government, capable of providing the security and financial stability they perceived to be lacking at the state level.12 The public claims of Federalists at the time seem to lend weight to the theory, for mixed into their “interest-based” analysis of the causes of rebellion, they frequently added their certainty that only a strong national government could prevent such uprisings in the future.13 Such assertions suggest that Shays’s Rebellion was one cause among many leading to the calling of the federal convention and the writing of a new constitution, yet the pertinent fact about Massachusetts is that political battle lines had already been drawn before the insurrection ever broke out. Well before 1786 many conservatives, including most of Boston’s merchants and traders, had already turned their back on the state and set their sights on the creation of a strong national government. For them, Shays’s Rebellion tended not to shape or alter their outlook on the world so much as it simply confirmed them in their beliefs.
There was, however, yet another “cause” of Shays’s Rebellion frequently mentioned by pseudonymous Federalist newspaper writers in 1786 and 1787, which showed that they feared not only an internal enemy but also an external one. This was the fairly widespread Federalist or proto-Federalist notion that the British were behind Shays, that the insurrection was an attempt to undo the American Revolution and discredit the new nation.14 Here lies a clue to the origins of organized Federalism in Massachusetts. On the face of it, a Federalist suspicion of the British does not seem in character given what we know of the later Federalist party preference for things British. Nor does it seem to square with the past of many Massachusetts merchants who became Federalists. Various studies have shown that Boston merchants were deeply divided by Revolutionary events, and many, perhaps even a majority of them, if not always in agreement with British measures of the 1760s and early ’70s, accepted the Patriot cause most reluctantly: they had resisted commercial boycotts of British manufactures at the time of the Stamp and Townshend acts and again after the tea crisis, and by June 1774 they had openly split with the more radical Revolutionary leaders.15 Even many who were not openly Tory resisted Independence and, once it had been declared, adopted moderate if not conservative positions on most political and constitutional issues. Moreover, both during the war and after, merchants and their conservative allies resisted all attempts to deprive known Tories of their properties and rights and were poised at war’s end to welcome Tories back into their midst.16 In fact, Timothy Pickering of Essex County went so far as to claim that the country would be better off if some of the Patriots could be shipped out in exchange for some of the Tory refugees.17
This seemingly pro-British attitude, moreover, appeared to fit with the commercial expectations of Massachusetts merchants at war’s end. Even before hostilities were formally concluded, merchants were looking optimistically to a future in which they would revive their trade with Britain and the West Indies, reestablish credit connections, and restock their shelves with the latest in British fashions and conveniences. Some even decided to go off to England themselves to conduct their own personal diplomacy and to select new stock.18
It did not take long, however, for optimism to give way to frustration and anger. British houses were willing enough to ship goods to America and to do so on credit, but the prospects looked good enough also to send dozens of British factors over to collect debts, as the peace treaty permitted, and also to carry on their own direct trade with inland shopkeepers and others on the wholesale market. Boston merchants blamed the British factors for their unfair intrusion, and the first postwar feeling of hostility began to develop.19 Merchants are competitive by nature, however, and they recognized that there were things they could do to hold on to their fair share of the import trade. First and foremost, they could expand their domestic market far beyond its limited prewar size. They could aim to do more than satiate the pent-up demand of their former customers by making consumers of people who had heretofore perhaps only nibbled at the fringe of the consumer market. This they hoped to accomplish by stimulating demand among farmers in the rural interior; the means to this end was weekly newspaper advertisements which offered every conceivable article of British manufacture on such generous terms as to convince almost any reader that such items were affordable. At hand to help were not only the several newspapers in Boston but also the more recently established weeklies in Worcester and Springfield, eager to spread the gospel of consumerism for a small advertising fee.
