by Richard Mansfield
The Declaration of Independence stated, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” For the first ten years after the Declaration, it would be the job of the state government in Boston to protect the “forms” which generated evils for the rural part of Massachusetts. These “forms” were the courts, an unimproved relic of British rule, and the evils were a result of a war-ruined economy that turned the majority of rural Massachusetts residents into debtors. The efforts of the debtors to “right themselves” began with peaceful petitions and a broader understanding of the new word “democracy,” and ended in a short-lived armed conflict called Shays’ Rebellion.
The land in Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River was frontier land. The Peace of Paris, signed in 1763, ended hostilities between the colonists and the French and provided the safety and time needed for breaking new land. Most of the land on which the “hill towns” were to be built was owned by a few of the richer residents of the valley. These men, according to historian Robert Taylor, were nicknamed “river gods,” and the towns they lived in, such as Springfield and Northampton, replaced Boston as the center for decision-making and trade.
The river gods (John Stoddard, Israel Williams and John Worthington among them) were well connected with the royal government in Boston and were mainly lawyers who used their connections and legal knowledge to enrich themselves through land speculation. With the exception of Joseph Hawley, all the greater and lesser river gods were of a conservative nature and found that business with England was much more desirable than war. Their link with England and other foreign markets was the river, and the chief crop of the surrounding hills, flax, could be traded for foreign items such as wool, molasses, sugar, indigo, and tea.
The people who occasionally left their newly built homes in the hills to bring down their crops for trade along the river were of a very different nature from the residents of Boston. These hilltowners were a mixed group (one of Worthington’s enlisters in Shays’ army was a Negro, according to Marion Starkey) who were beginning a new life for different reasons. What little time that remained after subsistence farming was spent in church, or maybe just rest. Education was a luxury.
Boston, on the other hand, was a well-established international city. One of the things that inflamed Boston against the British was the British attitude of superiority, and Boston could ill conceal this same attitude toward her Western subjects. Boston was a far distance from the towns west of the Connecticut, just as she was far away from London. The hundred miles overland was tiring and hazardous, and traveling down the river and by sea to Boston took as long as 18 days.
The Intolerable Acts of 1774 did much to bring Eastern and Western Massachusetts together. Boston Harbor was closed and the city was charged with billeting British troops sent to control the local residents. These same troops were given immunity from local courts. Town after town in Western Massachusetts assembled committees of correspondence, joined in the boycott of English goods, and sent food and clothing to suffering Boston. Soon political awareness had spread to the extent that a session of the Royal Court scheduled in Pittsfield was blocked by a group of about 200 people.
During the Revolutionary War, residents of Western Massachusetts weighed in on the most pressing legal matters. They donated their lives and materials in hopes that the courts and other symbols of British rule would never be reinstated.
Those who came home to their farms in the hills returned to a shattered economy, with only vouchers for their services in the war instead of money. The new government had paid the soldiers in vouchers or “continentals,” with the understanding that this substitute currency would be backed by gold or silver after the war. The vouchers were traded among soldiers, many of whom would end up in court for matters concerning debt.
These courts the debtors stood before seemed little different than the British courts, except that the judges and officials were appointed by the governor in Boston instead of the King of England. Once a debtor was found guilty he was imprisoned at state expense for the first 40 days. After this period, if the debt was still unpaid, the creditor could keep the debtor in jail by providing for his keep. Court costs, inflated by the salaries of a heavy bureaucracy, were added to the sum of the debt.
These courts met first under the authority of the Continental Congress and would then be maintained by the state constitution of 1778. This constitution was rejected by the majority of representatives from Massachusetts towns, because it lacked a Bill of Rights and did not provide for separation of powers of the various facets of government. Until a new constitution was approved in 1780, the courts continued to try and jail debtors with absolutely no democratic approval.
There were many different courts, ranging from the hearings held by the justice of the peace to the Superior Court of Judicature. The Superior Court was comprised of a chief justice and four associates who heard appeals from the lower court and had original and concurrent jurisdiction in land title cases. It traveled on circuits and met once a year in Springfield for its Western Massachusetts session. This was a high court complete with wigs and gowns and was led to its sitting by a formal procession. The justices of the peace handled small disputes over debt and tavern brawls. These justices were appointed by the governor, and the court met four times a year, dealing with crimes of a moral character as well as assessing the county taxes and directing how they were spent. The other court of the county was the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, which heard only civil cases, mostly involving debt. Appeals were not only granted, they were expected, and the normal case started in the inferior court and worked its way up at considerable expense to a superior court. Debt could rarely be settled out of court since there was no legal recognition of debt other than through the courts.
Soon the veteran-debtors were meeting with each other and drawing some conclusions. The obvious question before them was: If it had been an act of patriotism to close courts in 1774, and these new courts had sprung up without the consent of the people, and in the same form they had taken under the king, was it now an act of treason to block them?
