The Cultural Politics of Shays’s Rebellion
Robert A. Gross
From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conference on Shays’s Rebellion, 1986, sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
Shays’s Rebellion is noted for many things, but hardly for its humor. So polarized were government and insurgents in 1786–87, and so high were the stakes, that neither side was disposed to view its situation with the slightest detachment.
It was, after all, no laughing matter for a farmer to lose his land or go to jail for debt—and at the hands of the very government he had fought to erect. Or, so he thought. For many in the backcountry, the natural response was bitterness and fury that turned distant public officials into “a set of plunderers . . . rioting on the spoils of the industrious.” “Come on my brave boys,” the erstwhile minister Samuel Ely urged his followers, as they set out to close the Northampton court in April 1782, “we’ll go to the wood Pile and get Clubs enough and knock their Grey Wiggs off and send them out of the World in an Instant.” Government was not amused at the spectacle. Nor did the defenders of law and order harbor any self-doubts. Their characteristic tone was the sarcasm of the Connecticut Wits, whose mock-epic, The Anarchiad, snidely satirized the Regulators as dupes of demagogues and dishonest rogues. But as protest turned into insurrection and events moved to a bloody climax in January and February 1787, that assurance gave way to hysteria—and a grim resolve to smash Shays’s “horrid and unnatural rebellion,” as it was called by the Massachusetts General Court. At Springfield armory and on Petersham field, nobody, neither insurgent nor government soldier, was tempted to agree with Thomas Jefferson that “a little rebellion, now and then,” is a good thing.1
In this embattled setting, which has fixed the terms of historiographical debate for two hundred years, it may seem pointless, if not perverse, to explore the comic dimensions of Shays’s Rebellion and the larger crisis of the 1780s, as I propose to do here. But I am entirely serious. For the disorders in Massachusetts ought not to be regarded narrowly in political or socioeconomic terms. They can tell us a great deal as well about the changing culture and society of post-Revolutionary New England. To that end, we have to shift the focus from the issues of the insurrection to the diverse personalities who brought it forth. And what a marvelous collection of Yankee types they are!
Think, for example, of Samuel Ely, the club-wielding ex-parson, Yale College 1764, who claimed to hold “in his Pockett” a constitution “that the Angel Gabriel could not find fault with,” yet who vowed in 1782, while American independence was still at issue, that he “had rather fight against this Authority [of Massachusetts] than against the King of Great Britain.” Then there is the incendiary Captain Nathan Smith from Shirley, Massachusetts, who became notorious for his part in stopping the courts at Concord in September 1786. Supposedly carried away by “intoxication” and “enthusiasm,” Smith told an astonished crowd of spectators, gathered on the Concord common, that they risked divine wrath—carried out by himself—if they failed to join the insurrection: “As Christ laid down his life to save the world, so will I lay down my life to suppress the government from all tirrannical oppression, and you who are willing to join us in this hear affair may fall into our ranks. Those who do not after two hours, shall stand the monuments of God’s sparing mercy.” Captain Daniel Shays, the supposed “Generalissimo” of the insurgency, is himself a figure cloaked in mystery and contradiction: a seemingly reluctant rebel, who on the eve of the assault on Springfield armory announced that he would desert the “scrape” in a minute if he could get a pardon and in the next moment pledged to march on Boston and burn “the nest of devils” down. In such concern to save his own skin, Shays may have provided a model for his Pelham neighbor, the little-known Henry McCulloch, one of a handful of rebels sentenced to hang for treason. Petitioning the government for pardon, McCulloch, a married man in his thirties, denied any leadership in the uprising; he merely liked to ride his “good Horse” in front of a crowd, owing to a “foolish Fondness to be thought active and alert.” Besides, his mother added in a supporting document, he was a good boy, though he drank too much and lacked a father to guide him.2
With their blunt, homespun speech, biblical idioms, and wily ways, their passions and their eccentricities, these insurgents resonate familiar themes in Yankee lore. Here, one is tempted to think, the provincial son of the Puritans steps forth, like Goffe and Whalley of old, in all the parochialism of his backcountry parish. He is a local amid the cosmopolitans, and that is exactly how enlightened Anglo-Americans perceived him. “The manners of the town and country are so very different,” one writer opined in the Massachusetts Centinel of March 1784, “that I hardly know how to mention them together. The ideas of the country people are too often cribbed, narrow and confined: All their notions are little; their minds want the expanding peculiar to the education of the great world; their desire for reading extends no farther than Robinson Crusoe or Mr. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; and their converse the regular diurnal scandal of the neighborhood or village, for . . . there are no great and noble objects to amuse the mind.” By contrast, the inhabitants of large towns have refined manners and large thoughts. Encountering a diversity of business and amusements, they “keep the mind employed” and become “citizens of the world.”3
Such contrasts between the cosmopolitan and the local, born of Enlightenment ideology, have rattled down the centuries to our own time, to be accepted uncritically by some historians of Shays’s Rebellion. But the “citizen of the world”—the educated gentleman of New England—had his peculiarities and eccentricities, too, and it is upon two such figures, viewed in relation to the countryside, that this essay focuses. The first is Stephen Burroughs, an early American rogue, who turned up in Pelham, Massachusetts—the home of Daniel Shays—in the spring of 1784 to seek employment as a preacher. Dressed in a light gray coat with silver-plated buttons, a green vest, and red velvet breeches, the young man, age nineteen, made a very unlikely candidate. In fact, despite his years, he had already run a riotous course through life. The son of a minister in Hanover, New Hampshire, Burroughs was thrown out of Dartmouth College for his numerous pranks, after which he first kept school, then sailed as physician on a privateer to France. He arrived in Pelham nearly penniless and on the lam, having fled from Hanover in order to avoid punishment for stealing a beehive and for courting a “widow” whose husband had just returned. His principal resource was his wits—supplemented by a secret cache of sermons he pilfered from his father before departing home. But that and a recommendation from a minister who barely knew him were enough to persuade Pelham to overlook the lad’s apparel and give him a chance to “supply” preaching for the town’s vacant pulpit.
