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This Week in History
January 22-28, 1787:
Shays' Rebellion: Britain Foments a Counterrevolution in Massachusetts

January 2012

Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack of 1787 (c. 1787), National Picture Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck.

225 years ago, on January 25, 1787, Gen. William Shepard and 500 members of the Massachusetts Militia stopped an attack on the Federal Armory at Springfield. The insurgents were led by Daniel Shays, a Massachusetts farmer and former captain in the War of Independence, whose name was subsequently attached to the revolt known as Shays' Rebellion. The move toward a Constitutional Convention which would strengthen America's central government was taking place at the same time as Shays' Rebellion, and they were closely linked.

The pawprints of former colonial ruler Great Britain were all over the rebellion, and it was a race against time for the nationalists, like George Washington, who knew that a return to British vassalage could only be avoided by constituting a new form of government. The fact that the revolt began in Massachusetts was a particularly ironic one, since that colony had politically led the American Revolution, had provided a large portion of troops for the Continental Army, and had sent large amounts of money to the Continental Congress for waging the war.

But now, just a few years after independence had been won, Massachusetts was suffering serious financial difficulties. She had shouldered a large part of the Revolutionary War debt, but her manufacturing and commerce were almost completely shut down by Britain's post-war tactic of dumping British manufactures below cost on the American market. To honor her war debt, Massachusetts levied additional taxes to be paid in cash, but the farmers of western Massachusetts, used to paying their debts in crops, had little or no cash even during a good year. Some of them lost their farms or were imprisoned for debt.

On August 26, 1786, a convention of delegates from 37 towns in Worcester County met and drafted a petition of grievances. The two major grievances were the high cost of justice in the courts, and the heavy tax burden levied in cash to pay off the state's depreciated public securities at par. Three days later, a mob of 1,500 men, 500 of them armed, stopped the sitting of the Hampshire County Court in Northampton. During the following months, more and more court sessions were shut down by mobs, until there was no functioning state government west and south of Boston.

Yet the Massachusetts General Court had passed laws in July streamlining the court system and reducing the expense of civil action, in addition to making taxes payable in public securities at par. But, mysteriously, none of these laws were published in the western sections of Massachusetts.

On August 20, before the court shutdowns had begun, a correspondent of Secretary of War Henry Knox wrote from London to warn him that the British were about to launch some sort of counterrevolution in New England. On September 11, Judge Artemis Ward reported to Massachusetts Gov. James Bowdoin that about a dozen men, said to be British emissaries, were seen riding from town to town, and from county to county, calling the men to arms.

Secretary Knox, who had been General Washington's Chief of Artillery during the Revolutionary War, kept Washington informed about the actions of the rebels. Knox was sent by the Congress on a fact-finding mission to Massachusetts, and on October 23, he wrote to Washington about what he had found. The General replied:

"That G.B. [Great Britain] will be an unconcerned spectator of the present insurrections (if they continue) is not to be expected. That she is at this moment sowing the Seeds of jealousy & discontent among the various tribes of Indians on our frontier admits of no doubt, in my mind. And that she will improve every opportunity to foment the spirit of turbulence within the bowels of the United States, with a view of distracting our government, & promoting divisions, is, with me, not less certain.

"Her first Manoeuvres will, no doubt, be covert, and may remain so till the period shall arrive when a decided line of conduct may avail her. Charges of violating the treaty, & other pretexts, will not then be wanting to colour overt acts, tending to effect the great objects of which she has long been in labour. A Man is now at the head of their American Affairs well calculated to conduct measures of this kind, & more than probably was selected for the purpose.

"We ought not therefore to sleep nor to slumber—vigilence in the watching, & vigour in acting, is, in my opinion, become indispensably necessary. If the powers are inadequate, amend or alter them, but do not let us sink into the lowest state of humiliation & contempt, & become a byword in all the earth—I think with you that the Spring will unfold important & distressing Scenes, unless much wisdom & good management is displayed in the interim."

Another of Washington's coadjutors was David Humphreys, who sent him three letters during November. Washington replied:

"Let me entreat you my dear Sir, to keep me advised of the situation of Affairs in your quarter. I can depend upon your Accounts. Newspaper paragraphs unsupported by other testimony, are often contradictory & bewildering. At one time these insurgents are represented as a mere Mob—At other times as systematic in all their proceedings.

