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Remembering the “Regulation”– called Shays’s Rebellion.


Dale Pendell:

Remembering the “Regulation”–  also called Shays’s Rebellion.

On two separate occasions, in 1774 and in 1786, determined citizens of Worcester County, Massachusetts, some of them armed, converged on the County Courthouse and occupied it. Undoubtedly some of the same people were involved in both actions. The purpose of the occupation, in both cases, was to prevent the judges from holding session. In 1774 Samuel Adams called the occupiers patriots, while in 1786 he called them traitors who should be executed.

In both occupations the protesters were demanding local control of the courts and an end to unfair taxation. In 1774 the judges had been appointed by the British governor in Boston. In 1786 the judges had been appointed by the American governor in Boston, and the citizens still wanted local control of their judges and an end to unfair taxation that profited the few at the expense of the many.

In 1774 the British governor, General Gage, knew he couldn’t reopen the courts with his troops without starting a war, and didn’t. In 1786 the American governor, James Bowdoin, was quite ready to start a war and ordered General Jonathan Warner to call out the Worcester militia. Shays’s Rebellion began when the militia members either refused to muster against their countrymen or else joined the “Regulators.”

What had happened in fourteen years? Why were the same protests, considered patriotic in 1774, being indicted as treason, a capital offense?

The story involves debt, foreclosures, and a massive bailout of those at the top—the top 1/10th of the one percent. It is a story about the clash of two economic systems, subsistence farming, called yeomanry, essentially a non-cash economy based on mutual aid, and the new money economy, where money was the measure of everything and “fiscal policy” meant doing what was best for money, and for those who had it.

The first skirmish of the conflict was a political battle over adopting a state constitution in Massachusetts—that is, deciding who was a citizen and could vote and just which citizens could hold public office. The constitution was voted on by towns and the first version was defeated in 1778.

Objections came from both democratic and conservative sides. Western towns wanted the property qualifications for voting to be dropped, for civil officials to be voted on by the local town meetings, and for militia officers to be selected by the local militia, as they had been traditionally, rather than being appointed by the governor. Contrarily, conservatives, mostly in the eastern cities, thought the document was too democratic, that property qualifications for voting and for office holding should be increased—that is, that only the more well-to-do property owners be permitted to govern or vote.

The Massachusetts government called another convention the next year, and in 1779, 247 towns sent delegates. The job of drafting the document was given to John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin–all three were Eastern, mercantile men. The final document was mostly written by John Adams, and reflected Adams’s view that democracy be balanced by plutocracy–that is, that the rich (say, the 1%) have as much power as the many (the 99%).

Instead of following Thomas Paine’s idea of a single popularly elected legislative body (as Rhode Island did), Adams added a second “upper” house, with higher property requirements, to represent the interests of the rich—an American version of the House of Lords.

Paine’s plan had called for executive functions to be carried out by a governing committee, selected by the legislature. Adams, instead, created an independent executive governor, with veto power over the legislature and appointive power over the judiciary. The net result was a huge shift in power from the land-based town meetings to the Boston gentry, and from the legislature to the Governor and the Senate. As a last twist, to be sure that the yeoman farmers wouldn’t rise up and demand change, the constitution included a clause forbidding any amendments for fifteen years.

The new constitution set £60 in taxable wealth as a minimum for a free white male to be able to vote. In the seaboard towns it is estimated that ½ to 2/3 of white males were eligible to vote. In the towns of western Massachusetts the wealth requirement was usually ignored:  everyone who paid taxes was expected, and sometimes even required, to vote at town meetings. Still, the deck was clearly stacked in favor of propertied interests. The requirements to actually hold office were much higher: £200 to serve in the House, £300 to serve in the Senate, and £1000 to serve as governor. For context, a small farm could be purchased for £25, and yeoman farmers were so self-sufficient, supplying all of their own food and clothing, that annual cash expenditures were usually less than £5.

The western counties strongly opposed the constitution, but due to exceedingly harsh winter storms in 1783, few western representatives were able to attend the convention in Boston to vote. Even so, the constitution only passed by an odd and effectively fraudulent method of vote counting. The committee counting the votes from each town caucus had stated that each clause in the document had to be voted on separately—so towns such as Northampton that voted “no” to the whole constitution were not even counted. With this bizarre method of vote counting (or vote not-counting), every clause of the constitution passed.

With their new power in the government, the big money wheeler-dealers moved quickly to reset the fiscal policies of the state according to “sound financial practices,” which, as John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his book Money, always means that which benefits the affluent.


Paper Money

One of the first moves of the new government was to retroactively de-legalize paper money. Specifically, the Massachusetts securities issued to replace the “Continentals” that Congress had issued to pay for the Revolutionary Army (at 20:1) would no longer be accepted as payment for either debts or taxes (even though “legal tender” was printed on these interest-bearing notes). This act more or less forced any farmers or soldiers who still had paper money to sell it to speculators for pennies on the dollar to get enough hard money to pay their taxes. Soon eighty percent of the entire supply of paper money was in the hands of some hundred speculators and traders. Fifty percent of the entire state debt was held by just thirty-five men—all of whom were either members of the government or directly connected to the government through other family members.

The next step of the government was to legislate that the 5% annual interest on the notes should be paid on time and in “specie,” that is, in gold or silver. The redemption date on the notes was also moved up by two years, from 1788 to 1786. Massachusetts, alone of the states, legislated that the notes would be paid off at face value in specie!  (Other states paid them off at closer to their depreciated, market value, between 1/10th and 1/40th of their value in gold or silver.)

This was a one-two punch to the farmers. To pay off an IOU of $10, as an example, the debtor would have to pay what the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided was the purchasing power of $10 when the loan was issued, five to twenty times the face value. On the other hand, the few speculators holding paper money and securities were to be paid off at ten times their market value, in metal.

