Dispelling the myths about Shays Rebellion

Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle
By Leonard R. Richards
University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 216 pages.

Residents of western Massachusetts find it difficult to avoid regular encounters with the legacy of Daniel Shays. When I drive my youngest son to school, we cut diagonally across South Amherst on Shays Street. When I take visitors on a leisurely hike in the Holyoke Range, we usually make a pilgrimage to the caves where Shays allegedly hid his horses while fleeing the state militia sent to capture him. When I go fishing in the Quabbin Reservoir, the sign on Route 202 declares it to be the Daniel Shays Highway. The Quabbin is itself a modern-day testament to the imperial reach of Boston over its western settlements. This early Big Dig, which diverts water from the back country to Boston, makes a nice symbol of the kind of eastern hegemony that prompted Daniel Shays and his followers to launch their “little rebellion” more than 200 years ago.

That phrase comes from Thomas Jefferson, who heard about the agrarian uprising while in Paris and observed that he liked “a little rebellion now and then,” comparing it to a spring shower that cleared the air. Most of his fellow founding fathers, on the other hand, regarded Shays’s Rebellion as an ominous thunderstorm and a preview of looming anarchy. The ultimate irony of Shays’s Rebellion is that what began as a rural protest against centralized government actually ended up strengthening the advocates for a new US Constitution that consolidated political power at the federal level–in precisely the fashion that the rebels regarded as a betrayal of the American Revolution.

The Shays story has been told many times before, most frequently as the tale of impoverished farmers battling against the eastern elite, an early-day populist insurrection that fit neatly into an all-purpose “democracy versus aristocracy” scheme. Shays and his followers began by petitioning the state Legislature to reduce land taxes and stop the growing number of mortgage foreclosures in the west. When this failed, Shays and his band of armed men forcibly shut down county courts (to prevent them from handing down judgments against debt-ridden farmers) and attacked the federal armory in Springfield. Gov. James Bowdoin responded by sending 4,400 militiamen to capture the insurgents, who were offered clemency in return for an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth.

While the story that University of Massachusetts-Amherst historian Leonard R. Richards tells contains some of these familiar features, his chief contribution is to recover the lost identity of the major insurgents as both prominent and propertied leaders in the towns of Hampshire County. By combing the records of the Massachusetts Archives, Richards found an original list of 4,000 Shays supporters. The list demonstrated, according to Richards, that “the standard story of Shays’s Rebellion did not wash.”

The rebels were neither poor nor democrats.

A high percentage of the leaders, Shays included, were veterans of the recent war against Great Britain and had served as officers at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. They were neither impoverished nor democrats in anything like the modern sense of that term. What held them together was a common aversion to coercive government located in faraway places beyond their immediate supervision. In 1775-76 the coercive government was Parliament and the faraway place was London. These rebels risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to defy British rule. In 1786-87 they took up arms again–and we are talking about a substantial force of more than 2,000 men–to defy the same kind of arbitrary power being projected from Boston in the form of tax collectors, appointed judges, and corrupt bankers.

The Shaysites had a keen, almost visual sense of the new enemy they were up against. They conjured up mental pictures of bankers and wealthy merchants whispering in dark corners of Boston mansions. They saw lawyers and politically appointed judges congregating in the corridors of the State House, laughing out loud as they bartered away the rights of indebted farmers. They imagined a governor, who was supposed to defend the interests of all citizens, instead conspiring to take advantage of western “colonists” in much the same way that George III had conspired against American colonists. The mentality of the rebels, in short, derived both its legitimacy and its potency from the successful overthrow of British authority in the American Revolution. The rebels were attempting to repeat what they had done a decade earlier.

By recovering this revolutionary mentality, as well as the more prominent social status of the leaders of the rebellion, Richards has rescued Shays’s Rebellion from the anachronistic categories imposed by latter-day ideologues in the Marxist mode, as well as from advocates or critics seeking a precedent for their own heartfelt political agendas on the left or on the right. Richards is correct to subtitle his book “The American Revolution’s Final Battle,” for it is only within that 18th-century context that we can understand what motivated the insurgents, and why their rebellion struck revolutionaries like Sam Adams and George Washington as so threatening.

If I read him right, Richards’s sympathies lie with the Shaysites, whose passionate version of local control will always enjoy sentimental support as long as the term “inside the beltway” conjures up visions of modern-day courtiers and lobbyists plotting against the interests of “the people.” Richards seems to admire the Shays spirit, a spirit symbolizing not only stubborn defiance but also “tight-knit communities where men and women acted as one” in defense of their “communal order.”

Meet the Author
My own affinities are more muddled, in part because the legacy of local control also conjures up visions of George Wallace and “segregation forever,” and in part because I happen to believe that the ratification of the Constitution, which was fundamentally at odds with the version of the American Revolution embraced by Daniel Shays, also has legitimate claim on the revolutionary tradition and has, shall we say, stood the test of time. As that mischievous chronicler of American history, Gore Vidal, once put it, we need to pay “homage to Daniel Shays.” But in the end I side with George Washington, John Adams, and John Marshall.

Such honest disagreements ought not to prevent a reviewer from admiring a well-told story. Apart from his interpretive gloss, Richards offers an elegantly succinct narrative of the skirmishes at the Springfield armory and Petersham, colorful vignettes of pro-government heroes like Benjamin Lincoln and Shaysites like Luke Day, and beguiling anecdotes about forgotten episodes–like two Berkshire County women who smuggled hacksaws into the local jail so that their rebel husbands could escape. The prose is crisp and clear throughout. And while the endnotes reveal the considerable scholarship on which the story rests, the story itself is blessedly bereft of the academic jargon that sinks so many scholarly books into muck and oblivion. Daniel Shays, alive and well in my corner of the Commonwealth, has found his ablest modern historian.

Joseph J. Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.