The Influence of Shays’s Rebellion on American Political Thought

    Michael Lienesch

    From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conference on Shays’s Rebellion, 1986, sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.

    For years, scholars have cited the role of Shays’s Rebellion in the creation of the American Constitution. With few exceptions, they have claimed that the rebellion was important—some say instrumental—in inspiring the Constitution. Richard Brown has recently pointed out that historians from George Bancroft, John Fiske, and John Bach McMaster in the last century to Forrest McDonald, Jackson Turner Main, and Gordon Wood in this one have agreed on this point, creating a rare historical consensus that has been relatively immune to revisionist reinterpretation. Political scientists have agreed, so much so that the consensual wisdom on Shays’s Rebellion has become enshrined in virtually every introductory textbook on American government. According to Burns, Peltason, and Cronin, authors of the redoubtable Government by the People, now in its thirteenth edition, Shays’s Rebellion “acted as a catalyst, precipitating the decision to call a convention to meet in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.”1

    But while political scientists are certain that the rebellion was influential, they seem less sure about the nature of that influence. Thus, they write, the rebellion “heightened the movement for constitutional revision,” “fuel[ed] the drive for a stronger national government,” and “set the stage for the gathering in 1787 of a Constitutional Convention.” In fact, the role of the rebellion in the creation of the Constitution was less causal but considerably more complex and ultimately more significant than these descriptions suggest. For while Shays and his supporters did not cause the Constitution to be created, they were active in bringing about certain changes that made it possible. Among these were conceptual changes, transformations in political thinking, what Henry Knox, writing at the time, referred to as “prodigious changes in the minds of men.”2

    To chart these conceptual changes, this essay examines the public debates taking place at this time, the rich and sometimes rancorous political discourse of the preconstitutional period, called by Isaac Kramnick the “great national discussion.” Its focus is three concepts that were particularly prominent in public discussion: resistance, revolution, and reform. These three concepts, hotly disputed as they were, were conspicuous enough in the discourse of the day to constitute what have been called “keywords” or “contested concepts.” Rending the Revolutionary consensus, dividing radical republicans from their conservative counterparts, the conceptual conflicts that centered on these concepts helped inspire an intensely partisan politics. Moreover, because these conflicts served not only to articulate and clarify the thinking of the time but also to transform it, they inspired a reinterpretation of the idea of rebellion that would play a part, albeit less directly, in separating supporters of the new United States Constitution from its opponents. Finally, to the extent that these transformations continue to shape our thinking, these eighteenth-century conflicts helped create a concept of rebellion that we as Americans have been living with ever since.3

    Following a short consideration of the background of these debates, the essay charts these conceptual changes, following them from mid-1786, when popular protest began in earnest, through the framing and ratification of the Constitution. The sources are newspaper articles, essays, and reprinted speeches, along with convention debates. Many of the sources are from Massachusetts, as expected, but in order to follow the diffusion of the debate into other states, other sources are considered as well. Private letters are used at points to supplement the public statements.

    Even before daniel shays and his band of agrarian insurgents took up arms against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in late 1786, a war of words was brewing. As early as midsummer, in response to county conventions that had been convened throughout New England to draw up petitions advocating paper money and more tolerant tender laws, partisans had begun to let loose with extraordinary examples of protest and counterprotest. In the popular press, especially in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where, in addition to calling conventions, protesters had begun to close down courthouses, the debates were particularly heated, with columns that conventionally carried advice on curing sores or cultivating bigger turnips giving way to angry broadsides and impassioned denunciations. For example, writing in the Massachusetts Gazette, “A Citizen” blasted convention organizers as “sons of fraud and violence,” “secret but active enemies to our peace and happiness,” and “eminent only for their vices and depravity.” At almost the same time, “A New Hampshire Freeman” was suggesting that convention opponents consisted of nothing more than “two-penny shopkeepers, usurers, speculators, or any other class of men, that delight to fatten on the distresses of mankind.” “A Countryman,” writing in the same edition of the New Hampshire Mercury, went even further, flatly branding them as “Tories and Enemies to America.” By October, insinuations and insults had become commonplace, and writers on all sides and of every station did not hesitate to join in the fray. Even the laconic “Not a Mobb man,” hardly a master of the pen, could contribute the choice comment that convention participants were “a Peck of Ritches which Evry Good man Ort to dispise.”4

    The intense partisanship of the discourse was not only unusual for its time, it was shocking. Throughout the Revolution, American newspapers had seen their share of hot-tempered prose. But the discourse seemed somehow more detached when rationalizing the break with England to a candid world. Even when the prose got personal, it was directed against English oppressors and almost never against republican brothers-in-arms. Postwar writers sometimes seemed to recognize that they were crossing the boundaries of civility, to say nothing of straining the bonds of republican brotherhood. “Modestus” for one commented critically on the recent proliferation of “rant or Billingsgate.” At the same time, he did not hesitate to revile his opponents with terms that ran from “political Jesuits” to “Jacobites” to simply “pests.” Adding insult to injury, he blamed his enemies for the decline in discourse. It was not enough for him to denounce an earlier writer for his “incoherent and laboured production”; he went on to charge that the “marks of sedition” were “evident in every sentence.”5