These moves, a huge windfall for those few who held the government securities, were meant to show the world that Massachusetts was credit-worthy. To pay off this huge debt the legislature levied a series of regressive new taxes. Around a third of the tax burden was placed on a poll tax—where rich and poor had to pay the same cash amount. Only a tenth of the money was to be raised by import taxes on luxury goods. The rest of the burden was to be raised through a property tax—which again placed most of the burden on farmers rather than townsmen. Most of these taxes were payable only in specie.

The trouble was, nobody had specie. Especially after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 Americans with money used it to buy luxury goods from England, soon creating a large trade deficit. The fad for English luxury goods was so widespread that it elicited morally condemnatory editorials in the newspapers. As the English accepted only specie as payment, merchants soon were pressing their debtors to pay in same. Backcountry farmers had no hard currency at all, so sheriffs and tax collectors were soon seizing whatever moveable property they could find, such as a cow–probably the only thing a subsistence farmer owned other than his land.

With the spring thaw in 1781, the outraged western voters elected enough representatives to the Massachusetts House to pass a new law reinstituting the legal tender status of paper money, but the Senate vetoed the bill.


Pulling a Fast One

In 1783 a near mutiny of officers in the Continental Army who were upset by the depreciating value of the currency they were being paid pushed Congress (at Washington’s bidding), to promise every officer an extra five years of full pay backed by government securities paying 6 per cent interest in silver or gold. Enlisted men got nothing. This debt, as all Congressional debts, was passed on to the states.

The lack of hard money created deflation. Land prices dropped, and the prices for farm produce dropped. Wholesalers needing hard money to pay creditors overseas pressed retailers for payment in specie, and retailers responded by cutting off traditional in-kind payments of grain or meat from farmers, instead demanding payment is hard cash. Court actions for the payment of debts spiked, as did the number of those imprisoned for debt. (Debt prisoners are out-numbered those imprisoned for other felonies and misdemeanors.)

Many western towns, such as Amherst, submitted petitions for relief to the government in Boston, but with little result. In 1782 and 1783 there were scattered incidents of direct actions. Most of these were individual altercations—a neighbor or relative interfering with a sheriff attempting to seize a cow from a farmer in arrears on his taxes, or a group of farmers at an auction intimidating possible bidders, and perhaps the auctioneer. But there were also a few larger actions: in Hampshire County a group armed with clubs attempted to close the courthouse, leading to a bludgeoning street fight and several arrests; in the town of Groton a man named Job Shattuck was arrested after leading a mobbed assault on tax collectors who were seizing his neighbor’s property; a man named Samuel Ely started a minor insurrection in Sunderland, on the Connecticut River, leading to armed standoffs, hostages, and daring jail breaks. Such events did indeed catch the attention of the government in Boston, and a committee was sent to assess conditions in the west. The three-man committee—Samuel Adams, General Artemas Ward, and Nathaniel Gorham (the land speculator who sold the Yates County land to the Society of Universal Friends)—met with citizens in many of the western towns, promising reforms and pardons for most of those citizens involved in recent incidents. They reported back to the legislature in Boston that all would be well.

All was not well, but tempers remained at a slow simmer until 1785, when John Hancock suddenly announced that, for health reasons, he was resigning as governor. Hancock had been popular and had taken a very lax attitude toward collecting overdue taxes. A very rich man himself, the old smuggler made his wealthy debtors pay him in silver, while allowing his poorer debtors to pay him in depreciated paper. His political opponents accused him of pandering to the people and setting a bad example (instead of, I suppose, pandering to the rich, like a proper gentleman).

In the three-way race to fill the governor’s office no one received a majority, and the election moved to the legislature. Hancock’s chosen successor, the Lt. Governor James Cushing, won in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, but James Bowdoin, a merchant (and currency speculator) won in the Senate. The third candidate, former Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, lost in both houses. The senate got its way.

Bowdoin took a very different approach to back taxes than had Hancock: not only did he want all taxes collected as quickly as possible, he prodded the legislature to levy new ones. Nine direct taxes were applied between 1780 and 1786, making the tax burden many times what it had been under the British, before the Revolution. The Massachusetts legislature even passed a Stamp Act. That the annual tax burden on subsistence farmers—still 80% of the population—now exceeded their annual income by several fold didn’t seem to matter to Bowdoin. That Bowdoin, a speculator holding a large chunk of the state debt in securities, stood to reap a personal bonanza if they were paid off, perhaps did matter.

Bowdoin himself presented his proposals as protecting the “honor and strict honesty” of the government. He cited the trade imbalance as the root of the state’s problems, and called for “frugality and economy.” He also stressed the importance of honoring debts, and to raise taxes so that the state could make prompt interest payments in specie on its paper (of which he held a great deal).


Growing Resistance

Farmers and townsmen all across western New England responded by holding town meetings, and then county conventions, and then sending petitions to the legislature in Boston. According to David Szatmary, in his book Shays’ Rebellion, between 1784 and 1787 seventy-three Massachusetts towns sent petitions to the General Court in Boston. Each petition was unique, but they all begged for some form of relief. Many demanded an issue of paper money, or for a “tender” law that would allow farmers to pay their taxes in goods. Some requested a one-year moratorium on debt collections by the courts. Others merely asked that seized goods be appraised by a judge instead of being sold at sheriff’s auctions, where they might only receive one-tenth of their value. Other complaints focused on the excessive layers in the legal system, and the high fees charged by lawyers at each step, making even minor use of the courts outside the reach of most yeomen. Court fees for debt cases were the same whether the debt was in shillings or in hundreds of pounds. Some farmers ended up owing more in fees than in debt to their creditors.

Other petitions requested that the state capitol be moved inland to a more central and accessible location. Others questioned the need for a senate, which seemed to perpetuate the excessive financial favoritism of the current government. As Szatmary notes, not one of the petitions called for redistribution of property or an overthrow of the government–they all wanted to work “through the system.”

All of the petitions were either denied or ignored—the deflationary condition suited the merchants and creditors just fine, or most of them. And not only were the petitions dismissed, they were ridiculed.