For several months, it was all smooth sailing for Parson “Davis”—his mother’s name—who won a quick reputation for always being prepared to preach. Then, somebody smelled a rat when the youth was detected reading from an old, faded manuscript. His credentials in doubt, Burroughs accepted a challenge to preach from any passage in the Bible, sight unseen, and in a hilarious episode, offered an improvisation on Joshua 9:5 (“old shoes and clouted on their feet”). Why shoes in the text? “We are all . . . sojourners in this world but for a season,” en route to our eternal fates. Why old? “The old shoes represent old sins”—like “the spirit of jealousy and discord” that had been tearing Pelham apart. And why “clouted”? To patch over their sins with “false and feigned pretenses, to hide their shame and disgrace.” It was, as Burroughs tells it, a convincing performance, simultaneously a parody of evangelical preaching and a sly hit at the petty squabbles of the Pelhamites. Accused of fraud, Burroughs turned the tables on his accusers, shamelessly preaching a sermon on their hypocrisy. That inspiration saved his job, but not for long. He was soon recognized by a passing clergyman and exposed as a fraud. Burroughs fled Pelham with a mob on his heels. Even so, he had spent enough time in the troubled town to get caught up in alchemy and counterfeiting schemes, which eventually proved his ruin. In late 1785 he was convicted of passing fake money in Springfield and sentenced to three years in jail. It was clearly riskier to counterfeit money than sermons.
Out of this web of deceit and a host of other escapades, including jailbreaks, a trial for attempted rape, and speculation in the Yazoo land frauds in Georgia, Burroughs fashioned an early American best-seller, Memoirs of Stephen Burroughs, first issued in 1798 by a publisher in Hanover, New Hampshire, with the wonderfully inappropriate name of Benjamin True, that went through more than twenty printings over the next half century and established his place as a pioneer of the “confidence man” tradition in American literature and life. In the process, he took his revenge on the Scots-Irish people of Pelham, whose violent passions, jealousy, and gullibility he painstakingly satirized for the readers. Through the deftness of his prose, Pelham became the credulous town that supported both Stephen Burroughs and Daniel Shays.4
Now for the second “citizen of the world,” a better-known figure, the jurist and playwright Royall Tyler. Eight years Burroughs’s senior, Tyler was also casting about for his future on the eve of Shays’s Rebellion, though on a far grander scale. The heir of a rich Boston merchant, Tyler graduated from Harvard College in 1776, then studied law, and served on one brief military expedition. But his real energies went into pursuing a career in “dissipation.” Among other things, he was arrested for creating a drunken disturbance at Harvard in 1777 and was suspected of fathering an illegitimate child, Royall Morse, by a chambermaid at the College. By the 1780s he had settled down and devoted himself to the practice of law and the courtship of John Adams’s daughter. Unfortunately, his potential father-in-law did not welcome a “reformed rake” into the family, no matter how hard Tyler tried to be “regular” at his office and to improve an expensive farm he had bought in Braintree in anticipation of the marriage. That was never to be: by 1786 Tyler had been jilted, his legal practice was faltering, and he was £200 in debt for his farm, on which, as if symbolically, he had just tried and failed to build a windmill. “Courtship,” he would one day write, “is ever a state of deception,” wherein “the sexes deceive each other upon the most praiseworthy motives.”5
At this ebb in his fortunes, Tyler remade his life out of the opportunities cast up by Shays’s Rebellion. Despite his slight military experience, Tyler gained appointment as aide-de-camp to General Benjamin Lincoln and was dispatched by Massachusetts to seek extradition of the fugitive rebels from Vermont and New York. Tyler relished the assignment, especially the room it afforded for playing not only diplomat but spy in quest of Daniel Shays. The rebel leader traveled about the countryside under false names; Tyler followed suit by wearing disguises and using secret passwords, such as “I have a great cold.” In one instance, he dispatched a spy to “Chesterfield it” with Mrs. Shays in Bennington. None of this amounted to much. But when Tyler carried his mission to New York City, he was able to indulge his taste for playacting to the full.6
The story goes that after seeing a professional play, Sheridan’s School for Scandal, for the first time in his life, Tyler decided to try writing his own. The result was The Contrast, the first American play to be professionally produced on the stage. Presented in April 1787, it was an overnight success. Tyler took the stock themes of the eighteenth-century theater—appearance and reality, deception and sincerity—and adapted them to the needs of the new republic. His characters were all conventional figures on the stage—rakes, gentlemen, and coquettes—except for one, and that one seized the show. In the comic figure of Jonathan, a servant to the hero, Colonel Manly, Tyler created full-blown an authentic American type, the Yankee on the stage, who would emerge as “a genuine folk figure” over the next half century. A provincial New Englander, instantly recognizable for his vernacular speech, homely wit, resourcefulness, independence, and tribal ways, Jonathan would prove Tyler’s lasting mark on American culture. Thanks to the play, Tyler, who would go on to a distinguished career as the chief justice of Vermont, would be remembered mainly as the cosmopolitan gentleman who captured the archetypal Yankee yeoman, instead of Daniel Shays.7
The stories of Stephen Burroughs and Royall Tyler afford an intriguing vantage point from which to view Shays’s Rebellion and the crisis of the new republic. Burroughs, to be sure, never played a direct part in the tumultuous events—the public auctions, the county conventions, the court closings, the militia trainings, and so on—that unsettled Pelham and the other Regulator towns. But he moved in, without compunction, to exploit the unhappy financial circumstances behind the rebellion. What better trade in a currency crisis than the secret arts of engraving money and minting coin? By contrast, Royall Tyler had a few principles. Though he aimed to make his name in the government army, he did believe, or so he told the public officials of Vermont, that “the Persons whom we seek your Aid in apprehending are not merely Rebels against the Wholesome Government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but under the Influence of the most Pernicious Principles which ever Blackened the Human Heart and are the Common Professed Enemies of Civil Society.”8 Still, the two men have a lot in common. They share the characteristic sentiments of the self-styled cosmopolitan gentleman, and they embody the fundamental paradox of the type. They claim to idealize the man of feelings, whose every act and gesture vibrate to the spontaneous promptings of the heart. Yet, their lives are obsessed with self-created duplicity and disguise. In their polished manners, secretive ways, and eye on the main chance, they appear to fit the stereotype of the insincere, self-interested elite—exactly what the Shaysites feared. They are the very opposite of the plainspoken, honest Yankee farmer, whose cultural image they did so much to create.
