January 25, 2018
The men stood gallantly as they believed their fight was a just one. Facing a militia made up of their fellow statesmen, the Regulators were ready to die for their cause. Or so they thought.
The United States accumulated massive debt due to the American Revolution, and her lenders expected payment. In addition, British companies granting American merchants credit before the war now called those balances due as well. Finally, war bonds sold to Americans placed an additional burden on the already cash strapped states. The granted the states the responsibility of deciding how they would collect their portions of the national debt from their individual state. Many states responded with abuses to taxes, property rights and debt, yet the prevented intervention from the central government.
Several states experienced rising tensions among the citizens, yet Massachusetts’ situation escalated to a dangerous level. The high taxes imposed by the State House required cash payments. Massachusetts consisted of poor farmers in the west, who utilized a barter system, while the wealthy areas in the east, such as Boston, operated under a monetary system. Lacking large amounts of money, the farmers requested more cash be printed. Yet inflation, combined with devaluing the dollar, which the wealthier bondholding citizens rejected, prevented this solution from moving forward. Therefore, the soldiers, who were still yet to be paid for fighting in the war, were now taxed to pay large amounts to those who contributed pennies. (see )
The state was crumbling. So, on January 27, 1785, Governor John Hancock resigned his position, claiming health issues. However, many believe he was fleeing from a ticking time bomb. His successor, James Bowdoin, a bondholder, continued to raise taxes. Farmers believed personal benefits motivated his decisions rather than the best interests of the people of Massachusetts. Tormented by tax collectors, farmers unable to pay their debts were sent to jail and/or lost their farms. Without their property, they forfeited suffrage and their right to serve in public office, further oppressing these poorer citizens, many of which were veterans.
Several of the farmers gathered and penned their complaints in a petition to the governor. Among them was Captain Daniel Shays. Participating in Lexington (see ), Bunker Hill, Saratoga (see ), and Stony Point, Shays fought too hard on the battlefield against the British to have Bostonians take away his farm and freedom. However, many disregarded Shays, as he walked away from General George Washington’s army in 1780 when pay and morale ran low, even though Shays never received payment for his service. Regardless, the farmers chose him as their leader in the protest.
Without any action from the State House, hundreds of protestors, known as Regulators, gathered at the Hampshire Courthouse on August 29, 1786. Preventing the judges from ascending their benches, protesters obstructed the jailing of debtors and property confiscation for delinquent taxes. Taking their protest on the road, the farmers succeeded in shutting down several courthouses across the state. Furthermore, they vigorously harassed tax collectors.
Back in Boston, the government quickly passed a “Riot Act” in efforts to suppress the rioters through military force. Suspending the writ of habeas corpus, law enforcement received immunity regarding any fatalities among the Regulators as well as the authority to seize their land and goods. After officials publicly presented the act, known as “reading the Riot Act,” as they were required to do before implementing, Shays decided they needed to be armed as the militia actively pursued them.
Warrants were issued for several prominent Regulator officers, therefore a posse set out to apprehend Captain Job Shattuck. Fleeing from his home, he received a minor wound while being captured. Shattuck was imprisoned, yet false rumors of his demise along with fabricated accounts of afflictions by the posse to women and babies spread like wildfire, enflaming the hearts of the rebel mob. They resolved to destroy the state’s government, a reality which terrified Washington, now retired to Mount Vernon.
In a letter to Major General Benjamin Lincoln, Washington asked, “Are we to have the goodly fabric, that eight years were spent in raising, pulled over our heads? What is the cause of all these commotions? When and how will they end?”
Responding to Washington’s questions, Lincoln was as honest as possible. “There is, I think, great danger that it will be so unless the current system is supported by arms. Even then, a government, which has no other basis than the point of the bayonet, is so totally different from the one we established that if we must resort to arms then it can hardly be said that we have supported ‘the goodly fabric.’ This probably will be the case, for there does not appear to be virtue enough among the people to preserve a perfect republican government. It is impossible for me to determine when and how things will end. I see little probability that their efforts will be brought to an end and the dignity of government supported without bloodshed. Yet, once a single drop is drawn, not even the most prophetic spirit will, in my opinion, be able to determine when it will cease flowing.”
Governor Bowdion commissioned Lincoln to assemble a Massachusetts militia to combat the riots. However, despite authorizing the militia, the already financially strapped government refused to fund it. Therefore, private citizens from Boston and other wealthy cities, concerned about the aggressive and violent riots, raised money to fund a militia. Meanwhile, Shays decided to seize the Continental arsenal in Springfield with the help of Luke Day and Eli Parson and their forces. Guarded by the local militia commanded by General William Shepard, Shays scheduled the attack for January 25, 1787, at 4:00pm, in efforts to beat Lincoln’s arrival. The rebels, now known as Shaysites, then planned to travel to Boston to overthrow the State House.