The farmers were characterized as being both ignorant and lazy, as men who would rather spend their time complaining than providing for their families. Sean Condon, in his excellent Shays’s Rebellion, quotes from a parody petition published at the time, signed by “Amos Spendthrift, Tom Seldomsober, and Simon Dreadwork.” (A nasty bit of hypocritical Calvinism still very much with us—as when the problems of the economy are blamed on “welfare queens,” at the same time the Federal Government was bailing out another round of speculators with more money than had been spent on public assistance since the beginning of the New Deal.)

Even the right of citizens to hold county conventions was attacked—that while such conventions were necessary and appropriate while under the yoke of a foreign power, under an elected government they were characterized by the elite as being somehow seditious.

The attitude of the mercantile class to paper versus hard money has always varied with the circumstances of self-interest, the same as their attitudes to protective tariffs versus “free trade.” In 1786 the calls for an “emission” of paper money were greeted with the moral horror that might accompany a call for public masturbation. As stated by the official report from the Office of the


. . . such a currency would give us present relief; but like the pleasure of sin, it would be but for a season; and like that too, it would be a reproach to the community, and would produce calamities without end.

While other states had called in their IOUs at their depreciated value—in effect declaring a Biblical “jubilee,”, or general forgiveness of debts—Massachusetts lifted the repayment of public debt to a quasi-religious status.  Not only was the annual interest on the notes to be paid, but also all the back interest, compounded. As a cherry on the top, a 4% bonus was to be added, as a sort of late fee–all payable in silver. To pay for this new boondoggle to the Boston speculators, which included Governor Bowdoin (who owned a thousand pounds worth—three hundred times the annual income of a typical yeoman), the state passed the largest direct tax of the decade.


We Been Had

While many of the country folk lacked the higher education of the financial elites, most of them were capable of arithmetic, and could figure out that five or six percent interest on the original specie value of a note purchased for a tenth of its value equaled an annual return of fifty or sixty percent. No one was suggesting that the speculators be given nothing, but wouldn’t a mere doubling of their investment, given the circumstances, have been adequate return?

Governor Bowdoin called for frugality and belt-tightening, but, as the farmers noted, did not call for any reduction in his own kingly salary of £1,000. The farmer’s troubles were said to be their own fault, the result of laziness and not saving.

My minister father would talk about the poor that way: “It’s no wonder that they are poor, most of them never save any money. And some of them spend money on alcohol, or even gambling.” Which, if perhaps as true of the poor as of their “betters,” misses the point that most of the poor were born that way. (As the overwhelming majority of the rich are born rich.)

I am always amazed at the callousness of privilege: how a person who was given a house could say “people who have mortgages are stupid.” Or one who was given fine antique furniture would sneer at those using particle board. Or, as President George W. Bush quipped to the $800 a plate guests at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner: “This is an impressive crowd — the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base.”

Trash talk from the castle.


Sprigs of Evergreen

The yeomen farmers in 1786 were smart enough to realize that the logic of the cash squeeze would ultimately lead to landless dependency. Every yeoman had already accepted a life sentence of hard labor by choice. The Revolution, however, of which many of the farmers were veteran soldiers, had given them pride of liberty–none of them wished to be reduced to rent-paying day laborers, growing crops for land barons or their stock companies.

In July of 1786 some of the people had had enough. When the “selectmen” of Pelham received news that the legislature had adjourned for the year without reading their town’s petition, they sent letters to neighboring towns calling for a county-wide convention. The selectmen were what we today would call the town’s “leading citizens,” those chosen by ballot at annual town meetings to perform many of the day-to-day town duties and responsibilities. They were not “destitute farmers,” as some later claimed. Often it is the injustices being perpetrated on one’s neighbors that spark people of conscience to rise up on behalf of the victims. It is difficult to organize a large-scale protest when one is facing debtor’s prison (or foreclosure or eviction, or, say, deportation).

The Hampshire County convention, held in Hatfield, drafted a list of twenty-one articles, covering debt relief, government salaries, paper money, legal tender, possible Constitutional amendments, lawyers fees—the whole gamut of grievances and suggestions. The petition also called for strict observance of law, and to “abstain from all mobs and unlawful assemblies until a constitutional method of redress can be obtained.”

Copies of the document were brought back to some fifty towns in the county for popular vote, but direct action soon overtook the long chain of ignored petitions. Within four days three columns of farmers, many of them armed with muskets, converged on the town of Northampton on the Connecticut River. Men from Pelham and Greenwich marched under Captain Joseph Hines, a Revolutionary War veteran, while another veteran, Captain Joel Billings, led a column from Amherst. These two columns were greeted before dawn on the outskirts of the town by a stream of men from points west. In all, 1500 men, a third of them armed, marched to fife and drum at first light to the Northampton courthouse to close it down. Around midmorning, the county sheriff and the three judges, unable to enter the court through a wall of muskets and bayonets, retired to a nearby tavern. There, after meeting with a delegation of six men representing the protesters who asked them not to hear any cases until their petition had been redressed, adjourned “all matters pending” and went home. The farmers did the same.

The protestors called themselves “regulators.” A “regulation” was a popular direct action to curb excesses of a local official—a tradition with roots in seventeenth century England that had already been adopted in America: once in North Carolina and another time in South Carolina. The Regulators in Massachusetts wore a sprig of spruce or hemlock in their hats as their badge.


First Standoff

The sheriff quickly reported the news of the forced closure to the governor, who warned that any future disrupters would be arrested and tried for treason. Governor Bowdoin also contacted the commander of the Worcester militia to have his troops ready to defend the Worcester court, due to open in a few days.

When a hundred and fifty men blocked the entrance to the Worcester courthouse the next week, General Jonathan Warner did indeed call out the militia, but few responded, and those who did joined the occupiers.

One of the justices was Artemas Ward, who was also the Speaker of the House and had been the commander at the battle of Bunker Hill, and undoubtedly the former commander of some of the “Regulators” facing him.

