A Splintered Society
The Context of Rebellion in Pelham, Massachusetts
Gregory H. Nobles
My name is Shays; in former days
In Pelham I did dwell, sir;
But now I’m forced to leave that place
Because I did rebel, sir.
From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conferences on Shays’s Rebellion, 1986, sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and Historic Deerfield, Inc.
The old tavern ballad goes on for many more stanzas, denouncing and deriding Daniel Shays and ultimately dispatching him to Hell.1 This first stanza, however, makes a simple point worth our attention. It introduces Daniel Shays, the alleged leader of the rebellion that bore his name, as an inhabitant of a particular town—Pelham, Massachusetts. The identification of Shays with Pelham helps humanize him, bringing him back down from his mythical proportions in legend and literature to his real stature as a farmer in a small New England village. It also helps bring the insurrection as a whole down to human scale. By seeing Daniel Shays as a common man within the context of a community, we can begin to see more of his neighbors, the small farmers who likewise “did rebel.” Shays’s Rebellion was as much their rebellion as his, perhaps even more.
Historians have not always done enough to emphasize that point. Many have tended to discuss Shays’s Rebellion primarily as a footnote to the Constitution, turning our attention away from the farmers in Massachusetts to the framers in Philadelphia. Admittedly, there is good reason for that focus. Shays’s Rebellion did indeed add to the sense of urgency at the constitutional convention. Yet focusing only on the immediate political implications of Shays’s Rebellion can obscure other important aspects of its historical significance. The insurrection was a short-term crisis that crystallized and clarified long-term trends in rural society. The Shaysites had serious grievances that grew out of their own historical experience. Their complaints about the inequities of their society—especially the small farmer’s vulnerability in an increasingly complex and impersonal political and economic system—did not stem simply from the chaos of the Revolutionary era but were rooted much deeper in the past. In a sense, the Revolution did not so much create new problems as exacerbate old ones. Accordingly, some historians of Shays’s Rebellion—among them David Szatmary and Barbara Karsky—have attempted to analyze the rural uprising within a social context that extends beyond the Revolutionary era and, indeed, suggests connections that transcend regional and national boundaries.2
That task is far from complete. After more than twenty years and more than twenty book-length community studies, our view of rural New England society in the eighteenth century is still surprisingly limited and even somewhat skewed. Much of what we know comes from analyses of older, well-established towns in eastern Massachusetts. We know comparatively little about the dozens of smaller and newer towns in the west that were the main sources of Shaysite activity. Moreover, the primary emphasis in most community studies has been on economic and demographic development. Political analysis, if it enters the story at all, is generally confined to parochial problems, the occasional (and exceptional) disruptions of internal harmony in the “peaceable kingdoms.” Only a very few community studies have attempted to make an explicit link between local conditions and larger political movements.3
Shays’s Rebellion presents an especially useful opportunity for exploring further the connection between society and politics in rural New England. As was the case in the early stages of the Revolution, collective action was essentially a form of communal action; thus the town still constitutes a useful unit of study. Yet unlike the Revolution, Shays’s Rebellion was not an occasion when all New England towns, presumably with common problems, united in common cause against an external enemy. Rather, it revealed divisions in New England society that reflected distinctions among rural towns.4 For that reason, studies of supposedly representative communities in the Revolutionary crisis do not provide adequate models for our understanding of the nature of the post-Revolutionary insurrection.
This essay examines the social and political context of Shays’s Rebellion from the perspective of the people in one of the leading rebel communities—Pelham, Massachusetts. Located in the hills rising to the east of the Connecticut River valley, Pelham lay near the center of Shaysite activity in Hampshire and Worcester counties. Not only did Daniel Shays live there at the time of the rebellion, but as many as ninety Pelham men—around 40 percent of the town’s adult male population—took up arms in the insurrection.5 In many respects, Pelham was reasonably typical of many other towns that rose up against the government. It ranked twentieth among fifty-eight Hampshire County towns on the 1786 tax list. Likewise, its population of around a thousand inhabitants placed it just slightly above the county median.6 In general, Pelham’s centrality—geographic, military, and developmental—makes it a valuable focus for a case study of a rebellious community. Moreover, its history reveals a tradition of resistance and rebellion that permeated parts of rural society long before Shays’s Rebellion (or even Daniel Shays) appeared on the historical landscape.