Block them they did. Groups of up to 300 stood in front of the court doors and refused entry to judges. This was not treason, because the courts were meeting without authority.
The constitution of 1780 gave the necessary approval to the courts. This constitution was much more conservative than the one rejected in 1778. It was approved not because of support from the rural West but because of apathy and cynicism. Many Western Massachusetts towns sent no representatives to the convention. This constitution reinstated property qualifications for voters, and the governor was given more appointive powers over judges, justices, and petty officials.
The legality of the courts hardly improved their reputation among the general populace. In Berkshire County, the buildup of opposition to the courts became quite clear. A large group assembled to block the meeting of the Court of Common Pleas, and the local militia was marched to dispel the crowd. There was an uncomfortable standoff until some democratically minded person in charge of the army suggested that those in favor of the court meeting step to one side of the street, while those against step to the other side. Only a handful showed their approval of the courts, and so the court’s meeting was cheerfully abandoned.
This shared feeling by the majority of residents in Western Massachusetts was the main reason why there was so little bloodshed in what came to be called Shays’ Rebellion. Officers of the army often saw their ranks defect, and never dared order the remaining loyal troops to fire on the other side. As for the Regulators (as opponents to the courts referred to themselves), they were always poorly armed and preferred to use the superiority of their numbers to win their objectives. The early Regulators were sincere believers in the democratic system and were confident that the justness of their cause would be enough to win their demands. As the dispute became more intense, both sides came to rely increasingly on shows of force and the reform of democracy fell by the wayside.
The whole problem in Western Massachusetts was glossed over by the Boston newspapers, and readers were led to believe that any trouble out there was a result of Tory influence and the residents’ taste for luxuries.
In Northampton in 1782, Samuel Ely led a mob to the door where the Common Pleas court was meeting. His group was rowdy and armed with wood found nearby. They said they were after the judges and wanted to “knock their gray wigs off.” Ely was later arrested and jailed in Springfield. A group of 120 forced their way into the jail and released him. This group was pursued and a fight broke out, but negotiations somehow occurred in the midst of this, and in place of Ely, who had already escaped, three hostages were given up to the Sheriff. After it became clear that there would be another attack on the jail to release the hostages, they were freed on the condition that they secure Ely at the demand of the General Court.
When word of this reached Boston, reaction was strong. At the meeting of the General Court the right of habeas corpus was revoked. The court also made some compromises, lowering some court fees and forming a grievance committee that was led by Samuel Adams and sent to a convention of Western towns in Hatfield. The delegates complained of the burden of taxes and debts, but said that they didn’t support the radical actions of Ely. Adams and his fellows heard them out and returned to Boston certain that things would improve.
But no sooner had the committee left than the noise began to rise again. Local papers in Western Massachusetts were full of protest, such as the following written by Justus Wright of Chesterfield in the Hampshire Herald of 1784: “Are we not governed by aristocracy, only allowing one word to be transmitted, noble to ignoble; and are not officers in the state, even those who partake of the smallest share of the spoils, and those who only receive a special deputation, as great tyrants as Louis the fourteenth – judge.”
The courts continued, oblivious to objections. The state passed a Stamp Act for newspapers and agreed finally to redeem vouchers given to the war veterans at face value. These vouchers had long since been sold at considerable discount to wealthy speculators, and now these speculators – many of them in positions of influence in the government – stood to make considerable profit.
Reason had failed with England, and now it was failing with Boston, so the many dissatisfied veteran-farmers began to look for a leader. Daniel Shays, because he was a military man and not a politician, came forward. He had served in the Revolutionary Army and had worked his way up to Captain. Lafayette had found him a brave soldier and gave him a sword as a reward. Shays sold the sword while still in the army and came under heavy criticism. (It was not an unusual occurrence for American soldiers to sell things; a young officer of the British army, taken captive, reported that he saw a Massachusetts brigadier pull the boots off his feet when a prisoner offered a guinea for them.) Selling the sword, coupled with the fact that he came about his commission by enlisting a detachment of soldiers to serve under him, made him something less than a gentleman in the eyes of his fellow officers. Shays resigned his commission after the war.
Shays wasn’t among the first to enter the battle against the courts, but when he did, he entered as a military man, a position he knew and loved. He took the lead of a group of men, organized them into military ranks, and marched to Springfield where he confronted General William Shepard, who was in charge of defending the court meeting there. Shays paraded his men, and Shepard watched many of his soldiers discard the slip of paper they wore as a symbol of their support for law and don a sprig of hemlock, the symbol worn by the Regulators. The court was unable to meet, and the new military nature of the Regulators alarmed Boston.
The governor, from Boston, ordered that a riot act be read to future demonstrators. This act augmented the denial of the right of habeas corpus and stated: “All offenders who should continue for the space of an hour, their combinations after the act was read to them, with the confiscation of their property, the infliction of thirty-nine stripes, and imprisonment not more than a year with thirty-nine stripes every three months during the term of their imprisonment.”