Why such preoccupation with fraud and masquerade? These concerns were hardly unique to Burroughs and Tyler. They formed the common currency of Shays’s Rebellion, circulated throughout all the charges and countercharges of the rancorous public debate, without ever losing any value. In Massachusetts of the 1780s, nothing was what it seemed. The spokesmen for government were sure that artful, designing men—perhaps agents of British power—were planting lies among the people in order to stir up disaffection and put themselves in power. In preparation against popular violence, state and federal officials secretly connived to raise troops for possible deployment in Massachusetts; concealing this purpose, Congress adopted the ruse that soldiers were needed against restive Indians on the Confederation’s western frontier. The Shaysites were equally suspicious of the governing elite. Inverting the claims of their opponents, the insurgents maintained that a conspiracy of merchants, lawyers, and magistrates meant to impose “lordships” and “slavery” upon the people. Every act of the leading participants came under question. Did Daniel Shays sign the call to arms, summoning the people of western Massachusetts to fight? “I never did,” he declared; “it was a cursed falsehood.” Someone put his name on the document without his permission. Nor was he the leader of the insurgents. “I at their head! I am not,” he told General Rufus Putnam. “You are deceived.” In post-Revolutionary New England, that was a condition one could scarcely escape.9
The widespread fears of deceit reflected more than the political moment. They sprang from a society in change, experiencing profound upheaval in every aspect of its life. That unsettlement had been going on for a long time, precipitated by such forces as population pressures on land and the growth of markets and heightened by the radical currents of the Great Awakening and the Revolution. It was simultaneously a political, economic, religious, and cultural crisis. It brought fluidity and instability to a people who had been raised to idealize fixity as their governing norm. It shattered conventional social roles and obliged people to confront contradiction and ambiguity in their daily lives. It ended the isolation of backwoods communities, gathering up town and country alike in a common process. And it cast up splendid opportunities for the sharpsters like Stephen Burroughs and the ambitious like Royall Tyler to move into the social vacuum and invent their own self-dramatizing parts.10
It is unlikely that Stephen Burroughs had such notions in mind, nor even any literary ambitions, the day he walked into Pelham in hopes of work. Friendless, penniless, exiled from his father’s home as a result of his constant defiance of authority, he was driven to impersonate a preacher out of sheer desperation. As Burroughs recounted his dialogue with himself, the decision to trade on his father’s sermons went this way: “There is one thing, said contrivance, which you may do, and it will answer your purpose;—preach! Preach! What a pretty fellow am I for a preacher! A pretty character mine, to tickle the ears of a grave audience.” Then again, what else could he do, since he had no money to study medicine or law and no capital for trade; he was unable to keep a school—the head tutor at Dartmouth got him fired, wherever he started up; and most importantly, it never occurred to him to step outside the narrow circle of learned professions and take up the usual resort of the landless, young man: day labor on a farm! One hundred and fifty miles from home, and he had never left the social orbit of Dartmouth.11
Even so, Burroughs’s exigency met Pelham’s needs. The Scots-Irish Presbyterian town was notoriously hard on its ministers. It had dismissed its first pastor after nine years, had driven the second to an early grave, and had gotten rid of the third after a protracted salary dispute during the Revolutionary War. In fact, the town had gone without a settled minister for half of its entire existence down to 1786. And the pulpit had been vacant for some five years when Stephen Burroughs sauntered into town. Given the town’s reputation, hardly anyone wanted the job. The Pelhamites prided themselves on evaluating the theological niceties of their preachers, and when they didn’t like what they heard, they were free with their opinions. They were, said Burroughs, “a people generally possessing violent passions, which once disturbed, raged, uncontrolled by the dictates of reason; unpolished in their manners, possessing a jealous disposition; and either very friendly or very inimical, not knowing a medium between those two extremes.” Passionate, jealous, impulsive: this was the standard cosmopolitan indictment of backcountry folk. In the realm of religion, the Pelhamites fit the bill.12
But the sorry situation of Pelham’s church was not unique in the world of the 1780s. More than a third of the parishes of New England were “destitute” of a pastor, according to an estimate by the Reverend Ezra Stiles. In the strong Regulator towns of Hampshire County, Massachusetts, the situation was even more extreme: close to half of the pulpits were vacant. The vacuum of clerical leadership had its immediate roots in the Revolution: the army had enlisted many pastors as chaplains; the war had cut down on college enrollments and therefore the supply of new preachers; the financial troubles of the 1780s sapped the capacity of communities to pay ministerial salaries. But beyond these forces lay the vast expansion of New England’s population, spreading into the backcountry faster than institutions could follow, and the religious upheaval of the Great Awakening and the succeeding “stirs” that reverberated throughout the hill country in the decades of the Revolutionary conflict.13
The spiritual upheaval in the backcountry shattered the religious unity of New England for good, fracturing society into diverse cultures and forcing ministers to compete with new sects—Separates, Strict Baptists, Universalists, Shakers, Free-Will Baptists, and a host of other short-lived faiths emerging in the years of the Revolution. Evangelical piety posed a powerful challenge to the legitimacy of the established clergy. In the intense fervor of the day, traditional ministers, reading cold, formal sermons from the pulpit, struck many parishioners as “dead dogs,” who knew only the letter and not the Spirit. Congregations began demanding visible piety from their pastors and insisting on authentic, spontaneous preaching, such as they had witnessed in the histrionics of George Whitefield and his followers. It was hard to get around that test. Once Congregational clergy had enjoyed a monopoly over their parishes; but increasingly they had to fend off itinerant preachers, who invaded ministerial bailiwicks and offered their own spiritual lines. In a typical lament, the shepherd of Westfield, Massachusetts, the Reverend John Ballantine, complained that Separates were “grievous wolves” devouring his flock. But there was no way to hold back the forces of dissent.14