Pelham was first settled in 1740 by a group of Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had lived briefly (and unhappily) in Worcester. Like thousands of other refugees from Ulster who flooded the American colonies in the 1720s and 1730s, these migrants to Massachusetts escaped discrimination in the Old World only to find it in the New. When the Presbyterian newcomers began to build their own church in Worcester, the townspeople “gathered tumultuously by night, and demolished the structure.” According to an early Worcester historian, “Persons of consideration and respectability aided in the riotous work of violence.”7 Clearly the Anglo-American Congregationalists of this prosperous market town had little tolerance for members of an ethnic and religious minority in their midst.
The Scots-Irish migrants soon sought refuge on the frontier. In 1739 they purchased a 17,000-acre tract of hilly land in the wilderness of western Massachusetts, and the next year forty families moved west to establish a new town. Set apart in their own community, the Pelham Presbyterians perhaps seemed less a threat to the religious and social order of the established towns. There is no evidence, at least, of further persecution or open antagonism on the part of neighboring Congregationalists. In the early years of settlement, Pelham existed on the cultural fringe of the region, neither fully integrated nor isolated.8
The town was by no means unique in that respect. Between 1740, the year Pelham was settled, and the time of the American Revolution, dozens of other new towns were carved out of the Massachusetts interior. In Hampshire County alone, the number of incorporated towns rose from nine to forty-four; by 1775, almost three-fourths of the county’s inhabitants lived in communities established after 1740.9 In the space of a generation, backcountry communities filled in the frontier; to a large degree they changed not only the physical environment of western Massachusetts but the political and social environment as well.
The settlement of the backcountry had important implications throughout the American colonies. Backcountry farmers increasingly defined a distinct social group; indeed, to some extent they developed a regional counterculture that stood in sharp contrast to—and often in conflict with—the established culture of the colonial elite. In Pennsylvania, Scots-Irish settlers on the western frontier resented the political dominance of the Quaker elite in the east, and in 1763 the “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia, only to be dissuaded by the intervention of Benjamin Franklin. In Virginia backcountry Baptists gained converts by denouncing the worldly excesses of the Anglican gentry. In North Carolina yeomen in the western counties took even more forceful action and rose up in armed revolt against the eastern elites who controlled the provincial government. (It was not coincidental, in fact, that in 1786 the rebellious farmers of Massachusetts adopted the same name that their North Carolina counterparts had used twenty years earlier—Regulators.)10
In rural New England social and religious distinctions were not as extreme as they were in the other regions, nor was social conflict as violent—at least not until the outbreak of Shays’s Rebellion. Still, in the pre-Revolutionary era there was increasing evidence of important social, economic, and political differences between the inhabitants of the older, established towns and the people of the new backcountry communities. Those contrasts not only underlay the insurrection that erupted in the 1780s, they also provided the source of regional discontent many years before.
The basic elements of this contrast are perhaps best captured in an old anecdote that dates from the 1740s or 1750s. It is a joke told on a prominent Northampton merchant, Deacon Ebenezer Hunt, but it also tells us something about social relations in the region long before Shays’s Rebellion. An early nineteenth-century historian recorded the story:
One season there was a great scarcity of corn in this vicinity. A man from Pelham came to the Deacon for a bushel of corn and was very urgent. The Deacon refused—said he had no more than he wanted for his family. “I curse you,” said the man. “What! What!” said the Deacon. “I curse you. God commands me to curse you.” “What do you mean by such language?” said Hunt. The man called for a Bible and read the verse in Proverbs about the peoples cursing him that withholdeth his corn from the poor. The Deacon ordered a bushel put up. “Now,” says he to the man, “go and curse a bushel out of the Clarks.”11
Whether literally true or not, the anecdote is a revealing bit of local folklore. In order to “get” the joke as fully as Deacon Hunt’s contemporaries would, we have to understand the characters within the cultural context of the region. Certainly the identification of the poor man with Pelham adds to the texture of the tale. He is the backcountry beggar who badgers the valley merchant for a bushel of corn. He is the Scots-Irish Presbyterian who curses the Congregational deacon and then gives him a theological beating with his own Bible. Above all, he is the outsider whose independent status allows him to confront a member of the local elite with defiance rather than deference—and get away with it. In hearing the anecdote, local residents no doubt understood implicitly the nature of the Pelham man’s stance because they understood the nature of his community within the broader context of the region.
