Political Cultures in Conflict
“THE FINE THEORETIC GOVERNMENT OF MASSACHUSETTS IS PROSTRATED TO THE EARTH”:
The Response to Shays’s Rebellion Reconsidered
From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conference on Shays’s Rebellion, 1986, sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
Few rebellions in history have been suppressed as effectively or with as little bloodshed as the Massachusetts farmers’ insurrection of 1786–87. Only three engagements of importance occurred, although the rebels waged a mild guerilla war against the supporters of government from late February to May 1787. Four insurgents died and a handful were wounded as a single round of cannon fire routed Daniel Shays’s makeshift army before the Springfield arsenal on January 25, 1787. Aside from weather-related casualties during one of the worst winters in Massachusetts history, no one on either side apparently suffered as government troops staggered into Shays’s headquarters in Petersham on February 4, chasing the surprised insurgents from their camp fires and breakfasts. A final six-minute skirmish at Stockbridge, “the severest” as contemporary historian George Richards Minot noted, produced three fatalities and three wounded among the Shaysites, one death and one other casualty among the forces of law and order. Massachusetts inflicted a small number of fines, whippings, temporary disfranchisements, and brief imprisonments before pardoning all rebels sentenced to death except for two involved in late plundering. The continent could then join the Commonwealth and Minot in rejoicing over “a dangerous internal war finally suppressed, by the spirited use of constitutional powers, without the shedding of blood by the evil magistrate.”1
During the nineteenth century the established order triumphed almost as completely in print and folklore as it had on the field of battle. Josiah Gilbert Holland’s 1855 History of Western Massachusetts spoke for a consensus that condemned the Shaysites’ “entire lack of moral power, their utter cowardice, their insolence and malice, their outrages and robberies.” Popular anecdotes mocked poor “fall back Shaise,” and “The Ballad of Daniel Shays” placed the blame for the revolt squarely in the jaws of Hell:
Within the state I lived, of late,
By Satan’s foul invention,
In Pluto’s cause, against their laws,
I raised an insurrection.2
In the twentieth century, however, supporters of the vanquished yeomen have successfully counterattacked and achieved a retrospective moral victory. Otis Hood, the Communist party’s candidate for governor of Massachusetts in 1936, has not stood alone in applauding Shays as “a pioneer in fighting against the tyranny of the moneyed class.” Speaking to the elite American Antiquarian Society in 1902, Charles Francis Adams compared the “intense hardship, not to say oppression,” suffered by “law-abiding New England farmers and landowners” with the labor agitation and “Debs business” of the 1890s: “The historical fact is that the conditions of the people then prevailing were almost unendurable, the laws barbaric, and the people had shown themselves long-suffering.” Even as scholarly conferences marked the rebellion’s two-hundredth anniversary, the Commonwealth circulated a film to libraries and schools in praise of the beleaguered, liberty-loving farmers.3
The rebellion’s most careful modern historians also echo the insurgents’ own claim, shouted as they paraded through the streets of Worcester, “calling to all who wished for a redress of grievances (the only object which had led them to arms) to join and follow.” In his still valuable 1905 dissertation, Joseph Warren stressed that the government’s countermeasures provoked the insurrection: “In self-defense the insurgents stopped the Supreme Court, attacked the Federal Arsenal at Springfield, and endeavored to form an organization among themselves. Then the government attacked them in force and the Rebellion was put down.” The uprising’s most thorough historian, Robert Feer, has argued that “conservatives accused the insurgents of wanting changes far more radical than anything which appears in their own writings.” Far from constituting a planned revolt, the county conventions and court closings that “sprang up from nowhere” in the summer of 1786 were “as devoid of centralized organization as any movement involving thousands of people could be.” In retrospect, “the whole affair had not been as serious as it had seemed in the excitement of the moment.” And while granting that “even the most vigorous anti-Shaysites were anxious, for the most part, to end the business as peacefully as possible,” Feer dismissed the Commonwealth’s efforts to appease them as “too little, too late.” More recently, Barbara Karsky and David Szatmary have juxtaposed the “persistent reformism” and “self-defense” of the “Regulators” with the “suppressive legislation” and “repression” of the authorities.4
Writings on the rebellion reconcile two usually opposed schools of historiography that converge in sympathetic solidarity with the revolting farmers. Conflict between indebted, overtaxed yeomen desiring populist reforms and a more prosperous, aristocratic, and commercial seacoast defined the issue for Progressive scholars such as Vernon Louis Parrington and Merrill Jensen, as it does for Karsky and Szatmary. Yet the insurgents’ reluctant resort to force following protracted misery and their carefully limited violence also conform to the early American crowds described by Pauline Maier, which “defended the urgent interests of their communities when the lawful authorities failed to act . . . only after the normal channels of redress had proven inadequate.” Gordon Wood, approvingly quoted by Szatmary, has explicitly placed the rebellion in a long tradition of crowds embodying united local sentiment. It required the uncharacteristic belligerence of a government which refused to accommodate the populace to distinguish it: “Shays’s Rebellion represented something of an anomaly, largely because the farmers of western Massachusetts, unlike other groups in the 1780s, found no release for their pent-up grievances in legislative actions but instead were forcibly resisted by the authorities.”5
Reevaluation of Shays’s Rebellion is needed. First, pro-Shays interpretations offer far too simple an explanation for the behavior of the insurgency’s opponents: if some of the Boston merchants may have cared only to maximize their wealth regardless of where the burden fell, the conduct of Samuel Adams, Artemas Ward, and the thousands of farmers who enlisted to suppress the revolt did not. Had the Sons of Liberty of ‘76 become the Tories of ‘86? Second, by neglecting to look carefully at the anti-Shaysites’ perceptions and motives, the historiography of the rebellion has stagnated in a moralistic quagmire where virtuous, democratic country farmers struggle for the soul of the nation with callous aristocratic merchants. The work of Cecilia Kenyon, John Riche, Gordon Wood, and others has moved the study of the United States Constitution beyond such simplistic dichotomies; so should an analysis of Shays’s Rebellion.6