There was nothing new about advertisements in American newspapers; what we must recognize are the new marketing techniques of the 1780s and the powerful transformation they wrought on rural values. The British historian Neil McKendrick has written brilliantly about the commercialization of eighteenth-century England and what he correctly calls The Birth of a Consumer Society.20 It is easy to see that the same techniques that were rapidly expanding consumerism into provincial England were used by American merchants in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and with tremendous impact in the immediate postwar period. The trick was not simply to stimulate people’s appetite for more or to convince people that what were once considered luxuries were now necessities or, at the least, decencies, although these, too, were essential ingredients in the sales pitch. What was strikingly new was the trader’s concern to put himself in the buyer’s shoes and to explain how one could actually afford to pay for these things.
The short-lived first approach was to sell “very cheap for cash.” But by the spring of 1784, tantalizing lists of imported goods were being offered in exchange for “furs, bees-wax, old pewter, and all kinds of grain [which] will be received as cash.” Ebenezer Storer would sell for “cash, continental Loan certificates, Massachusetts state notes, or Good Pot-Ash” at his store in Union Street, Boston. Shopkeepers White and Clap of Rutland would give both cash and goods for pot and pearl ashes, but they were also looking for “salts, furs, Massachusetts state securities, continental certificates, and New York new emission money.” It was only in late summer 1784 that traders began to admit openly in their ads that the buyer did not need money or goods at all. William Moore warned that all of his fellow traders were advertising goods on credit “at the lowest terms”; he urged his “impartial Customers” to compare before they bought and “to call and judge for themselves.”
Since money was no object, who could resist reading the long lists of goods that now made up the typical advertisement? The variety in some was mind-boggling. Where once merchants had simply offered English dry goods as their stock in trade, now they followed the lead of such Boston importers as S. and S. Salisbury, whose itemized lists had something for everyone, but especially for women: “broad cloths, plains, serges, rateens, frizes, flannels, shalloons, tammies, poplins, crapes, quality bindings, variety of knee straps, men’s worsted and cotton caps, corduroys, milliner’s needles, Sattins, modes, calicoes, Irish linens, Cambricks, Lawns, Dutch Lace, Catgut, Silk handerchiefs, Muffs and Tippets, Bonnet Paper, Italian Sprigs, Ribbons, Fans, Silk thread and Cotton ditto, Silk and Cotton jacket patterns, Jacket buttons, blankets, Diapers, Sheetings, etc.” Add to this the hardwares: “window glass, nails, shot, powder, smith’s anvils and vices, mill saws, steel and iron plate hand saws, holsters and pocket pistols, coffee mills, wool cards, fox and rat traps, shovels, an elegant assortment of looking glasses, frying pans, chafing dishes, bellows, best London pewter, flat irons, knives and forks, an assortment of brass handles and escutcheons, hinges, locks, English glue, white lead, red lead.” And if the reader was not already hooked, there were “West India goods, groceries, crockery ware, bibles, psalters, primers, writing paper, and a large assortment of Tin Ware.”21 Life would never be the same again.
What was happening was that Massachusetts merchants were attempting to expand their home market by transforming tastes and by drawing new consumers into the retail market. We have no direct knowledge of the extent to which they succeeded with the participants in Shays’s Rebellion, although it might be possible to find sufficient estate inventories in the probate records to show that Shaysites included English manufactures among their valued possessions. What we do know, of course, is that whatever they were buying, Shaysites became heavily indebted and a substantial percentage of them ended up in court because they were unable to meet their obligations.22 One way or another, these men who may have started life as subsistence farmers had, by this time, left the simple imperatives of subsistence behind them; their tastes were changing, their perceived needs were growing, they willingly risked indebtedness to expand their store of material possessions, and they now needed cash or a cash substitute to pay their debts and their taxes and perhaps also to maintain their new life-styles. Merchants would later claim that farmers bought luxuries they could not afford, but the fact is that merchants used advertising to blur the distinction between luxuries and necessities.