These no-nonsense government policies gave the Regulators the feeling that the die was now cast. As an anonymous Regulator wrote in the Hampshire Gazette, “…we have advanced so far, and know that there is no safety but in completing the business, and leaving not one stone upon another.” A letter signed by Daniel Shays and widely circulated and printed in the Northampton newspapers read: “Gentlemen, By information from the General Court, they are determined to call all those who appeared to stop the court to Condign punishment. Therefore, I request you to assemble your men together to see that they are well armed and equipped with sixty rounds each man, and to ready to turn out at a minute’s warning; likewise to be properly organized with officers.”
So that each man would be well armed, Shays decided to lead an attack in unison with Luke Day on the Federal Arsenal in Springfield. He sent word to Day as to the time of the attack, and Day replied by messenger that the attack would have to wait until the following day. This message was intercepted, and Shays marched to the Arsenal to find it well-protected with troops and cannon, with Day’s troops nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, Shays drew his men up close to General Shepard – who was again in command of the defense – and demanded access to the Arsenal.
Up to this point the conflict had inflicted nothing more than bruises, and neither commander was sure of his troops’ willingness to take aim and fire upon their fellow countrymen. But the cannon on the government side was more impersonal, and it fired twice over the heads of the Regulators, and then into their midst. At that point the Regulators threw down their weapons and fled with the cry “Murder, murder!” Three Regulators were killed, and one of Shepard’s soldiers lost his arms when he stood in front of the cannon after it was lit.
This was the last aggressive act on the part of the Regulators. From then on it was retreat, first as an army and then in disjointed groups. Shays and his army were pursued by General Lincoln, who had been dispatched from Boston and arrived in time to take over the final dispersement.
The Regulators first retreated to New Salem, and when they heard that Lincoln was in pursuit, they proceeded to Petersham. Communication between the two armies at this point was limited to the terms of surrender, which revolved around the question of amnesty. Shays’ men had been largely unaware of a general amnesty offered to anyone who would take a loyalty oath after the closing of the court session in Springfield, or else they did not think it would apply to them. Lincoln told Shays’ army that all he could do was accept their surrender, and that he would ask for their pardons as they were brought before the hated courts to face “condign” punishment.
When Lincoln surprised Shays’ troops by making an all-night forced march through a severe blizzard, what was left of the Regulators fled across the border into Vermont. From that point the army of Shays was disbanded and each man had to look out for himself. Vermont was a nation unto itself and offered a haven for the Regulators who hadn’t already gone back to the farm. From the Berkshire and Hilltown areas, many fled to New York where they made a few unorganized and non-political raids back into Massachusetts.
All that remained was to deal with the Regulators who were captured or had turned themselves in. The scene turned from the rural hills to Beacon Hill, where the Senate and House had to reach agreement on just what punishment was necessary and who would receive it. Most of the legislators were aware that the Regulators were respected by the general populace and that their cause was still considered just. Most legislators were anxious to have the whole affair peacefully ended by granting pardons to everyone who would pledge to uphold and respect the constitution. Sam Adams led a faction that was anxious to brand the Regulators with treason, and he insisted that they be hanged, just as Britain had hoped to hang him for the same offense.
Only two hangings actually happened, and they were for charges other than treason. The reward for the capture of the leaders of the rebellion was dropped, and later they were pardoned. Shays himself moved to New York and ended his days in obscurity.
What would have happened had the rebellion been successful? A military man given a little momentum can never rest, and if the rebellion had succeeded, soon another would have followed and our democracy might have suffered the same chaos and bloodshed endured during the French Revolution.
A poet of the times summed up the aftermath as follows:
There Chaos, Anarch old asserts his sway,
and mobs in myriads blacken all the way;
See Day’s stern port, behold the martial frame
Of Shays’ and Shattuck’s mob-compelling name…
Thy constitution, Chaos, is restored,
Law sinks before thy uncreating word,
Thy hand unbars the unfathom’d gulph of fate,
And deep in darkness whelms the new born state.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Richard Mansfield, a romantic dreaming of grassroots rebellions, is a Worthington resident.
Bibliography for this article
Minot, George Richards. The History of the Insurrections, In Massachusetts, In the Year MDCCLXXXVI, and the Rebellion Consequent Thereon. Worcester, MA: Isaiah Thomas, 1788.
Smith, Edward Church, Philip Mack Smith, and Theodore Clarke Smith. A History of the Town of Middlefield, Massachusetts. Private printing, 1924.
Starkey, Marion L. A Little Rebellion. Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
Taylor, Robert J. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Brown University Press, 1954.
Other books of interest
Gross, Robert A., ed. In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion. University Press of Virginia, 1993.
Kaufman, Martin, ed. Shays’s Rebellion: Selected Essays. Westfield, MA: Westfield State College, 1987.
Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.