This chapter argues four points. First, the Shay sites went well beyond the practices of Revolutionary crowds. An examination of the insurgents’ demands, behavior, and support demonstrates that they did not attempt, reluctantly and defensively, to correct grievances within the existing constitutional framework. From the very beginning they modeled their resistance on the Revolution itself and appropriated the symbols of a cause for which they had sacrificed but little—few Shaysites had served significantly in the war. Second, the rebels sought to supplant a social order based on republicanism and a communitarian vision of civic virtue with a minimal state government guaranteeing free pursuit of private and town interests. Third, the magistrates of eastern Massachusetts and their supporters believed they were mounting a last-ditch defense of the republican vision for which they had fought and which had already been repudiated by prodebtor, antinationalist state legislatures elsewhere. Finally, by responding to the rebellion with restraint, in seeking to reconcile grievances where possible, avoiding bloodshed, repudiating the punishments imposed by James Bowdoin and his administration, and conciliating the disaffected, the official response to Shays’s Rebellion offered an enduring lesson in the preservation of a republic. Through a restrained but firm defense of principle, Massachusetts in 1786–87 came up with republican remedies for popular rebellion and helped to secure the future of self-government in the new nation.
What did the shaysites want and how did they seek to accomplish their goals? They claimed their petitions of grievances, county conventions, and marches to close courts followed in Massachusetts’ long-standing tradition of protests against abusive authority. Further, they insisted they had no intention to “rebel” but only sought relief from insupportable burdens, borne for the most part by a loyal Revolutionary populace. But examination of the Shaysites’ specific demands, self-presentation as an armed force, and lists of identifiable rebels reveals instead that people who had done little for the Revolution forcibly sought to alter a Massachusetts constitution they had never accepted.
During the summer of 1786, inhabitants throughout the Bay State—including but by no means limited to the areas that rebelled—protested the government’s policies in three ways. In ascending order, towns petitioned for redress of grievances, communities sent representatives to county conventions to reinforce these demands, and armed crowds closed or threatened to close court sessions in five of the eight counties, apart from Maine, of mainland Massachusetts. While the conventions formally repudiated the crowds’ resort to force and all the conventioneers were not formally elected by their towns, the grievances voiced were fairly general. The convention of fifty Hampshire and Berkshire towns that met at Hatfield on August 22, for instance, after voting itself a constitutionally legal meeting, demanded the abolition of the state Senate, “the present mode of representation” (e.g., property qualifications for public office), and the courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions. It demanded that all government officials be elected annually by the legislature and have their salaries adjusted from year to year, which would end “unreasonable grants to some officers of the government.” Many petitions especially criticized the governor’s £1,100 stipend. Lawyers received vitriolic criticism, as did high taxation to liquidate the state debt. The General Court’s location in Boston, which was difficult for westerners to reach, expensive to live in, and too full of money-making distractions and anti-rural lobbying, also came under attack. The convention called for “a bank of paper money subject to a depreciation” to remedy “the want of a sufficient medium” and demanded that the recessed General Court be summoned immediately to consider these matters. Aside from recommending the end of imprisonment for debt—“that abominable pagan practice” as one Shaysite wrote—and abolishing the Commonwealth’s attorney general, the Hatfield convention’s twenty-one demands encapsulated the general complaints on the eve of the rebellion.7
Further, before they marched on the government arsenal in late January, Shays and his men insisted their purpose in convening and arming was limited. “I had no intention to destroy the government but to have the courts suspended to prevent such abuses as have late taken place,” Adam Wheeler, one of the four leaders not included in a general offer of indemnity, insisted. Just before the battle at Springfield, Shays himself replied to a government colonel’s argument that “I am here to defend the country you are endeavoring to destroy” by stating, “If you are in defense of the country, we are both defending the same cause.” Several days earlier, during an interview in which he vowed to plunder and destroy that “nest of devils” (Boston), Shays nevertheless maintained that “his ideas never extended so far as to think” of overthrowing the constitution, and he “knew no more what government to set up than he knew the dimensions of eternity.” Even his opponents, on the rare occasions they distinguished the insurgents’ motives from the implications of their actions, agreed: “I do not consider the present disturbances as systematically conducted to any determinate object but such is the restless spirit of the country at present that I am convinced their discontents may easily be increased to open resistance to our present government,” Samuel Holden Parsons informed Benjamin Lincoln in September.8
But as Peter Shaw has noted regarding crowds during the American Revolution, “observers reacted not so much to the destruction of property and the physical intimidation of a few individuals . . . as to the ritual violence of the protests.” Hanging and burning effigies that equated British officials with the pope and the devil—a device the Shaysites applied to Bowdoin on at least one occasion—appeared to brand the status quo as evil incarnate and proclaim a rebellion. Similarly, the 1786 rebels’ actions belied their disclaimers. The insurgents had indeed traveled great lengths. They assembled in convention—which in Massachusetts indicated a belief that legitimate government had defaulted or needed reconstruction—sought to restructure the entire state administration, and presented themselves from the first not as a peaceable crowd of aggrieved citizens but a “new modelled” revolutionary army. Shays’s Rebellion was a revolution against the Revolution.9
A Massachusetts convention denoted a state of nature which required the people to govern themselves outside established institutions or to re-create them. The Provincial Congress of 1774–75 set up a provisional government when the royal governor dissolved the legislature. The conventions of 1782 had in fact prefaced Samuel Ely’s “rebellion.” That of 1780 drafted a new constitution. Two conventions in 1784 had quickly and quietly adjourned after presenting their protests. But in the summer of 1786, Bristol, Worcester, Hampshire and Berkshire, and Middlesex counties all held conventions that continued to sit by adjournment throughout the autumn and winter while the rebels shut down much of the provincial government. The conventions therefore resembled an ongoing imperio in imperium, “a possible basis for a revolutionary government which the insurgents may well have wished to control,” as historian Joseph Warren put it.10