The newspaper advertisements, however, chart both the rise and the fall of the consumer boom. By the fall of 1784, notices of a new kind were beginning to appear. They were placed by brokers eager to buy and sell the bewildering array of paper still around at a time when hard money was fast disappearing. Joseph Ward of Boston dealt in “state notes, Continental certificates, Treasurers orders, New Emission money, and every other kind of State and Continental Securities.” John Cunningham, Jr., of Boston wanted “New York and this State New Emission money, State notes payable in the next Tax, Orders from this State Treasurer, payable in Tax No. 2 and 3, and all other kinds of Publick securities.” Even the postrider between Worcester and Concord, New Hampshire, carried on a paper exchange on the side and advertised for “New York Emission money and Consolidated State Notes.”23 Money men were beginning to hedge and to hoard.
By 1785, when British credit had completely dried up and cash was as scarce in the city as in the country, merchants abandoned their effort to expand the domestic market for British manufactures, turned their backs on the problems of indebted farmers, and embarked upon a single-minded course to solve their commercial difficulties. If they could do nothing further to expand the domestic market or the demand side, then they must reduce the number of suppliers to bring the two sides of the equation back into balance. Some merchants knew that they simply were best off to get out of the business. The firm of J. and J. Amory, which ideally fits the earlier description of reluctant Revolutionaries who hoped to revive the British commercial connection, announced firmly in 1785 that it was closing out its trade in British goods and would sell off its supply at cost or even below cost.24 But a substantial number of other merchants believed that the best solution was to eliminate the competition of the British factors.25
In mid-April 1785 Boston merchants and traders crowded into the long room of Colonel John Marston to “consider what discouragement should be given to the British Factors, who were residing here and monopolizing to themselves the benefits of commerce.” Tempers were short. Even the once radical Boston Gazette observed of the meeting that “in every collection of men where the redress of any grievance is the object, there are some whose passions out run their reason.” At an adjournment at Faneuil Hall, however, cooler heads urged the adoption of resolutions pledging not to purchase goods from British merchants, factors, or agents, nor to let or sell them warehouses, shops, houses, or ships. Moreover, in their anger they were willing to “encourage the manufacture & produce of this country,” a clear offer of political alliance with the artisans of the town. But most important was their determination to get congressional action: they wanted a federal regulation of trade, blocking British exploitation of the American market and reserving it to Americans. To this end they instructed their committee to write to merchants everywhere in the nation “recommending to them an immediate application to the legislatures of their respective states, to vest such powers in Congress (if not already done) as shall be competent to the interesting purposes aforesaid, and also to petition Congress to make such regulations as shall have the desired effect.”26
Boston’s merchants commited themselves to what they called “federal policy,” which was in effect an American mercantilism. Congress must be given the power to regulate trade. And with a blind eye and a deaf ear to farmers calling for paper money or cash substitutes, they went about building a political alliance that could accomplish their purpose. Their April offer to cut off British trade and encourage American manufactures immediately attracted the support of a number of Boston’s tradesmen and artisans. The latter organized a committee of their own and then exchanged letters with the merchant committee in which they celebrated their newfound unity and unanimity.27 Within weeks merchants and artisans together opened a lobbying campaign to win over the new governor, Bowdoin, and the legislature to their proposition that a convention of all the states must be called to revise the Confederation by vesting it with the power to regulate trade.28 When the legislature responded with a favorable resolution, Nathan Dane explained to Rufus King off in Congress that the “mercantile interest,” as he called it, knew exactly what it wanted and had got its way.29 What he might have added is that the organization of this mercantile interest, or coalition of merchants and manufacturers, represented a new plateau in the development of nationalist sentiment in Massachusetts. Where before there had been legislative and limited public support for granting an impost to Congress, to create a national revenue, there was now an organized Federalist movement in Massachusetts commited to political action and to popularizing its approach in the press.30 Its rallying cry for the next two years was the need to create a national commercial policy. Writers like “Americanus,” writing in Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy, spread the gospel, urging even the farmers to believe that the shortage of cash was not the fundamental problem. Americans would one day be a wealthy people, and they must hasten that day by “encouraging manufactures, discouraging the importation of superfluities, but especially by instructing our constitutional guardians to unite our commercial interest, by committing it to the care of the grand council of these states. Under the direction of that august body,” he concluded confidently, “our trade will soon be wisely regulated, and our manufactures will encrease.”31
The frustrated attempt to restore the British import trade was an important factor in creating the Federalist movement in Massachusetts, but it was not the only factor, nor even the only commercial factor. Eighteenth-century Massachusetts merchants were a diversified lot, as much so after the Revolutionary War as before. Many eagerly sought to return to the British West Indies with fish and lumber to exchange for sugar and molasses. Besides looking to the revival of British trade links, others with equal optimism looked outside the traditional patterns of imperial trade to new opportunities afforded by Independence: Some expected to profit from the carrying trade, especially in the southern states. They looked to new markets for American staples in France, Holland, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe. Merchants of Hingham and Salem eagerly planned risky voyages to China, hoping to be the first to open that potentially lucrative trade for the United States.32 Meanwhile, American diplomats were ordered by Congress to help facilitate the economic development of the new nation by seeking most-favored-nation commercial treaties with European powers.
