The war was over.
The years had passed since General Charles Cornwallis had surrendered following the Siege of Yorktown, and the Treaty of Paris had been signed, but not so many that they had forgotten. They won the Revolution, and the yoke of England had been cast off. They had set out to secure their independence, challenging the most powerful empire in the World, and, after years of sacrifice, loss and pain, after years of being met with devastating defeats and glorious victories, they controlled their destiny, free of that far distant monarch and parliament. Nowhere had that been more celebrated than Massachusetts, where the first shots had been fired.
Returning to their homes and their farms, they believed that they could find some level of normalcy. Still, throughout the states, including Massachusetts, unrest was beginning to build.
The truth was though that America was a new nation and few knew what the new normal would be. The economic climate had changed. Depression, debt, and challenges in foreign trade had seen to that. Now someone had to pay the price. In the mind of Governor James Bowdoin that would be the people.
Unlike his predecessor, John Hancock, who had resigned as Governor in 1785, Bowdoin, a member of Boston’s merchant class himself, was less interested in being loved by the people as he was in the debts owed, largely by the wealthy merchants. European creditors were demanding hard currency even as credit previously extended was closed to them. Not only did he have to contend with economic struggles currently faced, but also with the prospect of bailing out those merchants now underwater.
He would begin to put the pressure on the local farmers. Despite their service in the Revolution, compensation from Congress would be almost non-existence. Now, it was the states turn to add injury to insult.
Enacting high taxes, while rigorously pursuing back taxes owed and refusing to print more currency, Bowdoin’s policies would turn the Massachusetts government into everything men like Daniel Shays, Luke Day and Eli Parson had fought against in that struggle for independence. In a way, there was a sense of betrayal as the government ignored pleas for relief and petitions to the legislature went unread. Farms were foreclosed on and farmers jailed in the western part of the state. In their minds, these farmers, they had done what was right. They had convened conventions and meetings; they had sent their requests to the legislature. In the words of one farmer, “I’ve labored hard all my days and fared hard. I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war, been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates, and all rates, lawsuits, and have been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables, and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth. I have been obliged to pay, and nobody will pay me. I have lost a great deal by this man and that man, and t’other man and the great men are going to get all we have, and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors, nor lawyers. I design to pay no more, and I know we have the biggest party, let them say what they will.”
Shays, a Captain in the Revolutionary War, a man who fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, before being wounded and resigning from the military in 1780, saw it much the same way. He had sold the ornamental sword offered as a “pledge of affection” by his commanding officer General Lafayette for a few dollars to pay off debts owed, and would become known by fellow soldiers as one without “honor and spirit.” Returning home he would find that though he put his life on hold for the war, the rest of the world didn’t stop as he found himself in trouble for nonpayment of debts. He was not alone. In one instance, even as he was hauled before the courts, he would even witness the bed taken from a sick woman for her inability to pay her debts.
There came the point when it had become enough.
On August 29th, 1786 that day came as a force of 1,500 men marched on the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton, Massachusetts setting off the events that would become known as Shays Rebellion after the man who would eventually become their popular leader. Their goal was to shut down what they believed was the corrupt body that was robbing the people of their homes, their lands, and their goods. It wasn’t their first attempt, having risen only two months prior, on June 13th, to try and shut the courts in Bristol County following the new taxes levied on March 23rd. The difference? The difference was that this time they succeeded.
Stopping the court from sitting in Hampshire County had given them the victory they needed. Now the revolt only began to grow. Styling themselves “The Regulators” after the Regulator Movement of North Carolina in those years before the Revolution, they would set about shutting down the courts throughout the state, starting in Worcester, Taunton and Concord. Bowdoin’s initial response would be measured. While other states, faced with similar situations, called on their militia to hunt down rebels and their leaders as soon as they rose, he refused to organize initially. It perhaps wouldn’t have done much good. County militias were sympathetic to the cause of the farmers and would refuse to organize. When they were sent to Great Barrington to deal to open the courts, 800 of the 1,000 men would abandon their ranks to join with their downtrodden brothers.
Fear would quickly grip the Governor and one of his key allies, Samuel Adams. Seeing the signs of revolution, having witnessed the same actions, the same course just over a decade prior in 1774, they heard the cries of men like James Warren who would declare, “We are now in a state of Anarchy and Confusion, bordering on civil war” and they responded. Passage of The Riot Act and the suspension the writ of habeas corpus would soon follow, as would the creation of a 3,000 men private militia funded by money raised by the Merchants, and almost entirely made up of men from the Eastern Counties and lead by General Benjamin Lincoln, who had previously served as Washington’s second-in-command, accepting the British surrender at Yorktown. In the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts leaders of the Rebellion would be indicted. When Shays and 1,200 of his men would attempt to shut the Court a few weeks later, they would be met by General William Shepherd and 800 militia men in a standoff in the streets. Though the Regulators would be unable to stop the Court from opening, no juror would present themselves, and it would end without violence.
So it would go for the next several months, until January. Setting their eyes on the Federal armory in Springfield they would plan their attack. Yet it would be the delay of a single day would be their undoing as Shays message to hold off the attack until he could get into place was intercepted by the militia. Shepherd would be waiting for them. Approaching the Arsenal warning shots would be fired before the cannons were rolled out. Four of the rebel would lay dead; more would be wounded. Shays and his men would flee. In a few days word would reach General Lincoln, and 3,000 troops would pursue the broken rebellion. In a few days, it would all be over as Shays fled to Vermont.
Despite Samuel Adams belief that “the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death,” only two would be executed for the rebellion. When Hancock would return as Governor, he would issue pardons to many of the leaders. Shays himself would spend the rest of his life in exile from his home in Massachusetts drinking too much, working a few acres of land and dependent on a pension from the government for his service in the Revolution.
The effects of the Rebellion though would be long felt, as, even as the man and the events faded, it became a turning point in American history. Even as Thomas Jefferson would declare, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” General Washington would write General Henry Lee, “You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once”. In the end, it would draw the General out of his retirement, convince many, including James Madison, of the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, and spur on a Constitutional Convention that would create a stronger national government.
This episode sponsored by: Tactical Dads