If a minister tried to keep the competition out, he could lose his job, once considered a sacred trust for life. The Old Light pastor William Rand of Sunderland, Massachusetts, not far from Pelham, suffered that fate after he refused to let itinerants preach in his church. Publicly denouncing those who “cry out against the ministers of Christ, reproach them, and treat them with Contempt . . . as unconverted, dead, carnal, etc.” Rand spurned any interference with his office. For such adamancy, he forfeited the post, but Rand was lucky: he soon found another with a congregation that had fired its preacher for excessive enthusiasm for George Whitefield. The rude dismissal of ministers became an increasingly common fact of life in Hampshire County in the two decades before the Revolution. More than a dozen pastors lost their offices owing to quarrels with their parishes. Deference to the clergy, the traditional mainstay of social order, was fast on the wane, especially in backcountry towns. When Grindall Rawson of South Hadley tried to hang onto his post after being sacked, he was physically hauled out of the pulpit, roughed up, and thrown out of the church.15
Even when a minister retained his job, he had to meet the new standards of authentic performance. No longer could he get by with formal recital of a prepared text, rehearsing the strict logic—firstly, secondly, thirdly—of the Puritan sermon. Congregations demanded the visible display of a sanctified heart, in spontaneous harmony with the inner spirit. For such purposes, a minister needed both a new rhetoric and a new style. The model preacher was, of course, the charismatic George Whitefield, whose dramatic gestures—“a protean face, a penchant for the histrionic, and an almost perfect sense of timing”—aroused envy in the great English actor David Garrick. Lesser performers felt only resentment. The minister Ebenezer Turrell of Medford, Massachusetts, was notorious for his hatred of competition; it was said that “whenever he appeared in the pulpit, he chose to be the sole speaker, and would never listen to the performances of others.” Yet, even Turrell could not escape comparison to his colleagues, many of whom he claimed to despise. Defensively, he announced that he disliked equally the ornate “flourishes of Rhetoric” on the part of genteel preachers and the resort to “indecent and homely Phrases, such as savour of the Mobb or Playhouse,” by vulgar ones. Turrell made his comments in 1740, when the demands of the lay audience were still new. By the Revolutionary War, no minister could pretend to ignore his reviews. New Englanders in the Continental army were sophisticated critics of chaplains—popularly called “pulpit drums”—whom they measured by the new standard of spontaneity. One soldier waxed enthusiastically about the Reverend William Emerson, on leave from his parish in Concord, Massachusetts: “This was preaching he had no not[e]s.” Another gauged sermons by their emotional effects. “He reads,” it was said forgivingly of one chaplain, “but is very pathetic.” In short, the revival spirit was converting the meetinghouse into a theater of piety, where the successful actor never revealed his script.16
In the popular zeal for spiritual purity, there arose a new sensitivity to plagiarism in the pulpit. Some ministers were charged not only with being “dead dogs” but of not even whimpering in their own voice. In Philadelphia, a few years before George Whitefield swept into town and electrified thousands with his evangelical message, a Presbyterian pastor named Samuel Hemphill came under severe attack for preaching “Good Works,” instead of the Calvinist doctrine of election. Pro- and anti-Hemphill factions waged a bitter war of words in the press, with Benjamin Franklin taking a prominent part in the minister’s defense. Unfortunately, Hemphill proved an embarrassment to his friends when it was revealed that he had been extracting his sermons from the British reviews. Virtually everybody abandoned his cause—except for the freethinking Franklin. “I stuck by him . . . ,” the liberal printer later explained, “as I rather approv’d his giving us good Sermons compos’d by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture.” A similar controversy rocked the Connecticut Valley at the height of the Great Awakening. In South Hadley the obstinate Grindall Rawson was ousted chiefly for his opposition to the revival. But among the counts against him was the charge of stealing his sermons from other preachers.17
On the other hand, thanks to the new emphasis upon affecting oratory, any unlettered, uncertified individual could impersonate a minister, if he could perform well enough. Indeed, in 1780, only a few years before Stephen Burroughs strolled into Pelham, another “imposter” was upsetting the Hampshire County town of West Springfield (not incidentally, the home of the prominent Regulator Luke Day). It happens that an Englishman named John Watkins suddenly appeared in the parish of the Reverend Joseph Lathrop at a moment when the pastor was seriously ill. Watkins quickly filled the void. Hired to supply preaching, he “showed every characteristic of a genuine imposter,” we are told: “made professions of the most extraordinary sanctity; maintained that saints certainly know each others’ hearts; and that all whom they cannot fellowship are unregenerate.” Watkins aimed to draw the parish away from Lathrop, but no luck. The Congregational community stuck to its regular preacher. “Watkins rendered himself so odious to the community at large, that he was glad to seek some other field on which he might more successfully practice his imposture.” In his wake, the Reverend Mr. Lathrop returned to the pulpit and preached a set of sermons on “the marks of false teachers.” Published under the title Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, the warning clearly spoke to the times; it went through more than a dozen editions.18