Yet by 1785, almost all of these endeavors were meeting with frustration. Within a year of the peace treaty, Britain closed its West Indies to American merchants in order to favor merchants in its loyal colonies north of the United States. America’s ally, France, seemed suddenly to become jealous of reviving American trade and especially resented New England’s exploitation of the Atlantic fisheries and the fish trade with the Caribbean. Spain and Portugal were reluctant to grant the United States most-favored-nation status, while the American envoys sent to arrange such treaties in several European countries lamented their lack of negotiating leverage. Merchants looking to the Mediterranean soon backed off because of the risks of seizure by Barbary pirates, while congressmen expressed frustration at their total inability to do anything about it.33 Moreover, within Congress, the sectional interests of New England and the southern states clashed over whether the treaty with Spain should allow trade with the American west through the mouth of the Mississippi.34 The New Englanders bitterly opposed this, perhaps, as southerners said, because they did not want to see development of the interior and a trade they could not control. And finally, New Englanders discovered to their dismay that their own countrymen in the southern states were unwilling to give Yankee merchants any privileges whatever in the carrying trade. Southerners liked free trade: whoever offered them the best deal, regardless of nationality, could carry their staples to European markets.35
There had been times during the American Revolution when New England merchants had also sounded like free traders, or at least they longed for the removal of the many British restrictions of the 1760s.36 But an important aspect of their change of mind in the 1780s was their growing conviction—shared by both merchants and artisans—that free trade was not in their economic interest. Southerners maintained an interest in free trade because they had a ready staple for export and were convinced that free trade would give them the best deal with respect to freight, export prices, and import prices. They accepted the most-favored-nation approach to commercial treaties with foreign countries. But northern merchants, recognizing that free trade gave privileges to their foreign competitors—especially the British—were turning to protection through trade regulations, especially the mercantilist idea of confining the nation’s trade to ships of the nation.
Even as late as the fall of 1785, however, the Federalist movement in Massachusetts was still largely confined to the alliance of merchants and artisans; many of the state’s leading politicians feared what might happen were there to be a convention for the complete overhaul of the Articles of Confederation. They were agreed that Congress must have an independent revenue such as would be provided by a 5 percent impost, and they saw merit in a uniform regulation of trade. But these must be accomplished piecemeal by amendment, and national trade regulation, at least, should be limited to a fifteen-year period, after which the states could resume their regulatory powers if they so chose.37 Rufus King was firmly convinced that a tight regulatory power exercised by Congress was the only answer, but he recognized that the issue would split the states into North and South.38 Others who were soon to make their reputations as leading Federalists, such as Theodore Sedgwick, Caleb Strong, and Nathan Dane, tended to believe that caution was essential and that the merchants demanding a constitutional convention were acting only out of self-interest. Their caution is to be explained, in part, as a persistence of the New England suspicion of Robert Morris and the other Philadelphia-centered nationalists who had dominated Congress in the early 1780s. A wholesale revision of the Articles, they feared, could produce a significant power shift to the wrong kind of men.
