The “Horrid and Unnatural Rebellion” of Daniel Shays
James P. Hodges, Ph.D. and Cynthia F. Hodges, JD, LLM, MA
“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned
from time to time that the people preserve the spirit of resistance? …
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time
with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
~ Thomas Jefferson
In the first years of peacetime following the Revolutionary War, the future of society was threatened by strangling debt that aggravated the depressed economy of the postwar years. Ruinous inflation afflicted the entire nation as the currency became almost worthless. The value of the Continental currency fell to a low of four thousand dollars in paper money to one ounce of silver. The situation became so dire that George Washington complained it took a wagonload of money to buy a wagonload of goods.
The central government that had been set up by the Articles of Confederation had trouble paying overdue wages owed to veterans, so it delayed paying the benefits it had promised. State governments, pleading poverty, paid the state militia with IOU’s, promising to redeem them later. Many veterans were forced to sell their IOUs to speculators for immediate cash. Wealthy Tories bought the IOUs, paying pennies on the dollar from desperate veterans. Speculators redeemed the IOUs at face value for silver specie, plus 6% interest, profiting off of the backs of patriots.
Massachusetts may have suffered more than any other colony. It suffered under a staggering $14 million debt and a shortage of specie. Heavy land taxes undermined the fragile financial structure of the hill towns. Destitute farmers often had to borrow money to re-establish their farms after fighting the Revolution. Due to inflation and poor economic conditions, they often lost their farms to foreclosure for failure to pay debts and crushing taxes. Farmers grew indignant as they watched furniture, grain and livestock sold off for much less than their value. Foreclosed farms were confiscated and often sold at one-third of their true value. With the loss of their means of making a livelihood, farmers often landed in debtors prison. Terrible economic conditions combined with apathetic public officials who were “thieves, knaves, and robbers” left the people feeling they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands.
Protests began to break out in 1786, to which the Massachusetts legislature retaliated by suspending habeas corpus, albeit temporarily. It imposed heavy poll and property taxes, amounting to one third of the total income of the people, and imposed new and higher court costs. Foreclosures mounted, and the shadow of debtors’ prison continued to cast a pall. Many citizens of western Massachusetts began to question the benefits of independence. A few even blamed the patriot leaders of 1776 for deluding them. Cheers for King George III were heard once again in towns that a few years before had cursed his name. As the economic and political crisis of the 1780’s deepened, unrest spread. Angry protests erupted.
Reform-minded citizens called “Regulators” met in several western counties during the summer of 1786. They drafted resolutions that they sent to the Massachusetts legislature calling for a variety of reforms. They petitioned for a reduction of court fees, reduction of salaries for state officials, issuance of paper money, relocation of the state capital from Boston (where it was deemed too susceptible to the influence of eastern commercial interests) to a western city, reduction of taxes, redistribution of the tax load, postponement of foreclosures, and fewer imprisonments for debtors. Unfortunately, the legislators were not only unreceptive to their grievances, but were actually enraged.
Some of the Regulators were Revolutionary War veterans who knew from experience that the people could unseat a tyrannical government by force of arms. Potential leaders could be recruited from former Revolutionary War officers in the Bay State. The first leader to be chosen was Luke Day, “the master spirit of the insurrection.” Day was a former brevet major in the Continental Army. He had both the inclination and the experience necessary to lead a rebellion, but the reluctant rebel, Captain Daniel Shays of Pelham, assumed command.
Daniel Shays had an impressive Revolutionary War record. He had fought bravely at Bunker Hill. Ticonderoga, Saratoga, and Stony Point. Shays was even honored by receiving a ceremonial sword for meritorious service at Saratoga from the Marquis de Lafayette. After the War, he started farming in the small town of Pelham, where he was elected to various local offices. Shays learned first hand the problems that beset returning war veterans. He was forced to sell the handsome ceremonial sword that Lafayette had presented to him for cash. In 1784, he was sued for a 12-dollar debt.
With their new leader, citizen groups took up arms, hoping to “encourage” the government to treat them fairly. In late August 1786, following a Hampshire County convention at Hatfield, a gathering of 1,500 men “armed with guns, swords, and other deadly weapons, and with drums beating and fifes playing” took command of the county courthouse at Northampton and forced the judges of the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace to adjourn. At Great Barrington, in Berkshire County, a group of 800 stopped the court, broke open the jail and released its prisoners. At Springfield, Shays and Day closed the courthouse doors, while at Concord, less than 20 miles from Boston, Job Shattuck prevented the sitting of the Middlesex County court. By early fall, citizen groups armed with muskets or hickory clubs moved at will through the interior counties. By late November, Regulators entering into Worcester had closed the Court of Common Pleas. In early December, Shays rode in with 350 men. It became obvious that no court could meet without an army to back it up. The Worcester court gathered meekly in the Sun Tavern and immediately adjourned until January 23. The rebels then drafted a petition to the legislature for a redress of grievances and wrote in defense of their actions.
"If they have real grievances redress them, if possible;
or acknowledge the justice of them,
and your inability to do it at the moment.
If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once.
Let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand,
and every violation of the constitution be reprehended.
If defective, let it be amended,
but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an existence."
~ George Washington in a letter to Henry Lee, October 31, 1786
Massachusetts governor, James Bowdoin, and the legislature responded to the latest outbreaks with a confusing mixture of sternness, concession, and indecision. In early September 1786, the Governor issued his first proclamation, condemning the Regulators as flirting with “riot, anarchy and confusion.” In October, the legislature suspended habeas corpus. Although the government conceded to some demands by authorizing some categories of goods as legal tender for specified kinds of public and private debts, it refused to make concessions on most of the Regulators’ demands. It refused to budge on reforms in court procedures, reduction of the tax load, officials’ salaries, lawyers’ machinations, or foreclosures or debtors prisons. However, it did offer a full pardon to all rebels who agreed to take an oath of allegiance before the end of the year.