The problem of religious imposters reflected the larger unsettlement of society. From the 1750s on, as the Atlantic economy prospered, growing numbers of middling Americans aspired to the trappings of gentility—fine homes, china, portraits, books, college educations—for themselves and their children. This quest for social mobility reached new heights in the upheaval of war and revolution. The conflict with Britain offered numerous opportunities to get rich, from army contracts and privateering to speculation in paper money and in Loyalist estates. It drove Tory placeholders from posts of honor and profit and set off a scramble for political and military office. At the same time, the rhetoric of republicanism legitimated the pursuit of personal advancement. In the new society, top honors would go to “natural gentlemen,” distinguished by virtue and talents, and not to the favorites of privilege and power. But who was to judge individual merit? Seizing the promise of the Revolution, many men of humble origin pressed for recognition, despite their lack of genteel style. In the fluid circumstances of the era, it proved impossible to maintain social boundaries, to separate the worthy few from the vulgar mass.19
Indeed, the rise of the “fake” gentleman obsessed social critics. The Massachusetts politician James Warren, a self-styled apostle of virtue, complained to his good friend John Adams in 1779 that “fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago, have amassed fortunes, and are riding in chariots. Were you to be set down here you . . . would think you was upon enchanted Ground in a world turned topsy turvy.” In an essay for the American Museum in 1786, Timothy Dwight retailed the story of a recent immigrant to America who palmed himself off as a lawyer and immediately obtained an important office. Not long after, the man’s wife arrived and exposed him as a “tallow chandler.” This was doubtless an apocryphal tale—Dwight related it in a fictional sketch—but it bespoke the same concerns that led members of the elite to denounce Daniel Shays as a social upstart. Though born poor, the son of a laborer, Shays had climbed to the rank of captain in the Continental army and could thus claim the status of gentleman. In that capacity, he was entitled to deference from ordinary folk and to a hearing among leading men. To discredit such pretensions, the Boston press branded Shays a “mushroom General,” sprung up overnight in the dark soil of rebellion. Shays, it was said, had gotten his officer’s rank by “duplicity,” recruiting men for the Continental service on the condition he should be their captain. Having risen through fraud, he soon betrayed his lack of honor. The story was told that back in 1780, the marquis de Lafayette had bestowed ornamental swords upon the Continental officers under his command as a mark of personal esteem. Captain Shays was one of the fortunate few. But did he treasure this gift, this “elegant sword,” as a “pledge of [Lafayette’s] affection, which a man of honour and spirit would have sacredly preserved, and handed down to his posterity as a jewel of high price?” Not at all. Shays sold the sword for a “trifling consideration.” Utterly insensitive to the compliment he had received, caring more for money than friendship, he was no officer and gentleman. He belonged back where he started in the lower orders.20
Yet, the Patriot gentry was not above masquerades of its own. In the face of the militant egalitarianism that was unleashed by the Revolution, spokesmen for authority were put on the defensive. No longer could they assert the values of deference and hierarchy in a confident, directive voice. That tone would only arouse popular resentment. Instead, in the newspapers and periodicals of the day, members of the elite dropped the authoritative stance and posed as simple, independent farmers, offering the wit and wisdom of the countryside. The Reverend Timothy Dwight, a scion of the Connecticut Valley River Gods, assumed the persona of “John Homely,” a patriotic farmer, to expose his archetypal confidence man, the chandler-turned-lawyer. In another essay in the Massachusetts Centinel, a shrewd literary gentleman, claiming to be an “honest farmer,” presented a parable for the times in his sad descent from sturdy self-sufficiency into luxury and debt. Supposedly born poor and put out to a farmer, the author had “married me,” at age twenty-two, “a very good working young woman.” Together, through industry and frugality, they had gradually built up a substantial farm, which comfortably took care of their needs. “Nothing to wear, eat, or drink was purchased,” the “Farmer” boasted, “as my farm provided all. With this saving, I put money to interest, bought cattle, fatted and sold them, and made great profit.” With that money, he acquired more land to provide for his children. But then the love of luxury crept into his happy home. The hardworking wife turned into a conspicuous consumer: there must be silk gowns for the daughters, a looking glass in the bedchamber, tea and sugar on the table. Such tastes absorbed all the income from the farm—and more. “Now, this has gone on a good many years,” he advised, “and has brought hard times into my family: and, if I can’t reform it, ruin must follow—my land must go. I am not alone. Thirty in our parish have gone hand in hand with me: and they all say, ‘hard times.’” The solution was obvious: return to the simple ways of the past. “The tea-kettle shall be sold.” This was, of course, a political message, designed for the Massachusetts crisis of 1786. In the guise of a fellow victim of illusion, the literary gentleman blamed the troubles of farmers on themselves and served up the Federalist prescription for “hard times.” Whether he fooled anybody is unknown—though he has successfully duped twentieth-century historians of rural mentalité.21
A man of many faces—college dropout, quack physician, fake clergyman, lewd schoolmaster, benevolent counterfeiter—Stephen Burroughs was the archetypal confidence man of the age. Through a life that was “one continued course of tumult, revolution and vexation,” he acquired—and exploited—a reputation as a devil in disguise, endlessly changing his shape to achieve his ends. Appropriately, it was in the realm of religion that he first discovered his calling. Burroughs knew intimately the conflicts and contradictions of the evangelical world—not, we may presume, from his own conversion, but from his family background. His father, Eden Burroughs, Yale 1757, was an ardent New Light, who ministered to a little church of Separates in rural Connecticut before moving to Hanover, where he presided over a standing Presbyterian church and labored in support of Dartmouth College. Noted as “an extemporaneous preacher,” the Reverend Mr. Burroughs was a contentious figure, constantly embroiled in church disputes, owing to his zeal in regulating the moral lives of parishioners. The minister freely denounced the hypocrisy of “professing Christians” who betrayed their pledges of “mutual confidence” by “bit[ing] and devour[ing] one another” in the everyday conduct of trade. But to his critics, Burroughs ran a high-handed moral inquisition, and they soon overthrew his leadership. At the height of the controversy, the uncompromising parson revived his early stance of dissent. With his salary in arrears, he made a virtue of necessity and denounced the practice of religious taxation. He was back in the sectarian world from which he had sprung, exchanging pulpits with Baptists, and embracing the principle of voluntary religious choice.22