Furthermore, the conventions’ demands did not simply ask that debtors be relieved, taxes reduced, or paper money printed. They struck at the constitution itself. Abolishing the Senate and making the governor totally dependent on the lower house’s whim for his salary would have achieved the unicameralism of Pennsylvania and Vermont. If they also succeeded in eliminating the county courts, the only level of state administration between the Supreme Judicial Court and the local sheriffs and justices of the peace, the Shaysites would have reduced government to the towns and their representatives. And while the adoption of paper money and the restructuring of debts and taxes by no means foretold the “desiring to abolish all public and private debts, and to have a general division of property” which conservatives feared, these reforms would have significantly transformed the Bay State’s economic and political life.11 Nearly every other new state had concentrated power in the hands of a democratized lower house and introduced a depreciated currency. Massachusetts, the Shaysites were suggesting, ought to get into line.12
Moreover, the Shaysites did not act like a prerevolutionary crowd protesting grievances. From the first they behaved like an army, as Governor Bowdoin emphasized in his proclamation, charging them with assembling “with guns, swords, and other deadly weapons and with drums beating and fifes playing.” The government perceived protest as rebellion because the insurgents appeared as a military force. They also threatened violence beginning in September 1786 by pointing bayonets at Worcester County chief judge Artemas Ward, promising at Concord that “every person who did not . . . join the regulators in two hours should be driven out of town,” and in one instance (Aaron Broad’s) promising “to fight and spill my blood and leave my bones at the court house until the Resurrection.”13
The rebels presented themselves as a genuine army in yet other ways. As early as September 24, they were formally enlisting men at militia musters “to break up the Supreme Court.” On October 13 they summoned men “well armed and well equipped with sixty rounds” each to prepare “to turn out at a minute’s notice,” consciously imitating the minutemen of a decade earlier.
Perhaps the insurgents’ most blatant assumption of the mantle of the Revolutionary army occurred in the placement of green boughs in their hats, which they sported as early as September 27. Such sprigs held a symbolic importance: the Continental army had donned them on special festive occasions such as the Fourth of July and victory parades. In contrast, government troops wore pieces of white paper. One could argue the boughs symbolized the “State of Nature” into which men unprotected by a cruel government were thrust, just as paper could stand for the laws and constitution the militia defended. Henry Van Schaack of Stockbridge “did not think it sage or prudent to decorate” his hat with the white paper in February, but his fellow citizens wore the twigs, pinned white paper to their backs to mock the government emblem, and “declared themselves to have no more idea of submitting to government than the wild savages.” As late as April, “sundry persons” remained “very insolent” and kept “the badge of Rebellion in their hats.”14
By adopting the green bough as their distinguishing mark, the rebels symbolically reconstituted themselves as the Continental army, claiming to continue the good fight they had begun in the Revolution. Was this boast accurate? Not only the rebels but even their opponents sometimes remarked that the insurgents did in fact include former members of Washington’s regiments. Speaking to Park Holland after the skirmish at Springfield, General William Shepherd remarked “that at no time in his life was he ever called upon to perform so painful a duty, as when he ordered good aim to be taken at Shays and his men, many of whom had fought at his side and stood firm through the most trying scenes of the war.”15
Daniel Shays and his first commanding officer, Reuben Dickinson of Amherst, illustrate Shepherd’s interpretation. Born in Hopkinton of poor parents, Shays rose to local prominence as a farmer in his new home of Pelham, served as a lieutenant and then a captain in the Continental line, loaned money to the government, and received a sword for gallant service from the marquis de Lafayette. His opponents reviled him for selling it; but if he did, one can well imagine the financial distress, regret, anger, or disgust that must have driven him to such a step. Dickinson, an Amherst selectman who raised ten children besides serving as a Continental officer through much of the war, found his estate reduced from 160 acres in 1780 to 50 in 1785. Shortly after the rebellion, lawsuits forced him to sell the rest of his land, and he moved to Thetford, Vermont. The three others listed with Shays as the rebellion’s “principal abettors”—Adam Wheeler of Hubbardston, Luke Day of West Springfield, and Eli Parsons of Adams—had all served as Continental officers, although Wheeler was “reported deranged” in 1778.16
Nevertheless, what evidence can be gleaned from comparing lists of Shaysites and those of the volunteers against them who had army records comes close to supporting Henry Lee’s exaggerated claim that “the late officers and soldiers are on the side of government unanimously.” A sample of 327 rebels examined by David Szatmary revealed that only about 31 percent had participated in the war at all, a mere “few” in the Continental army. My own investigation of several sets of protestors also demonstrates few insurgents with significant service. To be sure, it is difficult to trace large numbers of Massachusetts soldiers perfectly because of name duplication, omissions in the lists, and the westward movement of men away from the towns from which they enlisted. Massachusetts added no fewer than fifty-seven new towns to its number during the Revolutionary era. Setting to one side those with common names and known youths for whom no fairly probable military service could be traced, the vast majority of identifiable Shaysites only served briefly in the militia. Only five out of thirty-three leaders sufficiently obnoxious to be mentioned by name in government warrants who served in the war did so for six months or more, as did sixteen of ninety-one from a more general sampling (lists of those arrested in the Robert Treat Paine Papers, with the twenty-nine Shaysites who served as delegates to the state constitutional convention of 1787 added). As with the citizens of most Massachusetts towns, the typical Revolutionary duty of a 1786 insurgent had constituted a few days in the militia, with possible brief combat service at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, or against General John Burgoyne’s invasion in 1777.17