Artemas Ward addressed the crowd for over an hour, cajoling or threatening, but the protesters stood fast. Over the next few days, several hundred more citizens came from neighboring towns to join the Regulators, though the crowd never reached the size it had been fourteen years before (when Nathaniel Wyman had been part of the insurgency). Finally, bowing to popular pressure, the Chief Justice and the other judges agreed to postpone all cases until later in the fall.

Governor Bowdoin called a council of his top officials along with the city’s leading financiers, including William Phillips, head of Massachusetts’s only bank. They met for four days discussing strategies to ensure that the other county courts scheduled to open in the coming weeks could be protected—evidently there was no talk of listening to the protesters petitions.


Occupying the Courthouse

Three more courts tried to open in the next week. In Concord a hundred Regulators under Captain Job Shattuck marched through a drenching downpour to halt the opening of the Middlesex County Court. A group of “neutral” citizens tried to defuse the standoff, acting as go-betweens between the judges and the sheriff and the Regulators. But when the judges issued an ultimatum, the neutrals refused to deliver it, saying that if they did the crowd would surely tear down the courthouse. The judges were furious, but adjourned and went home.

In Taunton, in Bristol County, a major general had gotten the Plymouth militia out early, and had secured the courthouse before some two hundred mostly unarmed Regulators reached the scene. The judge then opened the court, but immediately adjourned, thus both saving face and avoiding possible violence.

In Great Barrington, in western Massachusetts, armed Regulators from the surrounding towns occupied the courthouse a day before its scheduled opening. The following day Major General John Paterson marched into town with a thousand militia troops—far outnumbering the Regulators. But then the militia took a vote, and eight hundred of the men crossed the street to join the occupiers. The judges officially opened court, then officially adjourned the court, and spent the rest of the day at the house of the Chief Justice, Dr. William Whiting. Representatives of the regulators met them there, and three of the four justices signed an agreement not to hold court until the government met the people’s grievances. The Regulators then marched to the county jail and freed the debtors.

At Springfield the forces were more evenly matched and there was a standoff. General William Shepard, leading 800 militiamen, arrived first and took control of the courthouse. Without authority, he then commandeered the federal arsenal in Springfield to arm the many men of his militia who had arrived without guns. He also appropriated a cannon and placed it by the front door of the courthouse. Regulators began arriving the next day, one of the largest groups being led by Captain Daniel Shays.

The establishment press did their best to demonize Shays at the same time that they elevated him to the generalissimo and sole instigator of the whole uprising. Shays was by turns characterized as an incendiary radical who wanted to burn Boston to the ground, as an ignorant, classless, failed farmer, or a would-be dictator in the hands of King George III.

In actuality, Shays was one of the more prosperous farmers on his county’s tax roles and was a five-year veteran of the Continental Army. He was a war hero who had been with Washington at Valley Forge and had been awarded a ceremonial sword by the Marquis de Lafayette. Unlike most of Washington’s officers who had been born to privilege, Captain Shays had enrolled as a common soldier and had worked his way up, finally even being admitted to the hereditary Society of Cincinnati, the semi-secret elite club of George Washington’s top officers.

The citizens of Pelham had previously asked Shays to lead the protesters at the first Northampton action. He had refused then, but had changed his mind when he realized that his neighbors, for their own well-being, needed an experience officer.

In Springfield, all of Daniel Shays’s skills were called upon. There were ongoing negotiations between the leaders of the two factions over several days, in a mutual attempt to avoid bloodshed. Captain Shays was allowed to march his 1200 Regulators in front of the courthouse. General Shepard had his militia drawn up into ranks on both sides of the road, while the regulators marched between them. Order was maintained on both sides, though it is said that some of the militia broke ranks to join the Regulators. The two armies camped next to each other on the edge of town, and the local sheriff was able to walk through both camps and receive military salutes from both sets of guards.

Daniel Shays and five other representatives of the regulators met with the judges at a tavern and had a meal together to discuss the people’s petition and the tense situation. Neither side budged from its position, but the justices were later pilloried in the press for demeaning themselves to sup with lower class ruffians.

The judges did open the court, but were unable to find enough jurors. After four very tense days they adjourned without conducting any business. General Shepard and Captain Shays were able to conclude a gentlemen’s agreement for the timing and protocol of dismissing their forces without anyone being hurt or ”insulted.”


Against the Regulation

The “gentlemanly” state of affairs was short-lived. The state of Massachusetts issued indictments for eleven of the leaders. Enough members of the Continental Congress were alarmed to pass a motion to nearly triple the size of the federal army, from 700 to 2,040, even though General von Steuben pointed out that it was a Massachusetts problem, and that Massachusetts had 92,000 men on its militia rolls. Deeming it “inexpedient” to reveal the true purpose of the new troops, Congress stated that the troops were for “the Indian war,” though at that time there was none.

The Massachusetts legislature passed several measures to try to cool the tempers of the farmers—all of them short of substantive change. Debtors were to be given an eight months respite from seizures; in-kind payment for back taxes would be allowed; seized goods would be impartially appraised rather than being valued by a fire sale auction block price; and debt cases of less than four pounds could be settled by a justice of the peace, saving the hefty fees of a full court. As one last palliative measure, any “rebel” except for the indicted leaders could receive a full indemnity from the state in return for a pledge of allegiance. Only one Regulator applied for the indemnity.

As a balance to the above measures, and to satisfy those such as Samuel Adams who were calling for blood and quick executions, the state passed a series of highly coercive acts. One of the first was the Militia Act, making it a capital offense for a militia officer or soldier to aid or abet the uprising, through action, inaction, or speech, or by refusing to serve. Since almost every able-bodied male citizen was in the militia, by law, this act not only threatened most of the Regulators with hanging, but also any militiaman who refused to march against his neighbors. The act was also meant to silence the few state congressmen who were defending the Regulators, and men such as William Whiting, the Berkshire County judge who wrote several tracts in support of the Regulation, such as:

Whenever any encroachments are made either upon the liberties or properties of the people, if redress cannot be had without, it is virtue in them to disturb government.