    Implicit in the debates was a dramatic polarization. Frequently writers spent more time attacking one another than making any original points of their own. At times their writings degenerated into a kind of verbal free-for-all, so that when “A Freeman” told the readers of the Worcester Magazine that “Citizen’s” letter consisted of “low, dirty, and scurrilous invectives,” “Monitor” attacked him in turn for his own “scurrilous, wicked, and seditious” opinions, and so forth. As local protests gave way to armed and organized resistance, the charges and countercharges became even more extreme. In midwinter, a writer calling himself “A Friend to Humanity and Good Government” was picturing the struggle in starkest terms, as a contest between “evil” and “good.” By the following spring, debate had become another version of warfare. What had once been civil discourse, counseled “Camillus,” himself always ready to throw fuel on the fire, had become “infested with the harangues of the emissaries of treason.”6

    In such a situation, with enmity being felt all around, there was little room for compromise. The few calls for moderation seemed to fall flat, and most went unanswered. Worse, at least one writer who sought to steer a middle course was criticized for his closet partisanship. When “Honestus,” writing in the Independent Chronicle, called on citizens to recognize that there were honest grievances and that those grievances could be protested peaceably, he was branded as a back-room rebel. Such pleas for reconciliation, announced an unmoved “Suffolk,” were “the language calculated to make insurgents.”7

    As consensus seemed to crumble, a divided discourse became the order of the day. Observers testified to the pervasiveness of the public debate, to the fact that disagreement and distrust had found their way into “almost every tavern, and conversation circle.” Inflaming emotions, polarizing partisans into competing camps, closing off room for negotiation, this rancorous debate encouraged the more heated, more partisan, more uncompromising politics that would come to be called “party rage.” But even more important was the effect of this divided discourse on political thinking, for the purpose of the partisans was not only to provoke passion but also to transform thought. As “Camillus” said of his opponents (and they would surely have said the same of him), their intentions were to “make that odious which was right, and that popular which was wrong.” Nowhere was the transformation more dramatic than in three concepts that lay at the heart of republican political theory: resistance, revolution, and reform.8

    In the popular protests of the time, the concept of resistance was common. In the Whig theory of Harrington, Sidney, and Locke, insurgents found a time-honored terminology of protest, in which the rights of citizens were posed against the power of their rulers. Protesters reminded their fellow citizens that rights were fragile, never secure, and that power was grasping and never satisfied. Recalling the recent Revolution, they reminded their audience of its responsibility to resist power through constant vigilance and periodic protest. According to “A Member of the Convention,” there could be no questioning the principle that “the people may, in a decent manner, seek redress of grievances; or even alter, change, or destroy, when for the good of the people.”9

    In the petitions passed by the county conventions, resistance was described as rational. Delegates went out of their way to describe themselves as responsible citizens, respectable property owners, and loyal veterans of the Revolution. In terms that today seem painfully polite, if not downright obsequious, they depicted themselves as patient and long-suffering victims. Far from sputtering like fanatics, they spoke with cool and almost philosophic rationality about their rights and privileges. After all, wrote “A Freeman,” “history can produce no instance of a people’s losing their freedom by Conventions of their private citizens, or even by mobs.”10

    Petitioners called on citizens to be suspicious of their rulers. Much of their wrath was focused on the magistrates, tax officials, and lawyers they held responsible for the farm foreclosures that had sparked many of the early protests, on “the court, the placemen, the pensioners.” Somewhat less specifically, these debt-conscious borrowers aimed their criticism at lenders, or at least at what “Attleborough” called “that aristocratical principle too generally prevalent among the wealthy men in this State.” Above all, they condemned their elected officials. Drawing on time-tested republican principles, they argued that rulers would always become corrupt and that even the best of them posed a threat to the liberties of their subjects. The fact that Americans were now governed by their own republican rulers made little difference. Indeed, some argued that independence itself posed a threat to freedom, in that citizens might be lulled into complacency by their new republican form of government. “A Freeman” was explicit in citing the danger, lest “the virtuous yeomanry of Massachusetts, who disdained to stoop to foreign tyrants, now bow their necks to internal despots.”11

    At the same time, the petitioners spoke glowingly of the people. Predisposed as they were to assume an alliance of monarchy and aristocracy against the people, these radical republicans did not hesitate to consider themselves representatives of the entire population, excluding only potential monarchists and aristocrats. As one set of resolutions put it, they spoke for “almost every individual who derives his living from the labours of his hands or an income of a farm.” Among the insurgents themselves, virtually every letter from Shays and fellow protest leader Luke Day referred to their troops as “the body of the people assembled in arms” and to themselves as “officers of the people.” Additionally, their supporters made it clear that the people could do no wrong, that they were, according to “A Member of the Convention,” “ever humane, generous, and profligate of their favours.” Throughout their thinking, the theme of self-defense ran strong, with Shays implying that it was government which was the aggressor and the people who were protecting what was rightfully their own, acting, he stated, “in defence of their lives and liberties.” Above all, their thought was shaped by the principle, absolute and inviolable, that government must answer to the people. So it was that “Attleborough” seemed honestly shocked that he and his fellow protesters could be “stigmatized as traitors, incendiaries, vile creatures, and nearly threatened with prosecutions for daring to enquire into the present gross mismanagement of our rulers, and venturing to express their opinion that alterations favourable to the people, might be made in the present constitution.”12