Contemporary accounts of the rebels’ conduct under fire also refutes their self-identification with the demobilized regulars. The Massachusetts line during the war had attained such discipline that Baron von Steuben “admired” rather than “inspected” it. But at the Springfield arsenal, a single round of cannon fire caused the rebels to flee in panic, much as untrained militia frequently had throughout the war. Daniel Stebbins estimated that Shays’s forces at Springfield—usually counted at about 1,100—included 400 “old soldiers” who formed the advance guard, a number consistent both with William Pynchon’s estimate of 300 “continental troops who had been used to action and despised the militia” at Worcester and with Szatmary’s statistics. When General Benjamin Lincoln’s forces surprised the rebels at Petersham after a night march through a blizzard, “some of Shays’s men retreated so hastily that the officers had all left their swords and the soldiers their firearms.” At least one scholar attributes Shays’s selection as general—a title and role he spurned—to his reputation as a drillmaster. This suggests that few seasoned veterans joined his cause.18
If the rebels were not the Revolutionaries, who were they? They included local leaders such as Job Shattuck of Groton, William Whiting, Chief Justice of the Berkshire Court of Common Pleas, and Amherst’s John Billings. The average Regulator owned a substantial plot of 60 acres, less than the overall colonial average of 100 to 200 estimated by Jackson T. Main and cited by Barbara Karsky to present the Shaysites as relatively poor, but then New England farms tended to be smaller than those in the southern and middle states. Two-thirds of the rebels had been sued for debts, for which they had trouble selling their property to repay, despite their obvious eagerness to do so. They suffered shame at being unable to pay, as manifested in their replies to Worcester merchant Stephen Salisbury’s dunning notices. Salisbury’s papers indicate complex chains of credit stretching from farmers to local retailers to county shopkeepers to Boston merchants to British houses where people at one level had to sue to convince their creditors they were not holding out. As Caleb Strong noted, “The difficulty is that many of the rebels from this part of the country do not owe half as much as they are worth.” The Shaysites, in short, represented cross sections of their respective local communities: as Ebenezer Mattoon, a pro-government defender of convicted rebel Henry McCulloh wrote, “He told me he wished he was out of it, but he could not live in Pelham unless he joined them.”19
Still, the large number of insurgents with no traceable military experience—nearly 70 percent according to Szatmary, at least half by my estimate—in a state where perhaps two-thirds of eligible males served at least a few days in the militia, strongly suggests that reports that the Shaysites have “drawn in a large number of boys” were true. “Those in favor of the court were as fine a body of men as I ever saw,” Lemuel Tyler reported from Springfield on September 26, whereas “the insurgents in general made a despicable appearance both as to dress and arms. Many of them were boys, raw, ragged, and undisciplined.” The Reverend Justus Forward of Belchertown noted that the young wearers of the green bough outnumbered the old, and one witness against the Shaysites argued against them that “the elderly people ought to take the matter up and not the youth.” But if the tender ages of many rebels refuted their claim to represent the Revolution, it also extenuated their folly. Bemoaning the “want of care in the education of youth” who “opened their ears to every ingenious report . . . without examination,” a writer for the Worcester Magazine lamented that “in the late insurrections, many youths have gone forth, bearing the weapons of death, when they had no idea of the merit of the cause, and knew nothing of the nature of civil government.”20
Who were the government troops? Their heroic exertions recall the performance of the Continentals during the last few years of the war. The rapid midwinter march to Springfield, one observer reported, “would have reflected honor on the oldest and best disciplined troops. The cheerfulness with which a militia submitted to it, and the ardor they possessed on the occasion was astonishing.” One soldier described how after “being obligated to march in order” with the insurgents “running each man separately,” Lincoln’s men still overtook them at Petersham after tiring forced marches “through a thick crust of snow, which was sometimes up to our knees and sometimes up to our necks.” Lincoln twice formally thanked his troops for their “long and distressing march of thirty miles without a halt but for a few minutes” which brought them to Petersham.21
Unlike the rebels, many supporters of the state had previously served for long periods in the Continental army. Brookfield, Springfield, and Newbury volunteers respectively counted nineteen of twenty-eight, thirteen of thirty, and seventeen of thirty-three men with at least six months’ service. Lincoln especially singled out the Brookfield volunteers for the “fortitude and address discovered in arresting so many of the insurgents.” This fifty-six-man company included seventeen justices of the peace and militia officers who enlisted as privates, as did Rufus Putnam himself. They were a far cry from the “government puppies” and “shopkeepers, lawyers, and doctors” the rebels were sure they could defeat. An association of Continental officers, although complaining of arrears in pay, taxes, and private debts, publicly offered the General Court “every possible support to such measures as shall be adopted for the restoration of order.” Their overwhelming support of government proves that Shays’s Rebellion marked an attempt by people who, save for a small minority, had not fought in the Revolution to appropriate its symbols and overturn the political order it had established. The General Court could therefore almost unanimously condemn the “wicked, unnatural rebellion” undertaken by those popularly mocked as “Sons of Fraud and Violence” and “Sons of Licentiousness.”22
Shays’s rebellion was not only a military contest but an ideological struggle between two regions that had experienced and imagined the Revolution in radically different ways. The east, especially Boston, plausibly considered its leading role in the decade 1765–75 and its economic and political sufferings as proof of a unique public virtue and commitment to republicanism which ought to have convinced the relatively uninvolved west of its right to govern. The western rebels, with equal plausibility, regarded the Bay State’s new constitution as a minority document which enabled the commercial east to rule without regard for postwar rural sufferings. The west sought to be left alone as it had been during the colonial period. It hoped to shape a state primarily concerned with guaranteeing local autonomy and pursuit of self-interest by reducing individual burdens. The east desired to instill in the west a greater commitment to sharing the Revolution’s costs and to incorporate it into a republican community.