But the real teeth of the government’s response was in the Riot Act, passed a few days after the Militia Act. Besides flatly outlawing any assembly of more than nine armed men, the Riot Act gave sheriffs the power to arrest any “rioters” who would not disperse, as well as any bystanders who would not assist in the arrests. Those arrested could be held without bail for six months, could be sent to prison for a year, would forfeit all their lands and property, would be flogged with thirty-nine stripes “on naked back” at a public whipping post, and then be flogged again every three months while confined. Sheriffs, constables, and any deputies were to be given full legal immunity if any rioters were injured or killed.



When Daniel Shays learned of these acts, he published a letter warning all towns that the Boston government had given all the Regulators death sentences, and called on every town to have its own militias armed and ready to muster at short notice—the minuteman model. Three days later the legislature passed another act that gave the governor, or any person he might authorize, the power to arrest “any person whom they shall suspect is unfriendly to government.” Further, any such deputies had full warrant to forcibly enter any home or building where dissenters were suspected to be. Lastly, the legislature suspended Writ of Habeas Corpus, so that any protester, or sympathizer, could be held indefinitely without bail.

Governor Bowdoin quickly put his new powers into action. He had received a letter from Oliver Prescott, a Groton selectman and one of the Commonwealth’s “first families”, naming five men as “dangerous” rebel leaders. Only one of the five, Benjamin Page, was a yeoman. The other four were “gentlemen,” though not wealthy at Prescott’s level. All of the accused were Revolutionary War veterans, three of them officers. John Kelsey, one on the list, was also a selectman, and Job Shattuck, the most-wanted man, had been a Groton selectman in the past. Shattuck had been an anti-tax activist since 1781, and had been arrested and jailed for forcibly stopping tax collectors from seizing a neighbor’s stock.

Gentlemen Bostonians quickly collected an armed posse of three hundred horsemen. A wealthy lawyer, Benjamin Hitchborn, was the leader, along with another Harvard graduate, John Warren. The posse managed to capture the three Groton men: Page, Oliver Parker, and Job Shattuck, severely wounding Shattuck in the process. All three were whisked away quickly and put in a jail cell in Boston where they were kept incommunicado for almost a year.

Farmers complained that the posse had cut a woman in the breast, blinded another, wounded a child, and maltreated and injured others not on their list. Some yeomen claimed that the posse had forced them to take down fences, perform drudge work, and otherwise serve the posse “on threat of having their brains split out.” Other posses followed, as Governor Bowdoin added more names to his list of suspects.

By late 1786 it should have been clear to the Regulators that the very government they were attempting to correct and set back upon its proper course had not only denied them, but had criminalized them as traitors. The Regulators, however, continued with what were basically civil actions—occupying courthouses. Few Regulators had accepted the government’s portrayal of themselves as rebels or insurgents. Up to December, the Regulation had never been an insurrection, nor even a rebellion—it was a protest. The intent of the regulators, through occupying the debtor courts, was to temporarily halt the ruination of their neighbors and to demand that their petitions be heard. By being labeled “criminals,” “insurgents,” and “nefarious rebels,” by being threatened with death sentences, and by being attacked and hunted by what were, in effect, vigilante posses, some in the movement surely looked at their neighbor, the free Republic of Vermont, as a model, and perhaps dreamed of an independent western democracy.

In mid November, 1786, the state government passed a sedition act, making it against the law to write, publish, or pass on “false reports to the prejudice of government.” Nathaniel Gorham, land speculator and president of the Confederation, was so alarmed at the “insurgency” that he wrote a letter to Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Frederick the Great, asking if he would consider becoming king of the American states. (The Prince astutely declined.)

On January 4, 1787, Governor Bowdoin upped the ante still further by calling for a state army of 4,400 troops to be raised to put down the “rebellion.” Bowdoin wanted state troops because only Virginia had answered the call of the Continental Congress to raise an army.

Unfortunately for Bowdoin, however, the Massachusetts legislature refused to fund his new state army. Bowdoin’s answer was to call on his well-healed friends, many of them big currency speculators like himself, to fund a private, mercenary army.

General Benjamin Lincoln, a fellow currency speculator, was asked to lead the army. Perhaps hoping that he might save his tarnished career as the general who had surrendered an entire army to the British in Charles Town without fighting a battle, General Lincoln accepted the command. Lincoln soon had plenty of officers, but even with the hard times Lincoln was able to enlist very few veteran soldiers—most of his troops were sons of genteel families, who, according to John Quincy Adams, brought most of their personal servants along with them as backup.

Many wealthy Boston merchants also helped fund the army. The Society of Cincinnati—the semi-secret hereditary fraternity of Washington’s ex-officers, after expelling Daniel Shays, pledged support and supplied the new army with its commanders. It’s worth remembering that a portion of the taxes they were out to extract from their ex-soldiers were to pay for the “Commutation” that they themselves had obtained by threat of mutiny during the War of Independence.

The clergy, with a few courageous exceptions, gave God’s blessing to the new army and damnation to the “rebels.” The five divisions began their march on Worcester on January 1988. The purpose of the expedition was not only to thoroughly rout the farmers, but to instill in their minds “a compleat conviction of the force of government and the necessity of an entire submission to its laws.”


Shays’s Rebellion

It had at last become clear to many Regulators that their enemy was not a few over-zealous constables and tax collectors, but the state government itself. To counter the movement of an approaching army, their backs now truly against the wall, Daniel Shays, Luke Day, and other Regulator leaders proposed to take up arms. Many of the farmers had carried their old muskets to the first demonstrations, but many others had only themselves, with clubs or pitchforks. The weapons they needed were in the armory of the Continental Army, which happened to be in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Regulators had already occupied the Springfield courthouse on two different occasions. Now, somewhat late, they realized that they also needed to occupy the armory.