Like the brash beggar in the story, inhabitants of Pelham and other hill towns had only to go down into the established valley towns to encounter a very different world. There they would see signs of much greater wealth and economic development. The major towns in western Massachusetts—Worcester, Springfield, Hadley, and Northampton—were productive and prosperous farm communities. In his travels through the region, Timothy Dwight noted their natural advantages, especially the abundance of “fertile and delightful” land. There were “no more productive grounds in New England” than in the Connecticut River valley, Dwight asserted, and he observed that for most farmers in the established valley communities, work appeared to be “rather easy than toilsome, and much less strenuous than that of the people in the hills.” Moreover, by the second half of the eighteenth century, the economy of these older towns had become increasingly diversified. The growing numbers of merchants and artisans testified to the expansion of trade, both within the towns themselves and with communities in the surrounding area. These rural market towns defined and dominated the economic and political life of a rapidly expanding region.12
The comparability of these communities like Pelham to the older towns is still not entirely clear. Until recently, the only sustained analysis of a new town in New England was Charles Grant’s study of Kent, Connecticut, a town settled in 1739, about the same time as Pelham. This Connecticut frontier town apparently offered great opportunities for economic gain, and according to Grant the first inhabitants scrambled to make the most of the situation. Motivated by a “drive for profits,” the “aggressive opportunists” of Kent engaged in land speculation, commercial farming, and an “almost frenzied determination” to develop nonagricultural enterprises.13
Between 1740 and 1790, however, economic prospects gradually declined in Kent. The town became “overcrowded,” and an increasing number of Kent residents were landless and poor. Like the inhabitants of older New England communities, the people of Kent found themselves confronting what Robert Gross has called a “world of scarcity” by the Revolutionary era. Yet Grant is careful to note that Kent was not seriously affected by the “Shaysite contagion.” In that regard he suggests that “this history of an ‘exceptional town’ on the New England frontier may provide some counterbalance to those radical communities which historians have found plagued with internal and external class rivalries.”14
Grant raises an important question about the nature of new towns. In light of the many community studies that have followed his 1961 work, the frontier town of Kent seems very much within the economic and political mainstream of eighteenth-century New England. The task remains, then, to examine one of those “radical communities” like Pelham to see where the “Shaysite contagion” bred and how it spread.
One difference is clear. The inhabitants of Pelham did not experience a decline from abundance to privation: they lived in a “world of scarcity” from the beginning. In 1745, five years after the original settlement of the community, over half the families in Pelham had fewer than ten acres of land cleared for production; indeed, over 90 percent of the households had fewer than twenty acres of improved land.15 According to standards of land use suggested by some studies of other New England communities, the people of Pelham barely met the requirements for subsistence. Grant’s figures for Kent, for instance, suggest that with about five acres of tillage land and another thirty-five acres of other improved land, a farm family could probably get by, “if not burdened with too many mouths to feed.”16
The early inhabitants of Pelham were perhaps fortunate in that regard, because they had comparatively small and young families: in 1746 only nine of the seventy-three heads of households had sons over the age of sixteen. Throughout the next three decades, while the young people of Pelham were growing, so was the town itself. In the early 1760s a group of Pelham families migrated to New York; but in the wake of the French and Indian War, an influx of new settlers in Pelham quickly took their places. Between 1765 and 1776 the population of the town almost doubled, rising from 371 to 729.17
This rapid population growth did not bring on a serious crisis of overcrowding, nor did it result in a significant shrinking of the average farm size. Indeed, what is most striking in the case of Pelham is the relative degree of continuity in the process of agricultural development. Some families did expand their holdings; by 1771 sixteen Pelham households had over thirty acres of improved land, close to (but still below) Grant’s estimate of the level needed for a comfortable and secure existence. At the same time, however, almost two-thirds of Pelham’s 131 households worked farms of less than twenty improved acres. By 1780 the average farm size rose only slightly, to just over twenty-five acres of improved land. After four decades of settlement, the pace of expansion had been slow, and most people still farmed on essentially the same scale as the first inhabitants.18
Small-scale farming does not necessarily denote scarcity, of course. As Bettye Hobbs Pruitt has recently shown, the standards of land use suggested by Grant and others probably overestimate the amount of land needed for a “middle-class” standard of living. Her analysis of the 1771 Massachusetts tax valuation reveals that the median farm size was twenty improved acres—that is, about the size of most Pelham farms. Moreover, she argues that the exact measure of agricultural subsistence, or “self-sufficiency,” is difficult to determine for New England farms. Individual households may not have been able to supply all their own food, but they could fulfill their basic needs by engaging in exchanges with other households; thus “communities could be self-sufficient though individuals were not.”19