Eastern Massachusetts’s long-term suffering in the cause of liberty further explains its anger that the Shaysites would use economic hardships to justify rebellion. Virtually depopulated during the siege of 1775–76, Boston supplied over 2,300 men who served more than three months in the army, many enlisting for other towns which did not meet their quotas. And as the “poor follows . . . barefooted, bare legged, and bare-breeched” struggled on, with “nothing but virtue [to] keep the army together,” according to Colonel John Brooks, who commanded the anti-Shays troops in Middlesex, the coastal towns petitioned against the “inhumanity (for it deserves no milder name)” of “wicked farmers,” “insolent with their thousands,” as prices rose, trade stagnated, and “many perished.” The General Court legislated against hoarding and gouging, as “many persons within the state are so lost to a sense of public virtue as to withhold the necessities of life and to refuse the public bills of credit.” The plight of eastern Massachusetts, cradle of the Revolution, resembled that of a Continental army “starved at pleasure,” as E. Wayne Carp has felicitously entitled his account of supplying the troops.23
As the ports starved, they could not help but observe, as historian Ralph V. Harlow has noted, that “by far the most important feature” of the state’s Revolutionary economy was “neither the high cost of living, nor the profiteering schemes of the merchants, but the unusual prosperity of the agricultural population.” Harlow’s observation, while only partially true, is nevertheless significant in light of Oscar and Mary Handlin’s subsequent conclusion that whereas “farmers close to the market profited from ever-increasing demands,” the newly settled areas from which the Shay sites drew their greatest strength were “most depressed” by the shortage of cash during the Revolution to pay the debts they had contracted to set up their holdings. Harlow’s perspective, drawn from eastern Massachusetts sources, reflects the seaboard’s mistaken idea that the farmers of the state all enjoyed the same boom as the commercial farmers in established communities.24
The east’s unfortunate experience with rural suppliers during the war also casts the government’s callousness in the face of agrarian misery in a different light. First, it accounts for the seaboard’s persistent litany that “luxury, luxury, the great source of distress, has here taken up her dismal abode.” Noah Webster pronounced it a “fact, demonstrated by correct calculation, that the common people in the country drink rum and tea sufficient every year to pay the interest of the public debt, articles of luxury which so far from doing them any good, injure their morals, impair their health, and shorten their lives.” A moralizing twenty-year-old John Quincy Adams thought that “the malcontents must look to themselves, to their idleness, to their dissipation, and extravagances” to cure the “deadly poison” which threatened the body politic. The General Court suggested the farmers meet its moderate program to ease the cash shortage halfway with “a reformation of manners . . . by recurring to the principles of integrity and public spirit, and the practice of industry, sobriety, economy, and fidelity in contracts, and by acquiescing in laws necessary for the public good.”25
Reserving for later discussion the argument that the General Court in fact adopted a sensible policy to redress the farmers’ grievances, port cities such as Boston and Charlestown had suffered from overtaxation, economic distress, and population loss since at least the 1740s. Even when they admitted rural misery, they could find little merit in the west’s argument that a few years of hard times warranted destruction of the state’s political system. A writer in the Massachusetts Centinel noted the “general discomfort among the inhabitants” and “granted that taxes are heavy.” “But,” he insisted, “though they are a burthen we are not sure they ought to be called a grievance.” The General Court, in its “Address to the People,” argued that they should “bear cheerfully” the economic consequences of the war and assumed as a matter of course the incorporation of virtuous self-sacrifice into Massachusetts’s collective identity: “Can we be willing, that the history of the American Revolution shall be blackened with the tale that we refused to redeem the securities we had given to effect it, and shall our posterity blush to hear of it even because the perfidy of their ancestors exceeded their glory?”26
Eastern Massachusetts transformed its exceptional past leadership and sufferings into both a badge of virtue and an argument that those who had guided the Revolution ought to complete it. Shays’s Rebellion threatened to ruin a state which “once fixed the attention of the world,” where “liberty, the fairest gift of bounteous Heaven, . . . found an asylum.” “Anti-Honestus” predicted the rebels’ success would initiate “a long farewell to all our greatness.” The town of Boston issued a circular letter warning that “next to crucifying the Savior of the World and despising their eternal Salvation, is the sin of a people in wantonly sporting with their chartered liberties, and despising their political salvation.” The government’s reaction collectively echoed one “Publius” who thought the Shaysites were “throw[ing] away blessings for which other nations pine and languish in vain” by spurning a constitution founded on “the collective wisdom and experience of the ages.”27
Although western farmers’ hardships from taxation and debt cannot be denied, they shared neither the east’s sense of republican destiny nor its enthusiasm for the 1780 Constitution. Western Massachusetts remained one of the few areas in the nation untouched by combat. “The laggard revolutionists,” as Robert J. Taylor has dubbed them, had little to do with the resistance movement until the “Intolerable Acts” shocked them out of their complacency. After the west closed its courts in 1774, county conventions and mobs kept them shut for much of the next decade. Debts and taxes remained unpaid though uncanceled. After denying the legitimacy of a state government based on resumption of a 1692 charter granted by a British monarch and rejecting the General Court’s Constitution of 1778, the west sent few delegates to Boston during a bitter winter to draft the 1780 document that was finally approved.28