But a series of developments in early 1786 brought them, too, into the growing Federalist coalition. Many of these men were lawyers. During the four months or so before spring elections in 1786, Massachusetts newspapers were filled with letters denouncing lawyers as parasites on poor debt-ridden farmers, gougers whose exorbitant fees should be reduced and regulated by law, and a budding group of aristocrats growing rich on the suffering of others. Spokesmen for debtors argued that small claims should be dealt with summarily without lawyers or that honest men might represent themselves in court. Others insisted that, since so many cases went to appeal, the lower courts should be abolished as an unnecessary additional expense. The more radical even insisted that the profession of law should be abolished along with the remnants of English common law by which lawyers practiced their sophistry.39 The opportunity was ready-made for Federalist merchants to espouse the cause of their legal brethren and draw them into their conservative analysis of events. Significantly, before the election for representatives took place in Boston, a writer calling himself “A Barber” proposed that Boston would be best served in the legislature by two merchants, two lawyers, two tradesmen, and one other. The “two good lawyers” were needed, the “Barber” argued, “to outtalk the countrymen.”40 There was a natural congruity of interests that had brought merchants and lawyers together before; by the summer of 1786, lawyers were sounding much friendlier toward the merchants’ plea for a strengthened federal system.41
All of this shows us that the Federalist movement was growing incrementally: from a core of merchants the movement expanded outward, absorbing the interests of artisans and lawyers and—although the story cannot be developed completely here—of bankers and financiers, of holders of public securities, and of army officers. But despite its dynamic growth, the Federalist movement in Massachusetts lacked the essential backing of a clear-minded majority of the voters of the state determined to rectify the shortcomings in the Articles of Confederation by establishing a strong, regulatory national government. The reluctance of some Massachusetts Federalists to send delegates off to James Madison’s Annapolis convention to discuss trade regulation must also indicate that many were not yet convinced that there was anything like a sufficient body of opinion in America sympathetic to wholesale revision of the Articles.42 Moreover there was the growing conviction among some leading men in the state—a conviction amounting almost to paranoia—that antagonism to national commercial regulation was concentrated in the southern states and that the achievement of a truly consolidated national government could come about only after the South was eliminated from the Union.43 Secretive talk about dismembering the nation surely indicated the depths of their desperation. What they needed, if we may interpret the state of affairs in the fall of 1786, was a dramatic demonstration of the need for a stronger national government, something that would galvanize public sentiment in favor of immediate political action, something with a broader appeal than commercial policy.44 Enter Shays’s Rebellion.
The scattered county conventions and armed actions against the courts of law in 1786 provided the Federalists with exactly what they wanted, although events needed interpretation and perhaps even “improvement.” The protest was widespread, but it was also disorganized, unconcerted, mostly verbal, and largely nonrebellious. Daniel Shays and his followers gave the protest its short-lived violent edge, yet the governor’s ablest informers correctly assessed the demands as modest and the threat as lacking in broad-based support.45 But whatever the inadequacies of the protest movement, shrill hyperbole filled the eastern newspapers expressing exaggerated fears of imminent invasion by barbaric hordes of ignorant farmers.46 Boston raised new military regiments including an expensive artillery unit. Elaborate signals were worked out as part of a defensive strategy to protect the town from the thousands of rebels who were daily expected to descend on neighboring Cambridge. And eventually thousands of dollars were voluntarily collected from Boston merchants to pay for Benjamin Lincoln’s army. Nervous easterners classified all rural protest, whether armed and violent or passive and verbal, as insurrectionary; the farmers’ demands for paper money and other things anathema to conservatives were rolled together with the armed action of defiant Shaysites as evidence of widespread rebellion. By any measure, Federalists overreacted. They inflated the seriousness of the threat, and at least some of their exaggeration must have had a conscious purpose. For in their public utterances, they rarely missed the chance to explain with direct simplicity their conviction that this rebellion was occurring because the United States lacked a national government capable of regulating trade and rationalizing the public debt. It was a political analysis that repeated the articles of faith in what by now was a Federalist creed.