Still, no matter what amount of land Pelham farmers used for growing crops, they could not expect much of a return. The soil in Pelham, like that in most of the new hill-town communities in central and western Massachusetts, was thin, rocky, and unproductive. In nearby Ware, for instance, the land was jokingly compared to self-righteousness: the more a man had of it, people said, the poorer he must be. Pruitt’s figures for grain growing confirm the anecdotal evidence: Pelham, Ware, and other surrounding hill towns had relatively low levels of production (20–29 bushels per poll) compared to the towns in the rich lowlands of the Connecticut River valley (40+ bushels per poll). She notes, however, that there are other measures of agricultural production, like cattle raising, that suggest a rough comparability between hill towns and valley towns and thus “belie the familiar distinction between the ‘commercialized’ towns along the Connecticut River and the upland towns that were supposedly cut off from the market and isolated in their self-sufficiency.” To be sure, cattle driven to the Boston market were a “cash crop” of sorts in western Massachusetts. Yet Pruitt’s figures for cattle raising (an average of 2.3 per poll in the valley towns and 2.2 per poll in the hill towns) do not indicate a sizable enough livestock surplus to suggest that cattle production alone represented significant market involvement, much less income. In general, given the limitations of their land, hill-town farmers had a limited opportunity to produce a substantial agricultural surplus for the market.20
Not only did Pelham farmers fail to engage in large-scale agricultural production for the market, they also failed to develop nonagricultural commercial ventures. By 1771, for instance, Pelham had no shops, one tannery, and two mills. Ten men had money lent at interest, all for a total of only £24.9.7. The town remained essentially unchanged by the time of Shays’s Rebellion.21 The absence of economic development in a town like Pelham does not necessarily indicate an absence of economic desire among the town’s inhabitants. Few people in Pelham had sufficient surplus capital to invest heavily in commercial ventures or to buy large tracts of land. Still, the early history of Pelham yields little evidence of either the intense “drive for profits” Charles Grant claimed for the people of Kent or the degree of market involvement Pruitt and others have suggested for Massachusetts towns in general.
The more compelling feature of the town’s eighteenth-century economic profile is the occupational similarity and economic equality of its inhabitants. According to recent typologies of New England communities, Pelham was an “egalitarian farm village” that showed little evidence of social stratification; in 1771 the top 10 percent of taxpayers controlled less than 30 percent of the town’s wealth.22 The people of Pelham remained small-scale farmers, neither hopelessly poor nor especially prosperous—in short, more or less typical of the thousands of settlers that populated the backcountry hill towns of Massachusetts in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.
The limits of economic development eventually bred economic disadvantages for inhabitants of these small agrarian villages. David Szatmary has offered a very perceptive analysis of the yeomen’s position at the end of the global “chain of debt.” They felt increasing pressure from merchants in the region’s market towns for repayment of debts that had often been carried for years. Especially in western Massachusetts, debt proceedings increased dramatically in the 1780s. Moreover, the fear of confiscation of one’s property or imprisonment for debt heightened the anxieties of farmers who never actually had to go to court. As the inhabitants of Conway wrote, the “mortgage of our farms,—we cannot think of, with any degree of complacency. To be tenants to landlords . . . and pay rent for lands, purchased with our money, and converted from howling wilderness, into fruitful fields, by the sweat of our brow, seems . . . truly shocking.”23
Similar anxiety over anticipated losses may well have motivated many of the rebels in Pelham. In some respects, the ninety men who actually took up arms in the insurrection do not fit the classic characterization of the Shaysite—that is, the debt-ridden Revolutionary War veteran dragged into court by his creditors. Biographical information is incomplete for all of Pelham’s insurgents, but the town’s vital records suggest that most of them were young men in their late twenties or early thirties, many of whom were just at the point of marrying and establishing themselves as independent householders. About half of them had served as soldiers in the Revolution, but usually only for a very short period of time near the end of the war. Only three Pelham Regulators (one of whom was Daniel Shays himself) were defendants in debt cases in the years just preceding the insurrection, and none suffered confiscation of property or imprisonment for debt.24 But one did not have to suffer personally at the hands of the legal system to feel vulnerable and threatened. One had only to be aware of the laws as they stood, aware of the experience of other men, and aware of the marginal nature of one’s own situation. For young men starting out in economic circumstances that were already generally strained, prospects for the future were as important as the reality of the present.