    By contrast, critics of the protests questioned this conception of resistance. Although republicans, they insisted on a more conservative interpretation of republican theory, suggesting that while the idea of resistance was sound in theory, it was problematic in practice, at least in a republic such as their own. Writing in the Independent Chronicle, “Jonathan of the Valley” suggested that resistance was only legitimate when grievances were real, and the so-called grievances of the convention petitioners were in fact nothing more than “inconveniences.” Adopting medical metaphors, critics described the protests as social ills, in terms that ranged from the mild (“a few peccant Humours”) to the drastic (“The whole State is diseased.”). Alexander Hamilton proved particularly adept at this symbolism, and his Federalist No. 28 was heavily laced with medical imagery, including references to “maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body.” Even more ominous was Hamilton’s suggestion that for such diseases, there could be “no remedy but force.” In general, these critics seemed to be searching for an alternative terminology, referring to protests not as examples of rightful resistance, what protesters called “regulation,” but rather as “commotions,” “disorders,” “emergencies,” “seditions,” or simply “insurrections.”13

    In defining insurrection, and distinguishing it from resistance, these conservative thinkers made a point of depicting the protests as hopelessly irrational. Their descriptions teem with references to fury, madness, and “phrenzy.” Protesters were described as madmen and fanatics, their actions as “extreme folly.” Henry Knox captured the sentiment best in referring to the events in western Massachusetts as a “rebellion against reason.” Unlike their radical republican counterparts, who depicted reason as inherent in human nature, such conservative republicans saw passion as the hallmark of the human character. Reason, they argued, was the product not of nature but of civil society, having to be imposed from without, through institutions and laws. Because reason and passion were opposites (radicals preferred to think of reason as the opposite of ignorance), the two forces were in constant conflict. Hence conservatives could describe a protracted struggle between reason and passion, identifying themselves as soldiers of rationality while branding protesters as the armies of madness. “Cassius” made the case in a January 1787 letter to the Worcester Magazine: “Now is the time when men act before they reflect; every measure is taken to prejudice the unthinking part of the community; the passions are inflamed, the solid principles of reason and truth scarcely examined, and the understanding inveloped in a mist of errours.”14

    More important was the treatment of vigilance. Supporters of the state made much ado about the differences between colonial and republican rulers. Unlike kings and aristocrats, who would never be worthy of trust, popular representatives could be trusted implicitly. Beyond this practical consideration, however, these Friends of Government turned to the larger matter of the relationship between liberty and power. They began with liberty, arguing that their radical counterparts had misconstrued the concept and would “not know her when you meet her,” as “A Member of Society” bluntly told insurgent Adam Wheeler in an open letter. Recalling a line of thought at least as old as John Winthrop, “Nestor” distinguished between “natural” and “political” liberty. Natural liberty, “Nestor” argued, was synonymous with license and was found “in common with the wild beasts.” By contrast, political liberty came through obedience to the laws of society, by “being subject only to laws made in an equitable constitutional manner, and binding alike on all the citizens of the state.” In short, real liberty consisted in being “good subjects.” With this assumption in hand, republicans ought to reconsider their traditional suspicion of their rulers. There was, “Bostonian” informed his readers, “a wide difference between manly jealousy and mean suspicion.”15

    For at least some of these thinkers, the notion of suspicion itself was open to question. In the absence of a clear conception of fundamental law, suspicion could seem uncomfortably close to sedition. In other words, to question rulers was to question rules and, by extension, to question government itself. “An Other Citizen” took the argument to its logical extreme, arguing that power could be compatible with republican freedom after all: “For though all power originates from the people, it does not remain with them . . . [and] may not be reassumed, nor the constitutional exercise of it disturbed with impunity; and in some cases not without incurring the guilt of treason.”16

    Perhaps most important, these more conservative republicans let out all the stops in descriptions of “the people” that were distinctly unflattering. They began by making it clear that far from the population as a whole, or even a majority of it, the protesters represented a mere “minor part.” Here they could draw on the traditional republican fear of factions. More often, they made clear the distinctions between the insurgents and themselves, pointing out that the disaffected few were not only poor but “vulgar.” (One minister thought it important to note that the malcontents did not live in “the most conspicuous and best educated towns.”) Especially in their letters, commerce-conscious conservatives were adamant about the economic implications of the protests. For example, both Henry Knox and Henry Lee sent almost frantic accounts of the rebellion, warning their fellow conservatives that the true intentions of the rebels included not only the abolition of debts but also the redistribution of property. Even in their public writings some made the same case, presenting the protesters as levellers and members of what “Camillus” called “the Robinhood society.” Absent in the criticism was any concept of a common people, united in some commitment to a common good. Instead, some conservatives went so far as to equate “the people” with “the mob.” As Fisher Ames would tell the Massachusetts ratifying convention, democracy was “a volcano, which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction.”17