"If the first, I would fain hope that like other Mobs, it will, however formidable, be of short duration. If the latter, there surely are men of consequence and abilities behind the Curtain, who move the puppets. The designs of whom may be deep & dangerous. They may be instigated by British Councils—actuated by ambitious motives—or being influenced by dishonest principles, had rather see the Country plunged in civil discord than do what Justice would dictate to an honest mind."

Since the close of the American Revolution, George Washington had been working to foster close relations among the states which could lead to a stronger national government. He had a hand in the March 1785 conference between Virginia and Maryland which was to deal with navigation on the Potomac River and on part of the Chesapeake Bay. When the commissioners convened in Alexandria, he invited them to Mount Vernon, and the resulting agreement was known as the Mount Vernon Compact.

The Maryland delegates, responding to a suggestion by Washington, proposed that such meetings be held every year, that they also deal with commercial matters, and that Pennsylvania and Delaware be included. Washington's allies in the Virginia Legislature then proposed that delegates from all 13 states be sent to Annapolis in the fall of 1786 "to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony."

Delegates from five states convened at Annapolis as the insurrection in Massachusetts escalated, and George Washington suggested that they deal with more than commercial matters. Alexander Hamilton drafted the conference's resolution which called for a convention in Philadelphia the next May, "to render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." The Continental Congress did not at first react, but the state legislatures began to respond, and all through the winter and early spring, delegates to Philadelphia were being appointed.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Legislature, alarmed at the spread of the insurgency, passed laws to rectify the injustices suffered by the farmers. Farm products were made legal tender for past-due taxes, judgments against private debtors were suspended for eight months, and an amnesty was granted for all those who had participated in stopping the courts.

Although some insurgents now went home, the rebellion was not allowed to fade away. On November 6, 1786, Secretary Knox received a letter from former Continental Army General Samuel Holden Parsons, who informed him that upwards of 2,000 men were drilling almost daily, and that many of their officers were former junior officers in the Revolution and currently held commissions in the state militia. Furthermore, and most revealingly, the men were being paid three shillings a day in cash, amounting to the large sum of $500-1,000 a day.

The ultimate source of the money was unknown, but the men who disbursed it were all doctors and all dedicated Tories. Two of these paymasters visited Connecticut and Rhode Island to set up drilling of insurgents in those states. Furthermore, on September 20, fifteen hundred New Hampshire lumbermen in Exeter began an insurrection, but Revolutionary War General John Sullivan, who was now governor of the state, put down the rebellion. On November 18, two hundred well-armed, well-drilled, and well-officered insurgents marched into Worcester and stopped the proceedings of the Court of Quarter Sessions. They also seized food and supplies from the terrified inhabitants.

The leaders of the insurgency met at Pelham on December 9 and grouped their men into six regiments. They also formed themselves into a "Committee of Seventeen," one of whom was Daniel Shays. From his base at Wilbraham, he sent a message to Gen. William Shepard, whose militia troops were guarding the Federal Arsenal at Springfield. Shays asked for amnesty for the rebel leaders and a release of rebel prisoners, but his letter never arrived. He also sent a letter to rebel Capt. Luke Day, asking for him to join an attack on the arsenal.

When Shays' men appeared before the arsenal, General Shepard sent out two warnings that they would be fired upon if they attacked, and then fired blank cartridges from his artillery, but the rebels continued to advance. Shepard then had the guns loaded, and several attackers were killed or wounded. The rebels fled temporarily, but Shays made a second attempt when Captain Day's detachment arrived. But now he faced Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, who had arrived with four regiments, artillery, and a troop of cavalry. The insurgents retreated to Petersham, but General Lincoln led his troops on a forced night march through heavy snow, and, like Washington at Trenton, completely surprised the rebels. Many were captured, but some of the leaders, including Shays, escaped to New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Canada. Three hundred rebels were pardoned as dupes, and 14 leaders were tried for high treason and sentenced to death. But eight were pardoned by Gov. Bowdoin because they repented of their actions, and the other six were pardoned conditionally.

Over the next month, there were minor battles fought with other groups of insurgents, and as late as May, when the Constitutional Convention was scheduled to begin in Philadelphia, there were sporadic raids conducted from Vermont and upstate New York by unrepentant or still-duped rebels.

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