Yet economic conditions, or even economic concerns, cannot alone provide an adequate explanation for Shays’s Rebellion. If that was the case, we could reduce the rebellion to a formula that derives political behavior from economic background. And if we did so, we would no doubt be disappointed and perplexed by the results. We would find, for instance, that the inhabitants of Daniel Shays’s old hometown of Brookfield, which was much like Pelham in economic terms, remained largely loyal to the government during the insurrection.25 So, too, did people in many other poor farm towns.
In order to understand the uprising of rural rebels in 1786, it is also important to consider carefully the communal patterns of political behavior—and not just in the insurrection itself but over time. On one level, people in New England shared a common political culture that provided clear standards of order, especially about the importance of peace and compromise. Yet just as there were differences in the economic development of New England towns, so were there differences in political development; to a large degree, of course, the two are related. Still, each town had its own history of political behavior that created a distinct, and sometimes distinctive, political culture for the community.
Certainly in the case of Pelham, the inhabitants developed a local political culture that set them apart from the dominant political powers of the region. Long before Daniel Shays came to Pelham, the town had a history of active opposition to external authority. In 1762, for instance, a Hampshire County deputy sheriff received a harsh welcome when he came up the hill to serve a warrant in Pelham. A group of men and women confronted him “with Axes, Clubs, sticks, hot water and hot soap in a riotous and tumultuous manner . . . [and] uttered menace and threatenings of bodily hurt and death . . . and with force of arms obstructed, opposed, hindered and wholly prevented” him from doing his lawful duty.26
During the early stages of Revolutionary protest, the Pelham people became even more aggressive. Not content to wait for officials to come to them, they were active in taking collective action against suspected Tories in neighboring towns. In February 1775 a mob from Pelham descended on Israel Williams of nearby Hatfield, one of the most prominent and powerful of the Connecticut Valley’s “River Gods” and a leading Loyalist in the region. They locked Williams and his son in a house with a clogged chimney and smoked them overnight. After being kept “under Keepers who insult him very highly,” Williams agreed to sign a confession of his political sins. Then the Pelham crowd moved on to Northampton, where their victim was Solomon Stoddard, likewise one of the wealthiest and most notable men in the county. Not only did the Pelham people suspect Stoddard of being a Tory, but some of them apparently also owed him money; he was therefore a doubly attractive target. The mob spared him the smoking they gave Williams, but they did extract a signed confession.27
Some people, especially most of the Whig leaders in Northampton, condemned the actions of the Pelham crowd, but they were powerless to do anything. As a local minister, the Reverend Jonathan Judd of Southampton, observed, “The Committee of Correspondence meet and know not what to Do, are irresolute, nonplussed, & Divided.” Undeterred by local opposition, the mob from Pelham completed its “tour of education” according to its own sense of political direction. As the Reverend Mr. Judd noted with disgust, “They act like mad people, tho’ well for a Mob.”28
Another sometime minister, the notorious Stephen Burroughs, had an even dimmer view of the Pelham people. An itinerant imposter who filled the Pelham pulpit for a brief time in 1784, Burroughs was discovered to be a fraud and run out of town. After barely escaping with his life, he wrote disdainfully that the inhabitants of Pelham were “a people generally possessing violent passions, which once disturbed, raged, uncontrolled by the dictates of reason.” These “unpolished” people, he continued, had “a jealous disposition; and [were] either very friendly or very inimical, not knowing a medium between those two extremes.”29 As Burroughs learned firsthand, they could be very inimical indeed to anyone who threatened the integrity of the community.