In this family ethos of dissent, Stephen Burroughs spent his formative years. His uncle, Ebenezer Davis, was a prominent Universalist layman in Charlton, Massachusetts. (Interestingly, he was also chair of the Worcester County convention of 1784, in protest against state financial policies.) And he was tutored for college by a close family friend, the Reverend Mr. Joseph Huntington of Coventry, Connecticut, who, his pupil detected, “conformed to the established modes and forms [of Congregationalism], but internally despised them.” Popular for his spontaneous sermons, Huntington kept a tight lid on his inner convictions. At his death, he left behind a manuscript that shocked his colleagues: an embrace of the doctrine of universal salvation for all mankind.23
Out of this dissenting culture, then, Stephen Burroughs developed a keen sense of spiritual fraud and an irrepressible delight in puncturing the pretenses of the self-righteous. His first lessons in hypocrisy came at home. While Eden Burroughs was denouncing the pharisees of Hanover, he was unwittingly providing a model of insincerity to his son. “Our actions are as strong a language, and perhaps stronger, than our words,” Stephen Burroughs advised readers, “and . . . children . . . discover at once, whether our words and our actions speak the same language; and when they find them interfering, they immediately conclude, that deception is the object of the parent . . . a view of which insensibly leads the child into the practice of dissimulation.” In that moment of disillusion, young Burroughs was born again; the dutiful son became the irreverent prankster, determined to turn parental authority on its head. But not directly. All in the name of fun, the lad got revenge by tormenting his elders—the more pious, the better. In their “sanctimonious self-importance,” they were clearly proxies for the humbug at home.24
Even as he made sport of his father’s piety, Burroughs absorbed its inner spirit. Projecting himself as an enemy of coercion, he treasured the dissenters’ voluntary ideal. “This one thing I fully believe,” he observed, “that our happiness is in our power more than is generally thought. . . . No state or condition of life, but from which we may (if we exercise that reason which the God of Nature has given us) draw comfort and happiness.” In that faith, which would be severely tested in the course of his Memoirs, Burroughs carried forward the rejection of Calvinism that was rapidly advancing on the frontier. In matters of the soul, everyone must look to his own resources. That is certainly what Stephen Burroughs did when he was forced to make his own way in the world: he impersonated a minister. All it took was an impassioned spirit and an eloquent tongue.25
In the account of his short relation with the Pelhamites, Burroughs cast himself as a man of sensibility, forced to endure the petty jealousies, the harsh tempers, the confined minds of the Scots-Irish congregation and triumphing over them by the sheer resourcefulness of his speech and the power of his mind. In every episode of the book, he emerges as an heroic figure, resisting coercion. Ironically, in this embattled stance, he bears a striking resemblance to the very people in Pelham who would march under the command of Daniel Shays. Burroughs was a young, propertyless transient, on the margins of the town—exactly like the typical insurgent. Echoing the refrain of the rebellion, he saw himself as an injured innocent, under constant siege from artful, designing men. But Burroughs never made these connections; instead, he pointedly dissociated himself from his surround. In his telling, he is a lone “man of feeling” in an unsympathetic world, expressing not the piety of a converted sinner but the natural sentiments of a benevolent heart. Burroughs claims to idealize the bonds of equality and fraternity, but in practice, he elevates himself far above the crowd; he is intimate with only a few souls, superior in their refinement and knowledge. His is an enlightened elect of sensibility, secularizing the evangelical creed, while retaining a sense of superiority to both ordinary and orthodox folk. He repudiates equally the bigotry of his father’s faith and the superstitious parochialism of the backcountry. His motives, he announces, are always pure; at worst, he has been too “volatile,” too impulsive in expressing his feelings. The heart must be its own judge. “We cannot discern the operations of the human heart in man, until we are in such a situation, as to prevent his wearing a disguise.”26
By such self-dramatization, Burroughs recreated himself as “a citizen of the world” and fixed upon the backcountry all the scorn of the cosmopolitan gentlemen in Boston. Yet it was all a ruse. In a separate publication of the sermon he supposedly offered up to the Pelhamites when they cornered him atop a haymow in a barn in Rutland, Massachusetts, Burroughs acknowledged that he had been engaged in a charade all along. Purporting to be the prophet of Pelham, he conjured up the voice of the Lord, “which crieth against the Pelhamites” for driving each of their ministers away. “‘Then,’ said the Lord, ‘I will give them a Minister like unto themselves, full of deceit, hypocricy, and duplicity. But whom, among all the sons of men shall I send?’ Then there came forth a lying Spirit, and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will go forth, and be a spirit in the mouth of Stephen the Burrowite.’” In short, a deceitful, lying congregation deserved a deceitful, lying preacher—a “hoaxster” like himself. It was all humbug, and P. T. Barnum, another Universalist turned confidence man, would have appreciated the joke.27
