The Legacy of Shays Rebellion

by HOWARD LISNOFF

The final battle of Shays’ Rebellion took place on a plain tucked between the ridges of the rolling hills of the Berkshires in extreme western Massachusetts. The battle that marked the end of the rebellion is now used for corn fields probably much like this land was farmed two hundred and twenty-five years ago. Two rivers, the Green and Housatonic, flow down from the higher hills and sometimes cause serious flooding in the town of Sheffield where the battle took place on February 27, 1787. Go any farther south or west by only a few miles, and Massachusetts meets Connecticut and New York.

I often bike the road that passes the marble shaft that marks the place of the battle. This year the unusually warm weather has forced the golden blooms of forsythia and daffodils by this country lane weeks and weeks before their expected arrival. The surrounding forest floor that borders these rolling farm fields are filled with the green leaves of shrubbery that is also premature on these first days of spring.

Daniel Shays and the thousands of other rebels were veterans of the Revolutionary War. Shays fought at the battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord, among others. He and his fellow rebels would have been heralded as American heroes if the lightning fast Internet media of over two centuries later had existed in his day.

Shays and his compatriots took up arms in response to the heavy debt in which they found themselves after returning to their homes and farms following the Revolutionary War.  Unlike the coastal seaport of Boston, where goods flowed into the new nation, these veterans used barter to sell the products of their farms and the services they provided to one another. Seaport towns used paper money and coins to buy and sell their goods and services. When the government of Massachusetts demanded that the farmers of the western part of the state pay their debts, which included what the rebels knew to be burdensome taxes of various types, they balked and rallied in front of courthouses across the rural part of the state.

The merchant class, represented by Governor James Bowdoin, resisted efforts to lower the value of paper money that would have made it easier for farmers to meet their debts.  Besides temporarily shutting down courts around the state, rebels also began to harass tax collectors.  The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, sitting in Springfield, judged the rebels “disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons” (Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States, 2005). A riot act was written with the help of Samuel Adams that suspended the right of habeas corpus and allowed the government to keep rebels in jail without trial. Adams went so far as to argue that in a republic rebels ought to be executed.

The ruling class in Massachusetts fielded their own army against the rebels since the federal government did not have the funds to provide for military forces. The rebels formed three separate groups and engaged the militia at the Springfield Armory. Four rebels were killed in Springfield and twenty were wounded. They regrouped following the battle and headed north for Amherst. Engaged again in a nearby town, the rebels dispersed to New Hampshire and Vermont.

Rebels regrouped in New York and marched into Stockbridge where they raided the shops and homes of local merchants. The militia had been reconstituted after the Springfield engagement under Brigadier John Ashley whose forces pursued the rebels south into Sheffield where the final battle of the rebellion took place. In this last battle, one rebel was killed and thirty were wounded. The government militia suffered one soldier killed and several wounded.

Imagining this last battle between the rebels and the government in the premature warmth of the first days of spring is difficult amid the peacefulness that surrounds the monument marking the end of the rebellion.  It is even harder to imagine the two rebels who were hung for their part in the insurrection or the four thousand who admitted their participation in the rebellion and were pardoned after signing confessions. The state legislature responded to the aftermath of the rebellion by cutting taxes and placing a hold on debts, a tactic and outcome that is not unusual in response to social movements either contemporary or hundreds of years in the past. Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France, in response to the rebellion said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” A debate raged among other government leaders at the federal level about the strength of the national government and whether or not that government needed its strength codified by way of a new constitution. The need for a standing army was also debated.

History does not repeat itself in a precise manner in different epochs, and causes and effects in a historical context are never parallel to those of another. However, Daniel Shays, who died poor and in obscurity in a distant New York hamlet far from the hills that he made famous through his insurrection, might, through his example of rebellion, have much to offer the rebels who occupy the streets of cities across the US and have been so severely repressed by the governments and police in places as disparate as New York City and Oakland, California, in addition to other centers of rebellion. Again, rebels take to the streets of this nation to answer the injustices of those who possess unimaginable wealth and those who have brought the economy to its knees through usurious practices that have been rewarded at the highest levels of government. Daniel Shays was indeed a great patriot and hero who came home to these hills of western Massachusetts and wanted to live in peace. Like those who would follow his example hundreds of years later, he refused to live a life of subservience after the profound sacrifices he made in defense of his home and nation. He was met with the brute force of the elite, a theme that resonates in how today’s rebels are met by those in authority.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

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