    Apparently the arguments were persuasive, for among those who in theory ought to have been sympathetic to the cause of resistance, there was in practice a good deal of equivocation. Indeed, to Samuel Adams himself, whose radical republican credentials could hardly be questioned, the county conventions were at best mild embarrassments, and the armed protests were nothing less than criminal acts. In Adams’s case there were many considerations involved, but the fact is that among leading radical republicans, the protests in Massachusetts found surprisingly little support. New York’s scholarly “Brutus” would dismiss them as “violent commotions.” For Richard Henry Lee, lumping them together with similar activities in his native Virginia, they were “riots and mobbish proceedings.” Closer to home, Boston’s “A Columbian Patriot” saw them as a “dangerous insurrection.” For these old Patriots, Shays’s actions had been troubling enough to provoke a serious rethinking of the principle of resistance. Even the eminent Revolutionary James Warren found himself revising his views: “The Truth of the Matter is,” he wrote to John Adams in a bitter denunciation of the protests in Massachusetts, “the People resemble a Child.”18

    Not surprisingly, shays and his fellow insurgents described themselves as revolutionaries. Many were in fact veterans of the Revolution, who stressed not only their service but also the sacrifices they had made. At times, they seemed to be reliving the Revolution, calling on their compatriots to assert their “rights,” defend their “lives and liberties,” and stand fast against “tyrannical government in Massachusetts.”19

    In reassuming the role of revolutionaries, they relied on the classical republican conception of revolution. From Machiavelli to Burgh, classical republicans had described revolution as a cyclical reversion, a return from corruption to original purity, or a recapturing of what were called “first best principles.” Adopted in the eighteenth century by radical Whigs like Trenchard and Gordon, this conception had become widely accepted in America by 1776, so that Samuel Adams and his compatriots could consistently describe the American Revolution not as a radical thrust toward economic (or even political) equality but as a recovery of lost liberties. Thus it was not surprising that agrarian protesters portrayed themselves as part of this tradition, attempting not to install a new government but to restore the virtue of the old one. Explained “A Member of the Convention”: “To revert to the principles of the [state] Constitution, on certain occasions, is not only lawful, but a duty.”20

    Theirs was a remarkably benign conception of revolution. Radical republicans had long maintained that in returning to original principles, revolutionaries would be returning to the original state of society, which they described as harmonious in all its aspects. Revolution would be a reversion not to anarchy but to freedom. Anarchy itself was an illusion, what “Candidus” called a “bugbear.” But even assuming some chaos, such a state could not last for long. Indeed, as Pennsylvania’s “Centinel” put it, “the greater its violence, the shorter the duration.” Besides, as Shays and Wheeler had said, “one moment of liberty” was “worth an eternity of bondage.” Working from these assumptions, radical republicans could be almost blithe in their defense of periodic revolutions, what Thomas Jefferson liked to call “instances of irregularity.” As Jefferson himself explained in a letter dealing with the events in Massachusetts, “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expence of a little tempest now and then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.”21

    By contrast, conservative writers alarmed by Shays worked overtime reinterpreting the concept of revolution. Prominent among their problems was finding an appropriately pejorative label for the protests. Throughout late 1786 they continued to refer to them in a variety of ways, fishing, as it were, for the proper description. By early 1787, as Madison reported to Washington, the term of choice had become “rebellion.” In fact, in February 1787 the Massachusetts General Court would officially declare the existence of a state of “open, unnatural, unprovoked, and wicked rebellion.” Here pro-government conservatives were adopting a term that had always seemed suspect to republicans. By referring to the protests as a rebellion, they could distinguish them not only from earlier republican revolutions but, far more important, from the American Revolution itself. Indeed, by assigning “rebellion” to their opponents, while expropriating “revolution” to themselves, conservatives could depict the protesters as counterrevolutionaries, the insurgents having “turned against their teachers,” according to “Camillus,” “the doctrines, which were inculcated in order to effect the late revolution.”22

    Beyond the labels, conservative thinkers critically confronted the principles of Whig theory, beginning with the state of nature. In general, they described human nature in terms more reminiscent of Hobbes than Locke or Rousseau. Their descriptions were rife with references to barbarism, cannibalism, and savagery of all kinds. “Do they [Americans] wish to become as Hottentots,” asked an incredulous “Brutus,” “or set up a government upon the lawless sentiments of the Algerines?” For these thinkers, the state of nature was the state of war; rebellion assumed a return not to innocence but to violence. In their writings, anarchy became synonymous with confusion, chaos, and internal conflict, that “rude violence, in which every man’s hand is against his neighbor.” Moreover, with Shays, anarchy had come close to home and seemed far more real as a result. Even allowing for bombast, “Cassius” seemed terrified at its specter: “Anarchy, with her haggard cheeks and extended jaws, stands ready, and all allow that unless some efficient form of government is adopted she will soon swallow us.”23