As the Regulators prepared their attack on the 24th, Day sent a message to Shays stating he needed another twenty-four hours. However, that message never made it to Shays as it was intercepted and given to Shepard. When Shays and Parsons arrived the next day and faced Shepard’s two cannons, Day and his men were mysteriously absent, at least to Shays. Knowing a large portion the Regulators weren't coming, Shepard ordered a round shot from the cannons, aimed above the Regulators’ heads, hoping for a surrender without bloodshed. However, the rebels were not deterred. Shepard ordered another round, this time ripping through the men, killing four and wounding twenty. The only thing worse than the gunpowder hitting the Regulators in the face was the reality of the blood flowing from their fellow statesmen. Many men immediately retreated without firing a shot, including Shays, and headed north.
The only militiamen casualty was an artillery sergeant who failed to clear the cannon’s mouth quickly enough. The flash blinded him immediately while the blast tore off both his arms. Within an hour, the remaining Regulators exited their cover with a white flag, ready to give up and give their fallen men a Christian burial.
The next few weeks, Lincoln chased Shays, Day, and Parsons to Vermont while negotiating a surrender. Without the manpower to hold them, most of the captured rebels were released to return to their homes. There were a few more skirmishes over the next month, with the final conflict occurring on February 27th. However, Lincoln needed confirmation that the hostilities were truly over. A general amnesty was offered to those admitting participation in the rebellion and willing to take a pledge of allegiance to the United States. Four thousand signed confessions, obtaining amnesty, while several hundred received indictments. All were pardoned under the general amnesty except for a few of the main instigators. Only two rebels lost their lives due to convictions.
John Bly and Charles Rose, both in their early twenties, stole weapons and ammunition believing Shays would return from Vermont to incite another attack. For these civil crimes, they were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. On December 6, 1787, a crowd gathered as Bly and Rose prepared to take their last breaths. In a final statement, Bly lashed out, not at the government, but at the rebels. “Our fate is a loud and solemn lesson to you who have excited the people to rise against the government.”
Many criticize Revolutionary Patriots of hypocrisy as several condemned Shays’ Rebellion, as Washington did in his letter to Lincoln. However, Samuel Adams summarizes the difference in his statement, “In monarchies, the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished. But the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”
In a monarchy, as with Great Britain, the country is controlled by one person, the king. Governing bodies are determined by birth, not elections, nullifying any recourse by the governed for redress. Yet a republic is governed by representatives elected by the people. Therefore, a revolt against a republic is a revolt against the people as there are peaceful and reasonable actions they can engage in when they see injustices, starting with elections. This was demonstrated shortly after the rebellion when the citizens overwhelmingly voted Hancock back into the governorship, essentially firing Bowdoin, whom citizens blamed for the riots.
Two years later, President Washington distanced himself from the French Revolution as the desire for revenge and bloodshed overshadowed liberty and freedom as it did in Shays’ Rebellion. (see and )
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson supported both Shays and the French, contending government must be occasionally reminded that the people will resist the government suppressing their liberty. While in Paris during Shays’ Rebellion, Jefferson wrote, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” John Adams, fellow patriot and close friend, sided with Washington, resulting in two contentious presidential elections between him and Jefferson as well as the destruction of their friendship for two decades. (see )
Regardless, Federalists used Shays’ actions to argue America needed a stronger central government to protect both the citizens and the governing body. Even anti-Federalists agreed the were too weak. Therefore, in May of 1787, delegates convened in Philadelphia to strengthen them. However, delegates soon realized the didn’t need to be revised, but rather completely redone. When the delegates adjourned in September, their efforts resulted in the of the United States, which gave America a stronger central government while empowering We The People. (see )
Liberty, Shays’ Rebellion displayed the dangers of a mob rule mentality which comes from a democracy. Massachusetts patriot James Otis summarized it as, “When the pot boils, the scum will rise.” Which is precisely why America was established as a republic. As a similar rebellion boils in America with Antifa, the left and media have failed to learn the “solemn lesson” of Shays as they hide and distort Antifa’s actions. These tactics are no different than in 1787. Lies and falsehoods, as with Shattuck, are spread about Conservatives to insight a mob of useful idiots, like Bly and Rose, to violence. (see ) Millions of dollars in damage have been inflicted by Antifa, including vandalizing college campuses, tearing down statues and physically attacking those who dare have a different point of view. However, instead of reading them the riot act, liberal mayors have instructed the police to stand down, emboldening the domestic terrorist group. (see )
On the other hand, Samuel Adams, the organizer of the Boston Tea Party, would have wholeheartedly supported the Tea Party movement of 2010, as it was designed not to overthrow the government, but to affect change through elected officials. Tea Parties organized to apply pressure on their representatives already in office, as well as seek out and elect new representatives who proved to work for the people, not against them. (see )
Liberty, we should not accept oppression from our government or the destruction of our liberties. However we are a nation of laws and must conduct ourselves in a reasonable fashion as insensible actions directly lead to a tyrannical response. When you understand our past, Liberty, the present makes much more sense. Continue to study it so in the future you can navigate the country down the right path.
That’s my 2 cents.
READING THE RIOT ACT