Somewhat late, because General William Shepard received news of Shays’s plans and reached Springfield with a “loyal” militia force a day before the Regulators. The Arsenal belonged to the federal government, and Shepard had no more right to seize it than had the Regulators, but Shepard didn’t wait for permission. He armed his men and deployed several cannon, loaded with grapeshot.

Perhaps the Regulators never had much chance of military success—they were, after all, an anarchist army, not a Bolshevik or a Fascist army. The Regulators had divided western Massachusetts into four areas, each with its own regiment, run by committee. If the farmers had realized they needed a military solution from the beginning, maybe they could have found their own Ethan Allen—someone to take overall command. But they never did. Even so, the battle at Springfield could easily have gone the other way.


The Defeat at Springfield

Three columns of Regulators surrounded Springfield.  A group of 300 yeomen from Berkshire County, led by Eli Parsons, held the northern approaches to the city. A larger group of 1,000 men, under Luke Day, had come from the west and held the ferry. The third group, also of about 1,000, under Daniel Shays, came from Middlesex and Worcester Counties and held the eastern borders of the city.

The Regulators understood that they needed a coordinated attack, but their lack of unified command and their external lines of communication doomed their efforts. Both Daniel Shays and Luke Day had independently sent ultimatums to General Shepard. When Daniel Shays received no reply, he sent a message to Day to begin the attack the next morning, January 25. But Luke Day decided he wanted to give Shepard more time before starting a war, and sent a message back to Shays to delay the assault until June 26. Unfortunately, Day’s messenger was captured by Shepard’s militiamen, so on January 25, Shays and Parsons attacked alone. Only half of Shays’s men were armed.

Topography limited the Regulator’s maneuvers—many had to approach in columns. Shepard ordered his gunners to fire a round over the heads of the Regulators, but the Regulators kept advancing—perhaps not believing that militiamen would actually fire on their own countrymen, but they did. Shepard ordered the cannon aimed waist-high and raked the advancing men with grapeshot. They fired fourteen rounds. Four were killed immediately, and ten times that number wounded. Most of the farmers broke and ran. A few, with experience facing artillery, held and tried to rally the rest but it was useless. The Regulators never fired a shot. And, excepting the artillery, neither did the militia. They might never have.

“What-ifs” are always a game, but rather than side with some historians who presume that the rebels never had any chance against artillery, we might listen to Eli Parsons, who was there. Parsons was an experienced soldier, had been with Washington at Valley Forge, and stated unequivocally that if Day’s one thousand men had joined in the attack from the west, the assault would surely have carried.

Of course, what then? Declare independence as Vermont had done? Subsistence farmers mostly just wanted to subsist—to subsist in peace rather than spending their time politicking or fighting. The Regulation had never been about independence. Nor about the redistribution of wealth, other than getting a fair deal. Daniel Shays himself said that he “knew no more what government to set up than he knew of the dimensions of eternity.” Shays’s interest, from the beginning, had been to save the lives and liberties of as many of his neighbors as, with his military experience, he could.

The defeat at Springfield, however, did not end the uprising.

Read-Guard Actions

Governor Bowdoin declared Massachusetts to be in an official state of rebellion, and through an emergency legislative act assumed nearly dictatorial powers.  At the same time as he sent his army into the field he launched a rhetorical war to demonize his opponents: “a horrid and unnatural rebellion and war has been openly and traitorously raised and levied against this Commonwealth.”

The Regulators were characterized as “criminals,” as “desperate and unprincipled men,” as “hostile and nefarious ,” as “lawless and wicked,” and as “deluded and mad.” Even though there were as many creditors among the Regulators as debtors, the elite press almost universally referred to them as bankrupt neer-do-wells trying to get something for nothing.

Benjamin Lincoln’s large army was on the march. Daniel Shays organized a retreat from Springfield and rallied his forces, but Lincoln, after a startlingly heroic all-night march through a howling blizzard, surprised the sleeping Regulators in Petersham. About 150 surrendered; the rest escaped and scattered through the woods. Many headed for Vermont. Others, such as Jacob Fredenberg, headed for New York.

General Lincoln wrote to Bowdoin advising leniency, stating that the jails were already full, and that the sheriff would not arrest any more men. The general recommended complete and universal clemency: that continuing martial law would only make the farmers more desperate. Bowdoin, however, had other ideas.

Scores of Regulators were convicted of treason and 18 were sentenced to death. Militia posses followed Shays and other leaders of the Regulation into Vermont, but local Vermonters, themselves citizens of an independent republic, formed armed bands to turn them back. Back in Massachusetts, the legislature passed an act to maintain the army for an additional four months. As there was no money in the treasury, Bowdoin again asked his wealthy Boston friends to loan the state money, contributing £500 himself. The wealthy wholesaler and banker William Phillips chucked in £2,235.

A follow-up move, the Disqualification Act, deprived any Regulator of the right to hold public office, to serve on a jury, to teach school, to maintain a tavern, to keep an inn, or to vote, for three years. By March some 2,000 Shaysites had taken refuge in Vermont, and another 1,000 in other states or in the Ohio territory. Many remained, however, and were even joined by new men in small scale guerrilla actions, mostly aimed at those who had directly attacked them. General Shepard, who had ordered the cannons fired at the Shaysites, was shunned by his neighbors for the rest of his life, eventually facing financial ruin. Some prominent anti-Shaysites had their businesses burned. Several lawyers had to flee their homes at night, or hide in cellars. Some Regulators took several currency speculators hostage, captured a dozen retailers with poor reputations, and broke open the county debtor’s prison, freeing those held there.

A group of guerilla Regulators nearly captured General Lincoln, but the 300 lb. general escaped by a fluke. Raids continued through March, April, May, and into June. In spring there was an election, and despite the Shaysites being disqualified from voting, over two-thirds of the legislature was voted out, along with the governor, who lost by more than a 3:1 margin. The new governor, John Hancock, while maintaining a strong army and making a show of force by marching it though the western towns, was generally popular. He pushed through several tax relief measures, including a moratorium of seizures. And Hancock himself accepted the salary cut that Bowdoin had vetoed. He hanged two men for looting, but pardoned all the other leaders, including Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, as well as offering a blanket pardon for all other Regulators if they would sign a loyalty oath. About four thousand did so.