    Implicit in this conception of revolution was a noncyclical view of popular protest. Unlike radicals, who saw anarchy as allowing for a return to first principles, conservative republicans described it as part of a pendulumlike process in which anarchy led not to freedom but to tyranny. In turn, tyranny would revert to anarchy. The result would be an unrestrained reaction, the pendulum gathering momentum with every swing, leading inevitably to violence. Hamilton described the theory in his Federalist No. 9, where he pictured the classical republics as in “a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” But it was John Adams, writing in his multivolumed Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, who made the clearest case, relying on Thucydides to show how the conflicts between democratic and aristocratic parties had been exacerbated by the Peloponnesian War, culminating, in his words, in “perpetual alterations of rebellion and tyranny, and the butchery of thousands upon every revolution from one to the other.” Writing after Shays, Adams’s point was unmistakable: “Human nature,” he concluded, “is as incapable now of going through revolutions with temper and sobriety, with patience and prudence, or without fury and madness, as it was among the Greeks so long ago.”24

    The idea of imbalance came heavily laden with baleful implications. First among these was anarchy itself, replete with conflict, what New York’s “Caesar” preferred to call “anarchy and wild uproar.” More important, however, was anarchy’s counterweight, tyranny. In his Defence, Adams reminded his readers that this state posed a particular threat, for while anarchy would never last long, “tyranny may be perpetual.” Conservatives minced no words in describing Shays as such a tyrant. Connecticut’s “Landholder” made the connection with characteristic bluntness: “Had Shays, the male-content of Massachusetts, been a man of genius, fortune, and address, he might have conquered that state, and by the aid of a little sedition in the other states, and an army proud by victory, become the monarch and tyrant of America.”25

    To these conservative thinkers, however, there was a more threatening prospect than democratic despotism. Shays notwithstanding, they hinted at the possibility of a return to monarchy. Many, including Adams, Franklin, and Madison, thought monarchy was inevitable, if not now, then at some point in the future. More important, at least a few thinkers of the time thought it was desirable and were prepared to express their preference for monarchy publicly. As a practical matter, the reintroduction of a king seemed “out of the question.” But the possibility alone was enough to pose a threat, and conservatives used it to ward off popular protest: “If we incline too much to democracy,” Hamilton would tell the Philadelphia convention, “we shall soon shoot into a monarchy.”26

    Beyond monarchy, however, there lay an even more ominous outcome. Throughout the 1780s there had been talk in certain circles of a dictator, presumably a military man such as Washington. By late 1786 the talk had become serious enough that responsible conservatives had become alarmed: the “best” citizens, Jay told Adams, seemed disillusioned at the prospects for self-government and had begun to “look to other systems.” With Shays, however, the potential seemed even greater than before. For in responding to the rebellion, Massachusetts officials had acted swiftly and with alarming severity, not only in the field, where protesters were met with massive force, but also in the courts, where they faced prosecution, along with disfranchisement and disqualification from office. By mid-1787 many conservatives had become critical of the repression. “Cassius,” for example, warned that repression would incite further resistance and denounced “Numa” and his “aristocratick clan” for advocating extreme measures that could only “stir up sedition and rebellion.”27

    Thus more cautious conservatives could be found simultaneously warning counterrevolutionaries and radicals alike of the dangers of both extremes and positioning themselves as the responsible middle way. Their efforts were by no means merely strategic. If anything, the bulk of these thinkers seemed more deeply disturbed at the potential for counterrevolution than radical revolt. Having witnessed the ferocity of Shays’s opponents, as well as the force used to put down the Massachusetts protests, they seemed chastened. Even Hamilton himself, who had flirted with the idea of a coup d’etat at the close of the war, seemed to shrink from the possibility of a reactionary counterthrust. “That the human passions should flow from one extreme to another, I allow, is natural,” he would tell the New York ratifying convention. “Hence the mad project of creating a dictator.28

    For a variety of reasons, radical republicans were not immune to the threat of anarchy followed by tyranny. In some cases, such as that of New York’s Governor Clinton, who feared lest the protests spread into his bailiwick of New York, the concern was pragmatic. In others, like that of the moderate “Cato Uticensis,” it seemed more philosophical, with “Uticensis” adopting the pendulum theory hook, line, and sinker (“How natural the transition is from one extreme to the other; from anarchy to tyranny.”). But after Shays, and especially after the repression of the rebellion, radicals had to take seriously the threat of anarchy and tyranny, and as a result found themselves embracing this more conservative concept of revolution. Like it or not, New York’s “Cato” had to admit that Americans were “like other men in similar situations, [and] will as readily produce a Caesar, Caligula, Nero and Domitian in America, as the same causes did in the Roman Empire.”29