This was the background of Shays’s neighbors when he moved to Pelham in 1780. Although some local observers accused them of emotional extremism and irrationality, they were not “mad people,” nor were their passions “uncontrolled by the dictates of reason.” Their actions reflected patterns of collective political behavior that were common throughout Europe and the American colonies. Urban and rural crowds often acted autonomously and aggressively for their own political purposes. Especially in a town like Pelham, whose original settlers had once suffered the scorn heaped on the Scots-Irish in New England, people felt they had good reason to be especially wary of external enemies. Throughout the short history of the town, the inhabitants of Pelham had repeatedly risen in forceful and sometimes violent defense of what they defined as their local rights and interests.
That tradition of local mobilization provides an intriguing approach to understanding the role of Daniel Shays in Pelham—and more generally, to understanding the nature of political behavior in Shays’s Rebellion. At the time of the insurrection, Massachusetts officials identified Shays as the primary leader of the uprising, the “generalissimo” of the rebel forces.30 Similarly, most early historians of the insurrection attacked Shays as a dangerous demagogue who pushed the populace to political extremes. According to one account, Shays was
a brave man, ambitious, of good appearance and pleasing address, but seemingly utterly devoid of principle. He found it easy to enlist men for carrying out his projects however visionary, and was thoroughly unscrupulous as to the means employed in attaining his purposes. Such a man was the natural leader of the discontented, rebellious victims of a state of public and private affairs for which they held others to be blamed.31
His fellow farmers were, as George Richards Minot so often put it in his History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts, “deluded”—usually by a combination of demagoguery and drink.32 Other critics wrote of Shays’s “tavern harangues” in which he “encouraged the talk of rebellion and used the open space in front of the tavern as a training-field.” “A natural if not a necessary feature of this training,” noted one writer, “consisted of frequent visits to the bar-room.”33 Even the mother of one of Shays’s alleged lieutenants complained that her son had been “in several insurrections, [because] his passions have been in many instances raised unduly, by going in company with others, and freely using strong liquors [so that he] has been guilty of rash expressions, which upon cool reflection he heartily lamented.” Her son, Henry McCulloch, also argued that he had been deceived and “was persuaded, merely for Show, to take an Old Cutlass just before the attack at the Arsenal.” He claimed he was taken to be a leader of the rebels only “because he rode a good horse and had a foolish fondness to be thought active and alert.”34
Such explanations may be amusing, but they provide a misleading and, at best, patronizing view of the origin of the insurrection in Pelham. They portray Shays as far more important, and his followers as far more impressionable, than was the case. Daniel Shays was by no means the most prominent or powerful political leader in Pelham in the 1780s. A relative newcomer, he held a few minor town offices but never the post of selectman or moderator. He served as one of Pelham’s delegates to a county convention in 1782, but on the eve of the insurrection, other Pelham men represented the town in the conventions that drafted the lists of grievances. In arguing for her son’s innocence, Sarah McCulloch identified Shays as only one of “a number of Men in town . . . [including] Capt. Daniel Gray, Thompson, Capt. Cowden, Capt. Conkey who all belong to Pelham” and who were the local instigators of the insurrection. Shays was a clearly leading figure among the Pelham Regulators, but hardly a lone figure. Indeed, Shays always denied responsibility for the rebellion that bore his name. Somewhat like Henry McCulloch, he argued that he had been a reluctant rebel pushed to the forefront by his fellow townspeople because of his military bearing and experience.35
We cannot take such disclaimers completely at face value, of course: Shays made these self-serving statements in an attempt to save his own neck. But we cannot completely dismiss them, either. In his classic study of Western Massachusetts in the Revolution, Robert J. Taylor noted that the Regulator uprising was hardly a single, unified movement. Rather, it was initially a series of local protests led by local leaders—only one of whom was Daniel Shays.36 Moreover, when we look at Shays within the context of his own community, we can hardly see him as a designing manipulator, or even the main instigator, of his neighbors. Shays rose to local prominence in a political environment that had been long established by the people of Pelham. There may have been some people in the community who, like Henry McCulloch, claimed to have felt uncomfortable with—or even coerced by—the political culture of Pelham. Still, the remarkable record of mobilization, both before and during Shays’s Rebellion, indicates that the people did not simply respond to the direction (or deception) of a demagogue. Given Pelham’s communal history of collective action, Shays perhaps understood that popular movements often create their own leaders. Certainly he knew better than some of his detractors that one man does not make a movement.