The 1780 Constitution lacked real legitimacy in the west. Several of the provisions against which the Shaysites railed were approved only by the divided votes of a small number of mostly eastern towns. Aspects of the court system passed as narrowly as 32 to 24; the state Senate carried 57 to 39. Sixty delegates approved a clause that legislators should be paid by the towns; 20 opposed. Property qualifications for voters carried 37 to 27. Originally, 251 towns out of 300 sent delegates.29
Governed by county and state bodies of which it did not approve, the west could regard the new state as a mere exchange of masters. In 1776, for instance, Pittsfield contended that the new justices revealed a “disposition triumphantly to ride over” the people and “worse than renew all our former oppression.” From the birth of the nation until Shays’s Rebellion, hundreds of petitions complained of taxes, debts, a shortage of money, and the structure of government.30
The divergent behavior of the Massachusetts backcountry and the eastern region can perhaps be best explained respectively by two concepts around which Richard Bushman and Oscar and Mary Handlin have structured books. The west tended to regard the new republic, as it had the provincial royal government, in terms of what Bushman calls the “protection covenant.” The inhabitants were content to be ruled by a remote and unrepresentative elite provided it protected and did not oppress them. If government became active and intrusive, and if petitioning for redress of grievances failed, the people had the right to resist as necessary. But after two decades of struggle, eastern Massachusetts regarded the state as the “Commonwealth” the Handlins describe. It represented a “moral whole” and required an active citizenry dedicated to a public interest transcending personal and local concerns.31
How one judges shays’s rebellion depends on the behavior not only of the rebels but of the government as well. In fact, the legislature lived up to its claim to be “lenient and merciful.”32 During the autumn and winter of 1786, it tried to meet the grievances of the people and was slow to undertake military preparations even in the face of armed rebellion. Because many who opposed the rebels recognized the validity of their demands, the government proved reluctant to shed blood and sought reconciliation rather than retribution. Finally, the state’s voters, even with the insurgents disfranchised, repudiated the Bowdoin administration that insisted on punishing them.
The special fall session of the General Court called to deal with the insurrection went a long way toward redressing the Shaysites’ substantive grievances although it rejected any restructuring of the government. To ease the west’s financial crunch, debtors and creditors could now try suits under £4, which constituted the majority, before justices of the peace instead of dealing with expensive courts and lawyers. Moreover, both debts and taxes could be settled with household goods as well as real estate, the value to be determined by referees. This measure was to last eight months, at which time a new court could renew it. To remedy the shortage of cash, the state prepared to mint $70,000 in coin and to sell off £163,000 of Maine lands, which would reduce the state debt by about 15 percent. The November acts clearly could have tided the protestors over until the new legislature could be chosen in May, at which time they could have made good their claim to represent the popular will. The legislature also offered to pardon anyone who would lay down his arms by January 1, 1787, and in an “Address to the People” attempted to explain the necessity of high taxes and the “ruinous effects of luxury and licentiousness,” which had driven people in debt. It also explained the new laws and asserted a general disposition to accommodate grievances without undermining public credit and authority. The legislature’s reforms were not without effect. Arrested insurgent Dr. Isaac Cheney commented that he was “well satisfied” with the measures and only wished they had passed “three months sooner,” as then the people “would not have taken up arms against government.” On January 2 the Hampshire convention urged the rebels to disarm and “join with us in our prayer to the legislature for a redress of grievances,” as “the General Court, at their last session, did spend much of their time . . . and attend to the prayers of the people, and still do show a will to hear their complaints.”33
But if the General Court’s conciliatory attitude converted some recalcitrants, it was by no means the product of sheer goodwill and statesmanship. Not only was Massachusetts broke—it had to borrow £6,000 from Boston merchants to launch Lincoln’s expedition and accepted articles useful for war in payment of taxes—but the insurgents’ complaints, if not their mode of redressing them, were general throughout the state. The Adams family seat of Braintree expressed much the same grievances as the conventions; in Boston itself, Dr. Charles Jarvis, representing “Mr. H[ancock]’s friends,” “censured the government severely” and “trumpeted it around that had he [Hancock] been governor this difficulty would not have taken place.” John Pickering reported to his brother Timothy that “a very small part” of Essex County’s people favored the insurgents, but Thomas Cabot informed Benjamin Lincoln that “even in the town of Salem, upon a small success on the side of Shays . . . a great many would have joined him, at least in sentiment.” Winthrop Sargent, too, discovered “a shameful amount of exertion and a secret inclination in favor of the insurgents” in the eastern counties.34