But Burroughs could not let well enough alone. He poured out his anger at the townspeople in scurrilous verse and bad jokes. Playing upon the ethnic prejudice of Yankees against the Scots-Irish, he invented a psalm for the Pelhamites to remember their origins: the conjoining of the devil and a sow. And in an outright fabrication upon his experience in Pelham, he offered a malicious satire of Shays’s Rebellion, which had occurred, in fact, two years after his sojourn in the town. The center of the event was, naturally, Stephen himself. It seems that the Pelhamites were in hot pursuit of their false prophet, Stephen the Burrowite, who “sorely oppressed [them], taking from them ten shekels of silver, a mighty fine horse, and changes of raiment, and ran off to Rutland.” Suddenly, out of nowhere, they encountered the army of the “Lincolnites” at the ford of the river “Jourdan.” “They sought by guile to deceive the army of the Lincolnites; therefore, they say unto the Lincolnites, ‘We be strangers from a far country, with old shoes, and clouted on our feet.’ Then said the Lincolnites unto the men of Pelham, ‘Say Faith!’ Then the Pelhamites said ‘fath,’ for they could not say faith. Then the Lincolnites knew them to be Pelhamites and fell upon them and slew them so that not one was left to lean against the wall.” Captured by the invading host, the Pelhamites were driven into exile in the “city of Dan.” There they begged mercy from “Jammy the Bostonian, saying ‘We be evil men, dealing in lies and wickedness; we have sought to destroy the goodness of the land! we have trusted to St. Patrick to deliver us, but he has utterly forsaken us,’” and pledging, in exchange for pardon, to forget about affairs of state. “We will leave assembling ourselves together to talk politics, and follow our occupation of raising potatoes.” In that satire lay a familiar worldview: government belonged in the hands of the virtuous few. Despite his repeated imprisonment by the same government that had suppressed the backcountry, the Dartmouth dropout never shed his identification with the cosmopolitan elite.28
Yet Burroughs missed his true calling for the stage. The consummate role-player, who delighted in amusing the crowd, he adapted himself perfectly to the “broad theatre of the world.” In the Memoirs he portrayed his life as an unfolding series of “characters” and “scenes” on a constantly changing “stage.” His ideal part was that of Guy, earl of Warwick, “at head of armies, rushing with impetuosity into the thickest of embattled foes, and bearing down all who dared to oppose me.” But he settled for whatever role was available—prankster, preacher, defendant, escape artist, philanthropist—constantly preparing his character in dialogues with himself. To judge by one review, Burroughs was especially effective in the courtroom, where he enacted the part of injured innocent with a fine sense of the dramatic gesture. As a teenager in Northampton, Daniel Stebbins witnessed Burroughs’s trial for counterfeiting in 1785 and still recalled the event vividly sixty years later: “He stood forth in the attitude of an Orator—gracefully bowed to the Court and audience and addressed them.” After attacking the witnesses against him, “he then turned and pointed with the fingers of severe contempt . . . and with gestures perfectly easy and natural—his very look was withering. They blushed—they were crimson and quailed under his severe rebuke. . . . He was indeed eloquent in his native language and could speak the Latin and Greek with great purity, freedom and fluency.” It hardly mattered that his case was doomed. Burroughs was determined to make the most of his moment on stage. Like his fictional contemporary Arthur Mervyn, whose character he uncannily anticipated, Burroughs was a model of the performing self amid the slippery circumstances of a Revolutionary age.29
Royall Tyler was equally alert to the theatrical quality of eighteenth-century life, but in the construction of his play proved far better disposed than Burroughs to the backcountry folk. Pelhamites everywhere would never have believed it. For Tyler created his comedy of Shays’s Rebellion for the stage, which most rural New Englanders knew was the devil’s workshop, a lure to spread luxury, dissipation, and vice and to distract people into an idle world of the imagination, where fact and fiction were blurred and pleasant fancies could become frightening realities. “What is the talent of an actor?” one minister asked, but “the art of counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character than his own, of appearing different than he is”—all for mercenary gain. To such critics, the theater epitomized the dangerous fluidity of the age.30
Not so for Tyler. He was already comfortable with a world of fictions and invented selves. Besides, he shared with other genteel, educated Americans a desire to spread the larger world of Atlantic culture. In accord with this sentiment, educated gentlemen began to sponsor the publication of weekly newspapers in the countryside, as carriers of “correct” information to a misguided people. So, too, the refinement of the theater could improve the republic. “What does all this anarchy proceed from?” one writer asked in 1786. “From the want of theatres, dances, shows, and other public amusements.”31
Such benign hopes for the stage as a school of popular morality were a minority sentiment in the depressed 1780s. A symbol of luxury and inequality, the theater catered primarily to the rich, who turned the playhouse into a setting for their own conspicuous display. Not surprisingly at a time of austerity, the parade of luxury stirred class resentments among the lower orders. On this issue, backcountry farmers and urban artisans could join hands. Pennsylvania banned the theater, along with swearing, cockfighting, and Sabbath breaking, in an “Act for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality.” Boston did the same in 1784 and every year thereafter until 1791. Royall Tyler had to go to New York City to taste the delights of the stage.32
Designed for a comfortable, urban audience, The Contrast is, seemingly, a play by the elite, for the elite, and about the elite. But it reaches beyond British drawing-room comedy to replay the central issues of the rural rebellion Tyler had just been engaged in suppressing and to frame a republican solution for the twin ills of the day: aristocratic vices at the top and popular anarchy in the lower orders. The formal contrast in the play opposes Dimple, the snobbish, Frenchified American, to Colonel Henry Manly, a New England Patriot-gentleman. Dimple scorns his own country for fashionable European tastes, indulges the game of seduction, and sets about winning a rich wife to support his gambling and lavish tastes. But he is more than a mere bounder and rake. He is the type of the fake gentleman, the artful, scheming designer, whom conservatives blamed for rousing the masses into rebellion in order to advance himself. Once a simple American Van Dumpling, Dimple has altered his name and character through addiction to luxury and vice. He has dissipated his inheritance in the pursuit of pleasure, but no matter; he will break any promise, abuse any sentiment to gain his way. Engaged to a woman he doesn’t want, he wants a woman he can’t afford, and so courts a third woman whose fortune he craves. There is no restraining his desires. Dimple refuses to choose among his conflicting drives and needs; like a late twentieth-century consumer, he wants it all. In pursuit of his insatiable ends, he keeps up a false front and practices the art of insinuation, as explained in his ever-handy copy of Chesterfield. Upon meeting Manly, his first response is, “I ought, according to every rule of Chesterfield, to wait on him and insinuate myself into his good graces.” That strategy involves more than flattery; it requires a hidden, subtle adaptation of the self to others, for the sake of exploiting their trust. Driven by greed, indifferent to public good, Dimple will counterfeit whatever beliefs, blast whatever sentiments serve his needs. He is, in short, the epitome of the popular demagogue in the new republic.33