    With the defeat of shays and his forces in January and February 1787, when they were routed in battles in Hampshire and Berkshire counties, radical republicans became surprisingly quiet. Although scattered protests would continue for several months, by June 1787 the rebellion had come effectively to an end. Regulator-type activities continued to be carried on in several other states, some inspired at least in part by Shays, but these, too, were fewer and less formidable than before. There were many reasons for the decline in dissent, but Shays’s failure was prominent among them, providing an object lesson for protesters and public officials alike. From this time on, protesters seemed more cautious, while public officials seemed less reluctant to use coercive means to put them down. At the same time, officials had learned the lesson that repression had its limits. For their part, having raised the important issues, the rebels themselves seemed willing to wait, more or less confidently, for their resolution. As Shays wrote to General Benjamin Lincoln, requesting clemency for himself and his followers, “The people now in arms, in defence of their lives and liberties, will quietly return to their respective habitations, patiently waiting and hoping for constitutional relief, from the insupportable burdens they now labour under.”30

    Yet the calling of the Philadelphia convention, coming close on the heels of the protests, left radicals perplexed. Having asked for changes, they now got them, and with a vengeance. To most, the plans for a radically revised constitution seemed all wrong. Predisposed as they were to think in cyclical terms, considering reform to be part of a process of reverting to first principles, they saw the proposed changes as departures from established ways. Thus radicals found themselves suddenly cast in the role of conservatives, denouncing the new plans for being in effect too radical, for “taking us from the good old way,” in the words of “Countryman,” “and leading us into new schemes and devices.”31

    At best, their position was problematic, for having demanded reforms, they could hardly now revert to a blind defense of the existing system. Like their conservative counterparts, radicals believed that the Confederation was badly in need of revision. According to Patrick Henry, who would become a leader of the Antifederalist opposition, all agreed on the need for reform: “Every man says that something must be done.” Moreover, they had relatively little commitment to the existing government. Whether the Articles of Confederation remained or not, announced “Federal Farmer,” was “but of little importance.” Indeed, many were willing to admit that the time did seem ripe for constitutional change. As “Federal Farmer” put it, “I know our situation is critical, and it behoves us to make the best of it.”32

    Compounding the dilemma were practical political problems. Although most radical republicans moved easily into the Antifederalist ranks, once there they found themselves disagreeing with more moderate Antifederalists, not only about the character of the proposed changes but also on their timing. Here perceptions of the recent rebellion came heavily into play. Typical among the moderates were those like Melancton Smith, who dismissed the insurgency as insignificant, an unfortunate aberration in an otherwise happy transition to independence. Writing as “A Plebeian,” Smith could conveniently overlook almost all the troubles of his times, assuring his New York readers that “neither the hand of private violence, nor . . . legal oppression, are reached out to distress us.” Others found it harder to forget the Massachusetts uprising. Boston’s “Agrippa,” for example, thought to be Harvard’s James Winthrop, had been deeply disturbed by events in the countryside and had personally volunteered to lead troops against Shays. Even so, “Agrippa” found solace in the suppression of the rebellion and saw Shays’s failure as further proof that reform was not needed, the “damage,” he wrote, having “been repaired.” Still others took an even more paradoxical position, arguing that the protests had been terrifying in and of themselves, but that the proposed constitutional reforms were even worse. Writing in the Massachusetts Gazette, “Vox Populi” would take this stance, denouncing the Constitution’s framers as—of all things—reincarnations of Shays: “I say let them consider in what respect such a revolution would differ from the bold and unprovoked one which was attempted to be made last winter!”33

    Antifederalists argued that the proposed Constitution was too much too soon. Even while admitting that changes were in order and that the time for them was right, they continued to counsel caution. What was needed, advised “Federal Farmer,” was not simply reform but “cool and deliberate reforms.” Periods like the present were fraught with uncertainty, offering equal possibility for failure and success. Under the circumstances, they thought it best to be deliberate and in carrying out changes, in the words of “An Old Whig,” to “consider carefully.” Thus they bridled at the haste shown by the Constitution’s supporters. “Brutus, Jr.” warned his compatriots to be careful, because “those who are anxious to precipitate a measure, will always tell us that the present is the critical moment; now is the time, the crisis is arrived, and the present minute must be seized. Tyrants have always made use of this plea;” he advised, “but nothing in our circumstances can justify it.” One incredulous Anti-federalist put it succinctly to the Massachusetts convention: “Why all this racket?”34

    For their part, conservatives reacted to the decline in popular protest with an escalation of their own antiradical activities. Surprisingly, the increase coincided not with Shays’s successes but with his failure. Concerned conservatives feared the aftereffects of Shays, as the protests continued to reverberate. Writing to his father in late February, James Madison warned that the protests were far from over; there remained, he observed, “a great deal of leaven in the mass of the people.” Repression only compounded the problem, and the election of John Hancock as governor of Massachusetts, coming at least in part as a reaction to the harsh treatment of the rebels, gave conservatives further cause for concern. “The Insurrection in Massachusetts is suppressed,” Jay wrote to Jefferson in April, “but the Spirit of it exists and has operated powerfully in the late Election.” Mostly, conservatives worried about the possibility that protests would spread to the other states. As Washington wrote to the near-frantic Henry Lee, “Precedents are dangerous things.”35