Uncertainty characterized the sentiments of many from beginning to end. In early September numerous towns in both Middlesex and Bristol petitioned the governor not to use force and instead to give them a chance “to endeavor by every rational argument to dissuade those who seem refractory from measures which tend immediately to destroy the fabric of our government, and by knowing what are the real grounds of their complaints unitedly join in legal and constitutional measures to obtain redress of what may be found to be real grievances.” Boston’s Peter Thacher recalled how “Colonel [Oliver] Prescott of Groton and Mr. [Samuel Phillips] Savage [of Concord] came to town frightened out of their wits and begged that the orders for the militia might be recalled.” Perhaps the most representative response to the rebellion came from the small town of Rowe. Addressing a letter “to all it may concern” on December 4, 1786, “the inhabitants of this town, being repeatedly requested to join in the dispute between the government and those called the Regulating party,” and being “under great disadvantage as to obtaining the true cause of the dispute which renders it impossible for us to determine what is best to be done,” simply decided to send as many men “as can conveniently march . . . to that place that they can obtain the best information of the true state of affairs and (if need be) join that party they shall judge to be in the right.”35
In consequence of such ambivalence, the General Court pursued a vacillating policy. From September to November 1786, the conciliatory attitude of the House prevailed over the more militant action favored by the Senate. In November, after someone claiming to be Shays circulated a letter ordering the people to arm themselves and be ready to fight at a minute’s notice, the representatives finally agreed to suspend habeas corpus; at the end of the month the General Court sent out the light horse to seize the Middlesex ringleaders even while alleviating some grievances and offering a general pardon. Only after these measures failed to halt the court closings and rumors of marches—given winter travel conditions and poor communications, it is probable many rebels had no idea what the General Court had done—did the legislature authorize Lincoln’s expedition. From January to May 1787 the state was at its most repressive; the twelve prospective executions and deprivations of political rights for all identifiable rebels angered even government supporters. The bill authorizing the rebels’ trials only passed the House 58 to 52 with a motion to consider failing 56 to 55. The 1787 spring elections overwhelmingly repudiated Governor Bowdoin in favor of the more lenient Hancock. Even with the Shaysites disfranchised, the voters elected a General Court sympathetic to the rebels. The legislature then proceeded to moderate the state’s fiscal policy to general satisfaction and to restore to the proscribed traitors their full rights as citizens. Hancock pardoned all those under sentence except for a few looters.36
The confusion over what ought to be done about a rebellion whose nature, justice, and extent puzzled the government led to extreme reluctance to use force. The pains generals Shepherd and Lincoln took to avoid fighting the rebels demonstrates the hesitancy with which the government moved. After warning Shays not to pass over an imaginary line within firing distance of the Springfield arsenal which the government troops defended, Shepherd “ordered a field piece fired in a different direction from the party, in hopes to deter them from progressing further.” After performing the most “painful duty . . . in his life” and firing on the insurgents, Shepherd refused some of his troops’ request that he either continue to fire on or pursue the fleeing rebels. Reporting to Governor Bowdoin that “the unhappy time is come in which we have been obliged to shed blood,” Shepherd stated that “had I been disposed to destroy them, I might have charged upon their rear and flanks with my infantry and the two field pieces and have killed the greater part of his whole army in twenty-five minutes.” Governor Bowdoin praised Shepherd for having “answered the hopes and expectations of the country” by defeating the rebels with “the loss of so few lives.” “It is not my wish to have the people of the Commonwealth destroyed, for this would weaken it, but that they may be reduced by the gentlest means possible into the path of their duty,” he concluded, thereby expressing the general consensus.37
For his part, General Lincoln not only proceeded with his army so as to minimize confrontations but became the foremost advocate for a quick restoration to the insurgents of their full rights of citizenship. When his men marched west, Lincoln stressed that “they do not in any way insult or injure the inhabitants” and warned the soldiers “not [to] take upon themselves to determine the political character of men should violence or insult be offered.” Any unauthorized “marauding or any infringing on the peace” would meet with “exemplary punishment.” Lincoln’s only lapse from mildness came when he found the court-martial punishment decreed for some of his own men for looting too mild: they had to stand publicly for an hour wearing signs “For Plundering.” He even believed the temporary disfranchisement to be suffered by most rebels too harsh, as he explained in a private letter to Governor Bowdoin which became the basis for their quick reinstatement to full citizenship: “We have invariably said to them you are wrong in flying to arms. You should seek redress in a constitutional way. These observations were undoubtedly just, but will they not now complain, and say that we have cut them off from all hope of redress from that quarter; for we have denied them a representation in that legislature, by whose laws they must be governed. While they are in this situation, they will never be reconciled to government, nor will they submit to the terms of it from any other motive than fear enlivened by a constant military armed force entered over them.” Lincoln concluded by blaming the insurgents not so much for their rebellion but for their repeated sloth in not electing representatives to the General Court: “We have much more now to fear from a certain business which has seized upon a great proportion of our citizens, who have been totally inattentive to the exercise of those rights conveyed to them by the Constitution of this Commonwealth.” He had carefully considered the problem of reconciling the highly mobile insurgents, capable either of hit-and-run attacks or of depriving the Commonwealth of many useful citizens by heading north or west. He recommended “all that mercy which the good of the state shall admit . . . with a grace that she may evidence a disposition to forgive, to embrace cordially those who are forgiven.”38