The polemical character of the Federalist analysis, however, was best typified by the now frequent claim that the regulation was more than a farmer uprising: British agents were at work attempting to undo the Revolution and destroy the republic. Did Federalists believe this, or were they simply interpolating into their analysis of the uprising their own frustrations and changes of heart? There had, after all, been British agents, but they were commercial agents or factors who had, so it was believed, ruined the import trade for the indigenous commercial community. Even as late as the spring of 1786, Federalist newspaper writers were tracing all of Massachusetts’s problems, both the “public poverty” and the “general discontent,” to the inability of Congress to regulate trade on the one hand and the British menace in their midst on the other.47 Federalists simply rolled this interpretation into their analysis of the insurrection. Perhaps for some Federalists who had been reluctant Revolutionaries, soft on independence, or forgiving of Tories, this was a chance to get right with history: they now were ready to condemn Britain and wrap themselves in the flag if that could aid their pursuit of a strong national government. Whatever their motivations, there can be no doubting their frustration over the postwar failure to renew profitable economic ties with Britain.
Shays’s Rebellion, at least to certain leading men, was less a cause of Federalism than it was an opportunity to expand and popularize it. Stephen Higginson, himself a recent convert to the nationalist solution, seemed almost delighted with the turn of events in the fall of 1786. Just at a time when he had given up on the General Court as reasoned directors of public affairs, “some new event turns up to avert the evil & show us the necessity of abridging the power of the states.” The Shay site action he looked at as a godsend because of its impact on public opinion. “I never saw so great a change in the public mind on any occasion as has lately appeared in this state as to the expediency of increasing the powers of Congress, not merely to commercial objects but generally.” And with amazing perspicacity, he predicted that “by the next summer I expect we shall have been prepared for anything that is wise & fitting. Congress should be making the necessary arrangements for improving this disposition, when sufficiently increased, to right & valuable purposes. They must be prepared not only to support a proper force in the field, but to consolidate the several governments into one, general & efficient.”48 When Henry Knox wrote from the capital of the Confederation, he congratulated his friends as if both the rebellion and its suppression had been a Federalist accomplishment. “The energy of Massachusetts places it in an honorable point of view,” he said, adding with obvious enthusiasm, “the strongest arguments possible may be drawn from the events that have happened in that state in order to effect a strong general government.”49 In short, if Shays’s Rebellion had not occurred, the Federalists would have had to invent it.
At the least, Federalist leaders who had been searching for the way to convince fellow Americans of the need to create a strong central government astutely saw the potential in exploiting the rebellion. Their task was made easier, however, by the political culture in which they operated. In Massachusetts there already was a natural audience for the Federalist message among the population of the most commercial-cosmopolitan towns.50 Over a decade of legislative conflict with farmers over courts, paper money, taxation, and management of the public debt had sharpened the competitive attitudes of such people and accustomed them to analyzing events in terms of self-interest. For most of those who became rank-and-file Federalists, the threat of armed popular insurrection was by itself convincing proof of the need for drastic measures, and they quickly concluded where their own interest lay. It was “we” versus “they,” rich against poor, or creditor against debtor, just as George Minot said. Limited by their frame of reference, moreover, Federalists—leaders and followers alike—mistakenly attributed to rural protestors a similar level of solidarity on the basis of interest. The Federalist analysis of rural discontent shows that they neither understood the problems of western farmers nor sought to do so. They did not even see through a glass darkly. For them, Shays’s Rebellion symbolized their worst fears about the democratic element in their society, and beyond that it simply mirrored their anxieties: it reflected familiar images of a Massachusetts that had failed to develop economic self-reliance, was unlikely to produce an agricultural surplus for export, and the trade of which was in danger of slipping into the hands of British competitors unless a faltering state economy was absorbed at once into a national one. It was ironic that the Federalists—the new nation’s first political nationalists—included merchants who had once been tepid Patriots at best, many of whom at war’s end had with great anticipation invested in renewed British ties. Yet, whatever the ironies, merchants and their associates stood converted to the national cause by a series of events of which Shays’s Rebellion was only the last.