Neither does one town. Pelham was only one of several communities in western Massachusetts with a sizable insurgent population and a reputation of rebellious action. In the immediate vicinity of Pelham, for instance, several other towns—Amherst, Leverett, Shutesbury, and Greenwich—formed a core of Regulator strength in Hampshire County. There were also important rebel strongholds elsewhere in Hampshire County, as well as in Worcester and Berkshire counties. It is far beyond the scope of this essay to provide a town-by-town survey of the political histories of each of these towns. It is possible, however, to look briefly at instances when people from several towns acted in concert, both in Shays’s Rebellion and before. By doing so, we can gain useful insights into the patterns of political behavior that had become common in the countryside.
The history of western Massachusetts in the second half of the eighteenth century is peppered with political unrest. We know, for instance, that Pelham was by no means the only town with a record of mob activity or resistance to external authority. Especially in the early stages of the Revolutionary era, people from many of the newer communities in the region asserted themselves aggressively. They took collective action, both as mobs from single towns and as part of huge crowds drawing on dozens of communities, to close the county courts and unseat the Tory elite.37
Moreover, once they had deposed the Tories, they repeatedly challenged the authority of the emerging Whig elite, both in western Massachusetts and in Massachusetts as a whole. Beginning in 1775, several towns in Berkshire County led the agitation for a new written state constitution. These Berkshire Constitutionalists did not seek to create a strong centralized state government; rather, they wanted to establish clear limits on the power of the state and thus maintain a large degree of control at the local level. In 1778, however, the initial draft of the Massachusetts constitution created another opportunity for opposition. Despite the widespread western support for the Berkshire Constitutionalists’ call for a written constitution, only a handful of towns in the region—the older, more commercially and politically integrated market centers—gave their approval to the document proposed by the General Court.38 People in the newer towns remained much more resistant. As the people of Pelham argued, the new constitution “labours under several material Defects [and] seems in some particulars too favourable to some Classes of Men while it excludes others.” Their neighbors in nearby Greenwich echoed that sentiment, complaining that the constitution “Intirely Divests the good People of the State of Many of the Priviledges which God and Nature had given them . . . Giving away that Power to a few Individuals, which ought forever to Remain with the people inviolate, who stile Themselves free and Independent.”39
Throughout the Revolutionary era, even after the ratification of the revised draft of Massachusetts’s constitution in 1780, people in many western communities still continued to “stile Themselves free and Independent.” They repeatedly resorted to extralegal activity to deal with their grievances. Not only did they assemble at county conventions, they also took direct action as mobs. Samuel Ely, the migrant minister who came to western Massachusetts in 1782 with his own version of a state constitution that he claimed “the Angel Gabriel could not find fault with,” became the focus of a rural uprising that gave a foretaste of the Regulation of 1786. Ely urged people to attack the justices of the county court and “knock their grey wigs off, and send them out of the world in an instant.” Not surprisingly, the justices put Ely in jail. Several hundred supporters from the Hampshire County backcountry then rallied to his support, and on two occasions they forced local authorities to set Ely free. Even after the so-called Ely riots had subsided, western Massachusetts witnessed several other smaller mob actions and jailbreaks in the years before Shays’s Rebellion.40
Shays’s Rebellion represented the culmination (and the combination) of these various forms of rural unrest. In 1786, when people in the Massachusetts backcountry assembled in conventions and then in mobs, they drew upon patterns of political behavior that they knew well from their previous political experience.
The closing of the county courts provides the most compelling example of this behavior. The courts were obvious targets for very practical reasons. They were the main governmental institutions controlling the countryside; they were also the institutions that gave legal sanction to the power of creditors, lawyers, and sheriffs over indebted farmers. Yet the closing of the courts often involved a political display that embodied more than immediate political purposes. When rural people acted in concert to close the courts, they gave a dramatic demonstration of their self-conscious role on the political stage.
Consider, for instance, two court closings in Springfield—one at the beginning of the Revolution, the other in the early days of the Regulation. On September 30, 1774, several thousand people from all over western Massachusetts descended on the county court and forced the justices to renounce their royal commissions. Once they had extracted contrite confessions from the justices, the “people of each town being drawn into separate companies marched with staves & musick . . . trumpets sounding, drums beating, fifes playing, and Colours flying.”41 The parade of the crowd in individual town units underlined the political emergence of many of the new communities in western Massachusetts.