As the Regulators continued protesting through the fall of 1786, officials of other states voiced concern that the anarchy of Massachusetts might spread to the rest of the nation. John Jay complained he was “uneasy and apprehensive; more so than during the war.” Secretary of War Henry Knox, Massachusetts statesman Rufus King, and others began to have similar apprehensions. They wrote frantic letters to one another, asking for news and predicting disaster. Abigail Adams, then in London, bristled at the “ignorant and restless desperadoes,” while reports of the uprising helped prod her husband, John Adams, into writing his ponderous “Defence of the Constitutions.” By the spring of 1787, observers on both sides of the Atlantic feared for the future of the nation.
To fight the rebellion, the Massachusetts Council authorized a state army of 4,400 men and four regiments of artillery, to be drawn largely from the militia of the eastern counties where state laws were not enforced so harshly. However, Governor Bowdoin and Knox feared that the powers of state government would not be enough to withstand the protesters. They called for volunteers for the federal army. The result was an additional 1,340 troops added to the federal army of 700. The additional troops were ostensibly to be used against the Indians of the Northwest, but in a secret session, Congress acknowledged that they might be used against the Regulators.
In January 1787, Shays descended upon the government arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. The rebels needed guns and ammunition to fend off troops that were advancing from Boston under General Benjamin Lincoln. The militia defending the arsenal (commanded by General William Shepard) unexpectedly fired their cannon into the ranks of the advancing rebels, killing four and wounding 20. The farmer-veterans did not expect their neighbors, kinsmen and fellow veterans to fire upon them, and retreated in disarray crying “murder.”
Shays advanced on Hampshire County, where they hoped to stop the court in Springfield from convening. They also hoped to raid the federal arsenal there. Shays had planned to attack on January 25, 1787, but at the last minute, Day decided to wait until the 26th. His note informing Shays of the change was intercepted by government forces. When Shays followers moved on the afternoon of the 25th as originally planned, the government militia defending the arsenal fired cannon volleys directly into their midst (after two warnings). Three rebels fell dead in the snow, a fourth lay dying. 20 more were wounded. The rebels scattered without firing a shot.
General Lincoln discussed surrender proposals with Shays, but the rebel leader insisted on an unconditional pardon for himself and his men. Negotiations broke down as Lincoln was not authorized to grant full pardons. Shays retreated to the relative security of Petersham, a center of pro-Regulator sentiment that lay in terrain that was easier to defend.
Determined to clear his name of the stamp of cowardice gained from the Revolution, Lincoln marched his men thirty miles from Hadley to Petersham through a blinding snowstorm the night of February 3, 1787. Taken completely by surprise, the rebels were routed. 150 were captured. The rest, including Shays, escaped to the north. Lincoln then dispersed rebel nests in the Berkshires. By the end of February 1787, only a scattered resistance remained. What the state legislature had recently unfairly condemned as a “horrid and unnatural Rebellion and War … traitorously raised and levied against this Commonwealth” was over.
While the militia crushed the remnants of the rebellion, the state government drafted a series of punitive regulations. In mid-February, it issued a harsh Disqualifying Act, offering pardons to privates and noncommissioned officers, but denying them for three years the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to be employed as schoolteachers, innkeepers, or liquor retailers. The rebel officers, citizens of other states who had joined the Massachusetts uprising, former state officers or members of the state legislature who had aided the rebels, and people who had attended Regulator conventions would be tried for treason. They would be hanged upon conviction. One Shays rebel, shocked that he would be accused of treason, wrote that he “earnestly stepped forth in defense of this country, and liberty is still the object I have in view.”
The government’s vindictive measures caused widespread protest, not only from those who had sympathized with the rebel cause but from many of its active opponents as well. General Lincoln, among others, believed that such harsh reprisals would further alienate the discontented, and he wrote to General Washington that the disfranchisement of so many people would wholly deprive some towns of their representation in the legislature. New outbreaks would then occur in areas that had no other way to voice their grievances.
In token concession to its critics, the state legislature appointed a special commission of three men to determine the fate of rebels not covered by the Disqualifying Act in March 1787. General Lincoln served on the commission, and under his moderating influence, it pardoned 790 participants. In the meantime, county courts captured and tried any rebel leaders they could find. In Hampshire County, six men were sentenced to death for their part in the uprising, while in Berkshire County, eight men got the death penalty. Many others were imprisoned or fined.
The April 1787 election that followed revealed the depth of public support for the Regulators and the disapproval of the government’s actions. In the gubernatorial election that year, John Hancock overwhelmingly defeated Governor Bowdoin. 160 of the 222 members of the legislature and 13 members of the 24-man senate lost their seats. Perhaps to prove a point, the voters chose men who had actively participated in the rebellion, including Josiah Whitney, who had recently served 16 days in the Worcester jail.
Within the next few months, the new legislature repealed the Disqualifying Act, reprieved all men under sentence of death —some on the very steps of the gallows— and even Daniel Shays (although he and a few other leaders were still precluded from holding civil and military offices in the state). The legislature enacted long-range reforms, thereby addressing the complaints expressed by the Regulators. For example, it extended the law that permitted the use of certain personal and real property in payment of debts, imposed a lower and more equitable tax schedule, released most debtors from prison, and eased foreclosures laws.
Thomas Jefferson believed that “the spirit of resistance to government is … valuable on certain occasions.” The “horrid and unnatural Rebellion” of Daniel Shays proved that citizens can - if necessary - successfully join forces to win concessions from a tyrannical government.
James P. Hodges, Ph.D.
Website: Leadership by George!
Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of HonorMember: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development
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