On the other hand, Manly is a blunt, sincere, patriotic sentimentalist, who freely wears the feelings of his heart on his worn regimental coat. Manly, we may guess, stands in part for Tyler’s ideal self. He has just arrived in New York after serving in the army against the insurgents. He offers a Federalist speech warning of the dangers of “pernicious, foreign luxury” and of the ruin that comes from indulging petty jealousies, “the vices of little minds.” For Manly, the ideal republic is a great family, bound together by mutual affection and common sacrifice. Grown poor in his country’s service, he declines to speculate in army certificates: “I may be romantic,” he says, “but I preserve them as a sacred deposit.” He is equally loyal to his old soldiers—“my family,” he calls them—and to the authority of his elders. With such devotion to family, Manly naturally foils Dimple’s plots against female virtue. Ironically, he is obliged to play spy—like Royall Tyler himself—to catch his prey. But at the end of the play, in a gesture that was meant to identify Dimple with Daniel Shays, he draws his “Lafayette sword” against the rake. Surely, nobody missed the reference.34
Yet, Manly is so sincere and so mawkishly sentimental that it is hard to believe that Tyler found him a complete surrogate. Indeed, in his utter selflessness and simplicity, the character is a world apart from the wily playwright, who knew, from his own experience, that even authentic gentlemen look out for their own ambitions and self-interest in a good cause. It was perhaps for this reason that Tyler could not introduce much life into Manly. No sophisticated realist in the Federalist ranks could ever believe in such uncalculating devotion to the common good.35
The vibrancy of the play comes, instead, from Jonathan’s few appearances on the stage. When Jonathan—a Tory name for the New Englander—struts on stage, singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the anthem of the Revolution, it is an important moment in the self-assertion of American culture. In an inversion of English snobbery, popular culture in the new republic embraces the ways of the common folk. Well, not exactly. That is the common reading. But it is important to note that Tyler, too, rewrites the rural New Englander into a reassuring part.36
In the play Jonathan is a figure of comic relief: the clownish, country bumpkin in the city. He is easily deceived by appearances: he mistakes a whorehouse for a meetinghouse, a harlot for a deacon’s daughter, and like the critics of theater, he cannot tell the difference between a play and real life. Even so, he can conjure his own tricks with words and things. No innocent in his own rural sphere, he searches out hidden purposes in the most respectable magistrates. “Mr. Joseph . . . talked as sober and as pious as a minister,” he observes of an actor he has seen on stage; “but, like some ministers that I know, he was a sly tike in his heart for all that.” Although he does the duties of servant to Colonel Manly, even blackening his boots, Jonathan resists the name: “Sir, do you take me for a neger,—I am Colonel Manly’s waiter.” “A true Yankee distinction,” comes the response from Dimple’s servant, “egad, without a difference.” Jonathan boasts of his independence: his father has a farm as good as the colonel’s. No man will “master” him. He has accompanied the colonel on this trip as a way of seeing the world. Being a servant is the common Yankee’s cosmopolitan project.37
As the character develops, Jonathan displays all the mother wit, the play of language, and the feisty spirit that we have come to associate with the Yankee. He is also a closet Shaysite. Like his counterparts in the backcountry, he can be easily led astray from his obligations. Under the prodding of Jessamy, the servant of Dimple, Jonathan forgets about his betrothed back home, Tabitha Wymen with her twenty acres of rocky land, Bible, and cow, and briefly becomes a fortune hunter himself. He is equally unreliable in politics. Asked his views of the insurgents, Jonathan at first demurs: “Why, since General Shays has sneaked off and given us the bag to hold, I don’t care to give my opinion.” But he does, anyway: “But you’ll promise not to tell—put your ear this way—you won’t tell?—I vow I did think the sturgeons [insurgents] were right.” Why, then, didn’t he grab his gun and join the fight? Jonathan, it turns out, was loyal to the colonel, a member of the Cincinnati, who said “it was a burning shame for the true blue Bunker-Hill sons of liberty, who had fought Governor Hutchinson, Lord North, and the Devil to have any hand in kicking up a cursed dust against a government which we had, every mother’s son of us, a hand in making.”38
In this resolution, Jonathan becomes what elite New Englanders needed urgently to imagine him in 1786–87: full of grievances perhaps, yet still deferential to the gentry. In the theater of New York, Royall Tyler muted the backcountry radicalism he had witnessed in his travels through western Massachusetts and Vermont in quest of Daniel Shays. The social tension embodied in the real Jonathans of New England was drained off in the comic figure on the stage. Jonathan is independent, a little wily, and maybe a bit of a confidence man himself. But under the tutelage of brave Colonel Manly, he remains loyal to the dominant order.
Except for one thing: on stage, as in life, Jonathan upstaged everyone else. And in the succeeding decades, this popular model of the Yankee eventually became a heroic figure in his own right, commanding the theater and sending the cosmopolitan gentleman to the wings. Offstage, he may have merged entirely with the commercial humbug, P. T. Barnum, or with that literary “hoaxster,” Henry David Thoreau. Whatever his destiny, we ought to remember the long, complicated process that gave him birth. The invention of the Yankee owed a great deal to the defeat of Shays’s Rebellion. He came to be celebrated on stage and in prose, precisely because he had lost out in life. In the process, his qualities of radicalism were cut out of their political context and made the stuff of American myth.