Twelve years later, almost to the day, a crowd of some fifteen hundred Regulators led by Daniel Shays occupied Springfield again, this time seeking to stop the Superior Court from sitting. For three days, while the Regulators faced progovernment militia units from Springfield and other towns in the region, the court did no business. Finally, on September 28, 1786, the court adjourned. Then, according to one observer, “the Committees agreed that the Militia [should] march to the Labratory Hill & there disband, that Capt. Shays might march thro’ the Town & counter march his men to the ground [which] they occupied before & then dismiss them . . . that they [would] each Throw off the Badges a white paper in ye Militia Hats, Green Bush in ye Mobb, & go Home friendly.”42 This peaceful, almost polite, exchange of space is remarkably revealing. It demonstrated very visibly the difference between the political power of the justices inside the courthouse and the power of the people “out of doors.” In the context of the region’s political culture, everyone understood the significance of the symbolism. By agreeing to withdraw temporarily and let the Regulators occupy the grounds surrounding the courthouse, the authorities implicitly recognized the legitimacy, if not the legality, of the insurgents’ actions. Then, once both sides had played their respective parts in this political pageant, everyone could indeed “go Home friendly.”
In the course of Shays’s Rebellion, however, the terms of political conflict changed dramatically—and disastrously. Despite several Regulator appeals for peace and pardon in late 1786, both sides took steps to increase their military strength. By January 1787 the government put in the field a massive militia force recruited largely from eastern towns and financed by eastern merchants. In the face of growing government manpower, Shays staged a daring attack on the Springfield arsenal to seize arms and supplies. However, three artillery blasts from the militia forces defending the arsenal quickly scattered Shays and his men. This final confrontation at Springfield clearly signaled that government officials would no longer make concessions to crowd behavior; the state would now assert its authority through force of arms. Only after the militia had broken the Regulator forces into small bands of die-hard resisters did the government offer pardon to those insurgents who would agree to surrender their arms—and some of their political rights.43
Yet even then, some astute observers realized that the military power of the state could guarantee submission but not acceptance. Ebenezer Mattoon, a Friend of Government from Amherst, urged conciliation when seeking clemency for a Shaysite who had been captured and condemned to die—Henry McCulloch of Pelham. A display of official mercy in McCulloch’s case would “be attended with very happy consequences.” Mattoon argued that “if he is spared the town of Pelham is attached to government, [but] if he is executed . . . the affections of the town is lost.”44 Mattoon understood—and helped the government understand—that armed force alone would not destroy the roots of resistance that ran deep in western Massachusetts. By agreeing to pardon McCulloch, Massachusetts officials made a conscious concession to Pelham and to many of the other rebel communities that had never been strongly “attached to government.” Even in defeat, those towns had a tradition of political autonomy that the leaders of the new state government could hardly ignore.
In the final analysis, however, Shays’s Rebellion was the political cataclysm, or perhaps catharsis, that brought an end to the traditional forms of rural protest—at least in Massachusetts. In the wake of the insurrection, former Regulators turned from violence to the vote, usually giving their support to the Republicans. In that regard, they still remained somewhat outside the political mainstream of Massachusetts Federalism.45 More important in the long run, though, was the integration of these rebels—and their rural communities—into the established system of the state. Their political future lay with the new republican order. In that light, part of our future research as historians must be to analyze how these former Regulators understood and accepted the promise of republicanism.
And yet, in order for us to understand their political future, we must still ask questions about their political past. How did settlers of the Massachusetts backcountry communities define their collective political identity? How did they understand their relationship to the established political order? And finally, how and why did they take extralegal collective action, both before and during the Revolutionary era? Shays’s Rebellion gives us a brief historical moment that helps us answer some of these questions on a broad regional scale. Still, to appreciate fully the varieties of political behavior in rural society, we also need to examine these questions more carefully in the context of particular communities and over a longer period of time.
This essay does not issue a call for even more studies of New England towns. It does argue, however, that the community studies published so far, excellent though they are, do not tell us all we want to know about the political culture of rural society. Two hundred years ago, the inhabitants of dozens of small farming villages in western Massachusetts tried to get the attention of their state government, which had traditionally shown a greater concern—even bias—for towns in the east. When the government failed to respond, the western farmers rose up in arms. The people of those rebellious communities still deserve attention. Perhaps now, in commemorating the bicentennial of their uprising, historians have finally given them their due.