Seeking consensus in a severely divided community, the government only resorted to arms after attempts to negotiate, redress grievances, and arrest ringleaders had all failed. By delaying so long, and demonstrating the reasonableness of its final resort to force, Massachusetts ensured that a great majority would side with government even though many of the volunteers shared the Shay sites’ grievances. Perhaps 7,000 men participated in the January and February expeditions, as opposed to the insurgents’ maximum, short-lived strength of 3,000. In actual military operations, conducted with minimal damage after repeated warnings, the state again used force sparingly. Finally, in pardoning almost all the rebels and reintegrating them quickly into civic life, Massachusetts sought to reestablish the communal consensus that underlay early American political theory and practice. Samuel Adams’s cries to hang the traitors were clearly the exception, not the rule.39
By quelling shays’s rebellion so successfully and painlessly, however, Massachusetts reclaimed its glory as the new nation’s most energetic and public-spirited state. On the eve of and during the rebellion, the Bay State was in despair: “Oh Massachusetts! Oh Massachusetts!” lamented a typical writer in the Boston Magazine. “Thou who wast Chief in Thy Country! The elder born and the most lovely of the daughters of Columbia! How Thou art fallen! Thy gold is truly become dust and Thy glory is departed from Thee!” But as the state began to arm, “it is more like the year 1775 than any thing I have seen since,” Henry Jackson reported to Henry Knox, remarking on how citizens flocked to join quickly forming light horse regiments and volunteer companies. The Massachusetts Centinel noticed that “the late commotions in this state have awakened that spirit of military ambition which so nobly distinguished us in 1774 and 1775.”40
In addition to not shaming “the ghosts of murdered heroes,” Shays’s Rebellion gave Massachusetts the added bonus of writing yet another glorious page in the annals of human history. As “Historicus” explained in the Massachusetts Centinel:
In monarchical and aristocratical governments, when the people alone are concerned in the rebellion, as soon as it is known, the hand of power is immediately employed to crush it, if possible. From the nature of republics and democratic governments, the proceedings must and ought to be different, and time and leisure given for the operation of human passions (unless the rebellion be so daring as that self-defense requires the exertion of an immediate force), and to offer light and conviction to the deluded, a reasonable time to return to their sense of duty, and if they do not, to unite the sentiments and resolution of the body politic, by effective measures to be taken with them, and effective they must be, or government is at an end, and the peace and prosperity of the people destroyed.
The harsh repression that had hitherto characterized nations’ responses to rebellions, Massachusetts realized, would poorly serve a republic dependent on the affections of the people. As Minot wrote in his history, “Upon the histories of European nations, a reliance could be placed so far only as the genius and circumstances of the people of the two hemispheres agreed. But who could say, that principles and measures which might persuade or terrify the minds of the mountaineers of Scotland or Wales, would have the same effect on the unconquerable spirit of the inhabitants of Massachusetts?” Eschewing the bloodbaths that had put down earlier civil wars, Massachusetts provided once again, as Henry Van Schaack realized, a model for the world: “I wish people cooly to view the wickedness and ill policy of those who have lived through preceding civil wars; let us in this commonwealth lay down a mode of conduct as will be worth imitating by after ages.”41
In the Federalist Papers, defending the United States Constitution as a “novelty in the political world” which had “no model on the face of the globe,” James Madison could nevertheless retain some hope that the United States might provide “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican governments.” The worst of these diseases was faction, which begat domestic insurrections of the sort that had plagued the republics of ancient Greece, Rome, and Renaissance Italy. Within four years of the Peace of Paris, Massachusetts had already pioneered in a republican remedy for the disease of rebellion. Its spokesmen were already describing America’s Revolution as unique in achieving permanent political stability. None other than Shays’s chief Bostonian defender, Dr. Charles Jarvis, proclaimed in 1788 that “in other countries, . . . unhappily for mankind, the history of their respective revolutions has been written in blood, and it is in this only that any great or important changes in our political situation has been effected without public commotions.” Minot, too, made Massachusetts’s successful resolution of the insurgency seem even more spectacular by noting that “no rebellion had heretofore marked the annals of Massachusetts, either under royal or republican rule,” and that its new “Constitution was also recent in its standing, and unsettled by practice.” Nevertheless, with no historical precedents to guide it, “the manner in which these difficulties were suppressed does much honor to government.” “The lenity of government . . . must attach every man to a Constitution . . . which governs its subjects without oppression, and reclaims them without severity.” To contemporary Massachusetts statesmen, Shays’s Rebellion was quickly transformed from a manifestation of social tension into a symbol of how Massachusetts had solved the age-old problem of preventing revolution from deteriorating into a state of anarchy.42
The significance of Massachusetts’s response to Shays’s Rebellion has yet to be integrated into either the national consciousness or the historiography of the uprising, republicanism, or the “Critical Period.” Its major importance lies not in the context of agrarian protest or as the catalyst of a national constitution already in the planning stage. Rather, it showed how republics could maintain the political stability that had historically eluded them. Seeking to conciliate the disaffected and dealing mildly with rebellion, Massachusetts could resume its proper role as a “City Upon a Hill.”