    Adding to this concern was a desire on the part of some for further punishment and retribution. In the popular press, a few unrepentant reactionaries gave strong support to repressive legislation, including sedition and riot acts, along with the suspension of habeas corpus. Throughout the spring of 1787 they criticized acts of toleration on the part of the state and called for punishment in terms that ranged from the stern to the positively sadistic. “Phineas” thought it was time that the “sons of sedition and tumult” be given “a little wholesome severity.” “The Republican” observed that such “atrocious criminals” deserved “the severest punishments,” and that the ringleaders should be made to “atone with their blood.” One writer in the Massachusetts Centinel went even further still in condemning the rebels, suggesting that law-loving citizens should “cut them off, and wipe from the world the blot their existence now makes in it.” Taking on a momentum of their own, the calls for retribution soon became so extreme that Washington himself felt called upon to counsel restraint, observing to Madison that harsh treatment of the rebels “probably may give birth to new, instead of destroying the old leaven.”36

    By mid-1787, however, conservatives of almost all stripes had seized on Shays as a kind of archetype for anarchy, so that the further they removed from the actual rebellion, the more determined they seemed to become in their denunciations. Crucial in this regard was the publication of the mock-epic poem The Anarchiad, the product of the self-styled “Connecticut Wits,” which appeared in the New-Haven Gazette in twelve installments from October of 1786 through September of 1787. Reprinted widely, the poem had the effect of elevating Shays from local leader to a kind of national nemesis. Part of the epic’s power was its contemporaneousness, in that the installments coincided with the protests themselves. Thus in the first installment of October 26, 1786, Shays was only one of several leaders involved in the popular protests:

    In visions fair the scenes of fate unroll,

    And Massachusetts opens on my soul;

    There Chaos, Anarch old, asserts his sway,

    And mobs in myriads blacken all the way:

    See Day’s stern port—behold the martial frame

    Of Shays’ and Shattuck’s mob-compelling name.

    By January 11, in the fourth installment, he not only had emerged as the leader of the resistance but had taken on considerable symbolic significance, standing in league with the devil himself:

    Behold the reign of anarchy, begun,

    And half the business of confusion done.

    From hell’s dark caverns discord sounds alarms,

    Blows her loud trump, and calls my Shays to arms.

    Yet Shays’s full symbolic significance is seen only after the rebellion’s suppression, when in the seventh installment of March 15, 1787, he is pictured presiding over an anarchic America:

    O’er Washington exalt thy darling Shays;

    With thy contagion, embryo mobs inspire,

    And blow to tenfold rage the kindling fire;

    Till the wide realm of discord bow the knee,

    And hold true faith in Anarch and in thee.37

    Nevertheless, the most important factor in the creation of the anti-Shays campaign was the calling of the federal convention. In this respect, some of the escalation was almost certainly calculated. Early in the protests, conservatives such as Abigail Adams felt that the troubles would in fact prove functional, showing once and for all the absolute necessity of constitutional revision. As the protests continued, however, and the ill-starred Annapolis convention came to naught, conservative writers showed growing pessimism about the chances for constitutional reform. By the time the Philadelphia convention was called, they were warning of coming catastrophe: “Sedition, though intimidated, is not disarmed,” warned “Camillus.” Predicting anarchy and tyranny, along with civil war, they reminded their readers repeatedly of the recent protests. “We cannot look back, without terror,” wrote “Camillus,” “upon the dangers we have escaped—Our country has stood upon the verge of ruin.” Above all, they called for action, arguing that audacity was the only thing that could save them from what would otherwise be certain doom. “Anarchy and government are both before us,” “Camillus” told his Massachusetts audience, “and in our choice. If we fall, we fall by our folly, not our fate.”38

    Following the framing of the Constitution, its supporters continued to recall the rebellion, wielding it like a weapon in the state ratification debates. Interestingly, Federalists seemed to avoid references to Shays himself. By and large, they found direct assaults unnecessary, contenting themselves with more oblique references to the dangers of anarchy. A few delegates, including several in the Massachusetts ratifying convention, were slightly more specific, referring back in shadowy terms to the events of the previous year, when the state was “on the point of civil war.” In the Massachusetts convention, the topic was addressed head-on only once, when a renegade delegate, a supporter of the Constitution and a westerner, describing himself as a “plain man” and addressing his “brother ploughjoggers,” pointed to the “effects of anarchy” brought about by Shays in his region and stated his willingness to accept any system that provided “a cure for these disorders.” The records show that the convention was immediately thrown into tumult, with Antifederalist motions from the floor to declare the delegate out of order. Federalists themselves seemed embarrased by the references to Shays and beat a rapid retreat. The fact is that Federalists found it more effective to refer to Shays, if at all, in only a secondhand manner, allowing the Constitution to stand on its merits, while avoiding excessive antagonism. Innuendo was more than enough to make the message clear: “Have we not reason,” the Reverend Thomas Thacher asked ominously, “to fear new commotions in this commonwealth?”39