On the Gallows

One of the dozen and a half men sentenced to death was Jason Parmenter. Parmenter was one of the few Regulators who had actually shot and killed a government soldier. The soldier had jumped into the back of Parmenter’s wagon while he was escaping and Parmenter had shot him—an act he deeply regretted. He had been captured by a government raid into Vermont—one of their only successes—and was scheduled to be executed on June 21. In actuality, Parmenter had been reprieved, but this was kept secret. Parmenter, along with Henry McCullogh, were first taken to the meetinghouse where a minister preached a sermon condemning them for their evil ways, and then were marched between four hundred militiamen onto the gallows, along with their coffins, with their nooses around their necks. The sheriff read the charges and sentence, and told the men that they had one minute to live. In a scene out of the life of Dostoevski, the sheriff waited the full minute before announcing to the men that their sentences had been reprieved for two months. Parmenter fainted.

Hancock later pardoned them both, along with most of the other Regulators.

Parmenter then joined a utopian peace and love sect called the Dorrellites. The Dorrellites believed in pacifism, mutual aid, strict vegetarianism, that there was no afterlife, and that extramarital sex was no sin.



One of the men who lost the most was not even a part of the regulation. Judge William Whiting, who had hosted the meeting between the Regulators and the other justices in his home in Great Barrington. Dr. Whiting had begun his career as a dependable conservative, but in his role as a doctor, making his rounds among the farmers and seeing their situation at first hand, he had a change of heart. Writing under the pen name of “Gracchus” (it was customary for op-ed writers to assume Roman names), Whiting defended the farmers and pointed out that a few lawyers were making a thousand pounds a year off of their impoverishment. Whiting also defended the Regulation: “Whenever any encroachments are made either upon the liberties or properties of the people, if redress cannot be had without, it is virtue in them to disturb government.”

While rebels from without might be pardoned, the turncoat from within is never. Bowdoin took away Whiting’s judgeship. A court found him guilty of seditious libel, fined him £100, and sentenced him to seven months in jail. Whiting lost his farm. Today there is a William Whiting Judicial Courage Award, presented to judges for acts of exceptional integrity.

Moses Harvey, a State Representative who had spoken out in favor of the farmers, was barred from his seat in the legislature, fined £50, and then forced to stand on the gallows for an hour with his neck in the noose.

Some pardoned Regulators lost their farms through civil actions. And while many were given last second pardons on the gallows, two were not.

Daniel Shays fled to Vermont, where he stayed, even after he was eventually pardoned in the summer of 1788.



Historians differ in their judgments of Shays’s Rebellion—from lauding the glory of strong government and “law and order” to seeing it as the final battle of the American Revolution. Even calling the Regulation “Shays’s Rebellion” makes it seem like an isolated incident led by one man—not close to the truth.

David Szarmary (1980) states that for the most part Hancock continued Bowdoin’s pro-mercantile policies.  While Shaysites in six towns won local posts despite the Disqualification Act, the General Court refused to seat three Shaysites who were elected to the House. A new paper currency bill was defeated by a wide margin. Some retail merchants who lost property due to the regulators were given state reimbursement.

On the other hand, Leonard Richards (2002) points out that while the uprising failed as a revolution, in terms of its original goals, such as ending the extreme taxation of subsistence farmers to line the pockets of Boston speculators, the Regulation did its job.

Direct taxes were slashed to one-tenth of their highest value, the burden being shifted to indirect taxes. A moratorium was passed on debt collection. The revenues were shifted to pay general state expenses instead of interest on the securities. In kind payments were allowed for personal taxes, which, for yeoman farmers, had dropped to two shillings instead of twenty-five shillings. Interest payments fell into arrears, but back country towns were given enough breathing room to recover.


Ending the Confederation

After the Regulation, and the subsequent election of a new government in Massachusetts, the trading price of state securities nose-dived. The securities market recovered, but not before a few of the biggest speculators, such as Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, went bankrupt. They were over-leveraged in their deals with the Seneca land in western New York. Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, bought out Phelps and Gorham—one of the sources of the land title problems that plagued the Universal Friends west of Seneca Lake. Other speculators, however, absorbed their losses and learned how to make money whether the market went up or down, making short term trades using inside information on rumors of some government bill or its coming defeat.

So many Regulators had escaped to Vermont, settling on lands claimed by a few old New York families, that the state considered raising an army to invade Vermont. Alexander Hamilton, who had bigger plans, convinced the legislature that such an invasion, fighting the Green Mountain Boys and the Regulators both in the Vermont wilderness, would be folly. Instead, he suggested that they accept the fact that Vermont was an independent republic, broker a deal for compensation, and bring the state into the Union, thus removing the dangerous example of an outlaw republic that had no taxes.

Hamilton liked taxes. Hamilton said that the burden of taxation would make people work harder. Like many gentlemen, Hamilton considered hard work a virtue. As did Calvinism generally. And as did yeoman farmers generally—up to a point. And that point is really the fulcrum of the whole story. Most yeoman farmers only cultivated one quarter or one third of their arable land by choice, producing just enough surplus to buy a few necessary store-bought goods, such as glass, nails, iron tools, and powder. For yeoman formers the point was “a good living”–a good living, perhaps with some time to drink cider with one’s neighbors at the tavern, or perhaps with some time to read or do mending, perhaps with some time for community road or bridge projects, but a free and independent living, and not a greedy one. Greed was a mercantile phenomenon. In the mercantile world, either you were one of the elite or you worked for one of the elite. The yeomen were independent.

While the Regulation, at great personal cost to the Regulators, did achieve some of its more modest goals, the conservative backlash created a new nation, founded on a Constitution that created a strong central government with the right to tax, to maintain a standing army, to put down insurrections, to “balance” popular will with control by the elites, and to marginalize direct democracy as much as possible.