    Outside the ratifying conventions, by contrast, supporters felt no such compulsion. In the newspaper essays and pamphlets of late 1787 and 1788, the link between Shays and the Antifederalists was direct and unrelenting. Opponents of the Constitution were not simply “harpies, knaves, and blockheads,” “Cassius” told his readers; they were also “insurgents.” Similarly, in his reply to “Cato,” New York’s “Caesar” reminded his readers that they had heard Anti-federalist arguments before, having been “already disseminated in a neighboring State by the glorious defenders of Shaysism.” Shays himself was no longer a threat; with a group of supporters he had moved into quiet exile in Vermont. But his specter loomed large in the campaign for the Constitution. The choice was clear, explained Virginia’s “A Plain Dealer”: either “the dominion of Shays” or “that of the new Constitution.”40

    Under the circumstances, Antifederalists could do little. Throughout the state conventions, many continued to complain that Shays had provided a pretext, an excuse that supporters had used to fend off criticism of the Constitution. “The most trifling events have been Magnified,” an angry Uriah Forrest wrote to Jefferson of this tactic, “into Monstrious outrages.” Realistically, however, Antifederalists looked on the insurrection with resignation, describing it as a hurdle they never had managed to surmount. As Pennsylvania’s “Centinel” wrote in the last of his letters, the Constitution had been viewed “through the medium of a Shays,” and as a result, supporters of the existing system had “lost her ablest advocates.” In terms of strategy, Shays had placed the Antifederalists in an untenable position: trapped, as it were, between rebellion and counterrevolution, supporting neither Shays nor his aristocratic enemies, they tried to hold a tenuous middle ground “between these two parties.” But because supporters of the Constitution had already claimed the middle, its opponents were reduced to calling for caution, their radical concept of reform watered down almost beyond recognition into a desire for incremental changes within the existing Confederation. A measure of their transformation was the fact that the strongest Antifederalist arguments were often framed as antidotes to rebellion. So it was that in criticizing the Constitution for its lack of a bill of rights, “Agrippa” could contend that personal liberties would provide the best protection against popular uprisings: “But for want of a bill of rights the resistance is always, by the principles of their government, a rebellion which nothing but success can justify.”41

    With ratification, federalists could consign the insurrections in Massachusetts to the past. The Confederation was history, but it was a history that Federalists were determined to remember, and in their own terms. Thus Ames told his friend George Richards Minot that he for one would take every opportunity to recall the Confederation as a time when “the corn would not grow, nor the pot boil.” Minot did even better, taking it upon himself to write the history of the rebellion itself. In his History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts, he could place these relatively recent events well in the past, looking back philosophically on the rebellion as a “period of misfortune” that had provided “the most fruitful source of instruction.” Nevertheless, even for Minot, the moral of the rebellion was a timely one, that freedom could only flourish when every citizen embraced the new Constitution, “which, from a happy principle of mediocrity, governs its subjects without oppression, and reclaims them without severity.”42

    Yet even in Antifederalist history, the depiction was more or less the same. Shays himself, reportedly reduced to penury, found few if any defenders. Indeed, in her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, the ardent Antifederalist Mercy Warren would describe the events in western Massachusetts in terms that sounded more like Minot than Minot did. Thus she turned her spleen full force on the insurgents, that “incendiary and turbulent set of people” who, armed with resolves that were “most of them absurd in the extreme,” had “seemed to bid defiance to all law, order, and government.” While willing to lay some blame on conservatives, she was as warm in her adulation of the authorities as she was scathing in her denunciation of the protesters and went out of her way to praise the stolid General Lincoln for his “mildness and humanity.” Writing not only after ratification but following several years of successful national government, even this old Antifederalist seemed unable to divorce rebellion from ratification, so that for Warren, too, Shays had become only a catalyst to constitutional order, having “awakened all to a full view of the necessity of concert and union in measures that might preserve their internal peace.”43 Having consigned Shays’s rebellion to history, revisionists did not stop there but turned to relegating rebellion itself to the past. Thus the concepts of resistance, revolution, and reform continued to be reinterpreted. As the new federal union gained support, resistance to it seemed less and less acceptable. With the horrors of the French Revolution, revolution at home became unthinkable. And by the early nineteenth century, as the Constitution became more and more a kind of national monument, reform became synonymous with constitutional revision, with changes taking place only incrementally within its benevolent boundaries. In each case, radical concepts continued to be transformed into constitutional ones. As to Shays’s Rebellion, by 1813 John Adams was describing it in one of his letters to Jefferson as an act of “terrorism.” The Constitution was secure, but rebellion had lost its legitimacy and had been relegated to the preconstitutional past.44