George Washington received highly exaggerated and alarmist reports of the “rebellion” from General Knox and others of his old cronies. They characterized the Regulators as “levelers” who would rather take the property of the better classes rather than work themselves. Knox further claimed that the British were behind the insurrection and that the events in Massachusetts were proof that a “mild” government was not enough to protect property from the masses who wanted to be able to use paper money to pay off their debts. Knox made the point that what had happened in Massachusetts could spread to Virginia as well, and begged Washington to come out of retirement to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Shays’s Rebellion was fresh on the minds of all those drafting the Constitution in Philadelphia, but even so, it is very unlikely that the Convention would have had much success without Washington’s stately presence in the head chair.


The new Constitution needed to be ratified by the states. The Antifederalists correctly saw the new document as favoring elite power. By intention, the Constitution favored property over people, and a variety of checks were included to limit democratic power. In Massachusetts the Antifederalists were (pejoratively) called “Shaysites” by the Federalists, and, indeed, those sympathetic to the Regulation were heavily against the proposed new government. The ratification assembly on the Constitution was held in Boston. Fifty Antifederalist towns in western Massachusetts were unable to afford to send their delegates. Even so, the vote was close: 187 to 168—the Federalist victory undoubtedly helped by the last-minute endorsement of John Hancock. To many veteran yeomen, the Constitution was the counter-revolution, and only the promise of a bill of rights convinced some to support the new centralization of power. Thus we might thank Daniel Shays for the Bill of Rights.

Paper money and debt relief had been at the heart of the Regulation. While only four states had printed paper money to alleviate the debt crisis, the creditor class felt sufficiently threatened that the new document drafted in Philadelphia specifically forbade states the right to print paper money or to pass tender laws for debt relief.

Hamilton solved the debt problem by having the new Federal government assume all the state debts and lump them together. He paid them off with credit—that is, with debt. To pay off that debt—the Federal debt–he imposed duties and a whiskey tax. The whiskey tax was based on quantity, not price. This had the effect of placing twice the tax burden on the small western distillers, where whiskey was cheap, than on the big coastal rum distillers getting slave labor molasses from the West Indies. When the western farmers responded much as the Massachusetts farmers had, the new President, George Washington, raised an army larger than any he had ever commanded in the Revolution and personally led it west, with Hamilton at his side, to put down the rebellion.

A Scriptural Lesson

Against popular uprisings, the government protected the moneychangers. That is to say, why should the richest men in the country, that is, the financial elite–the speculators and bankers (the “investors” and hedge-0fund managers of the time)—why should they lose if they make the wrong bets and the market goes the other way?

If this sort of history, coupled to some current events, such as the truncheon and pepper spray suppression of the “Occupy” movement, is discouraging, do not succumb to the increasing infantilization of the citizenry. Rather, pin a spruce sprig or a fir branch onto your cap.


Bonus March

There is another striking moment in American history when veterans returned to regimental formations to stand up for their rights.

In the summer of 1943, 17,000 veterans of the American Expeditionary Force, along with their families, 43,000 in all—marched on Washington D.C.

The veterans set up a shantytown village called “Hooverville” on the outskirts of the Capitol, with streets, sanitary facilities, and regular patrols by the veterans. The veterans, out of work because of the Depression, were asking that their bonus certificates, which would not mature for thirteen more years, be paid off early. The House passed a bill authorizing the pay-off, but Hoover and the Republicans were against the bill and it was defeated in the Senate.

The Marchers stayed in Washington even after Congress adjourned. Six weeks later, in July, the Attorney General ordered the police to evict the veterans. Police fired on the veterans and killed two of them. Although the Chief-of-Police stated that the police could still defuse the situation and move out the Bonus Marchers, President Hoover ordered in the United States Army.

General Douglass MacArthur had overall command. Major George S. Patton led the assault with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment—horse soldiers and six tanks. The Bonus Marchers at first thought that the troopers were there to support them and cheered. MacArthur sent in his 12th Infantry Regiment after the cavalry, with fixed bayonets and tear gas.

The veterans fled across the Anacostia River, where they had their larger, more permanent camp, and Hoover called off the attack. MacArthur, however (and as he would later in his career), disobeyed the President’s orders, claiming that the Bonus Marchers were attempting to overthrow the government. He set fire to the tents, shacks and shanties of the veterans and their families, and fired tear gas and bullets. Fifty-five veterans were injured and over a hundred arrested. There are photographs showing “Hooverville” in flames with the Capitol in the background.

Hoover lost his bid for reelection. In 1933 the veterans thought they’d try their luck again, with the new president. Roosevelt offered the marchers space in Virginia to build their tent city, and provided them with three meals a day. He sent Eleanor to hear their grievances. She visited the camp unaccompanied. The marchers were offered a paid ticket home, or jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which many accepted. The President issued an executive order clearing the way for 25,000 veterans to be employed by the C.C.C. In 1936 a Democratic Congress passed the Adjusted Compensation Payment Act, authorizing immediate payment of the veteran bonuses.

It is said that one veteran quipped: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.”

A Final Irony

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan, who had started his political career by denouncing the Free Speech Movement, declared “the week beginning January 19, 1987, as Shays’ Rebellion Week and Sunday, January 25, 1987, as Shays’ Rebellion Day.”


Sprigs of Evergreen




Further Reading

David P. Szatmary, Shays’ Rebellion, The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, 1980, University of Massachusetts Press.

Leonard L. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, The American Revolution’s Final Battle, 2002, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sean Condon, Shays’s Rebellion, Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America, 2015, Johns Hopkins University Press.

All good. Each book tells the story a different way. Szarmary outlines the “chain of debt,” tracing the demand for hard currency from English manufacturers to American wholesalers to back-country retailers and ultimately to the farmers. Richards did research on extant roles of those who took the oath of allegiance, and found that as many creditors joined the Regulation as debtors. Condon’s book is the most recent, and contains an excellent summation of previous scholarship and available primary sources.

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