Shays’ Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle

Purchase Shay's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final BattleFrom 1786 to 1787, only three years after the Revolutionary War, the state of Massachusetts was gripped by an armed rebellion as Daniel Shays and Luke Day led a revolt against the local government. Shays’ Rebellion has often been dismissed as a small and insignificant uprising by a rabble of poor indebted farmers, but historian Leonard L. Richards’ in his book Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle presents a very different thesis.

Following the rebels’ defeat, each man was required to sign a loyalty oath. After uncovering the microfilm that contained these archival records at the University of Massachusetts, Richards was able to conduct a lengthy investigation into the economic and political status of each of the rebels. His findings overturned the theory that Shays’ Rebellion was organized by a radical group of “dissident debtors.” Rather, Richards argues that Shays’ Rebellion was a tax revolt led by men of all classes, including Revolutionary War heroes, men who were rebelling against “the new state government—and its attempt to enrich the few at the expense of the many.”

Following the Revolutionary War, the state of Massachusetts had a very large war debt. Richards observes, “It had issued notes it could not honor, and the question was what to do with the outstanding notes.” Other states generally chose to consolidate their notes and sink “their currency at full depreciation.” However, mercantile interests dominated the Massachusetts state legislature, and, instead of paying what the notes were actually worth, the government decided to honor the worth of the notes on the day of issue, which required them to “pay out at least twice the amount that was necessary for the state to become creditworthy.” On top of this, the state would also need to pay back its share of the continental debt.

Richards remarks, “The consolidation was a bonanza for speculators.” Soldiers, pressed by the hard economic times, parted with their notes, “often for one-eighth or one-tenth of their original value.” Richards writes,

Not all of these transactions can be traced…But some £600,000 can be traced, and if these transactions are at all typical, the overall story is fairly clear: Nearly 80 percent of the state debt made its way into the hands of speculators who lived in or near Boston, and nearly 40 percent into the hands of just thirty-five men…Of the thirty-five men…all of them during the 1780s either served in the state house themselves or had a close relative in the state house.

This, of course, allowed speculators to skew legislation to their advantage. The government resolved to try to pay off the entire state debt by the end of the decade in hard money. However, the only way to do this was by raising taxes.

Massachusetts chose to impose a poll tax (a tax on males sixteen years and older) and a property tax. Richards writes, “Only about 10 percent of the taxes were to come from import duties and excises, which fell mainly on people who were most able to pay. The other 90 percent was direct taxes on property, with land bearing a disproportionate share, and on polls.” Thus, “Not only was the tax bite going to be heavy…it was biased against farm families with grown sons, and the chief beneficiaries were to be Boston speculators.” However, rebellion was still several years in coming. Richards observes that “the inflammable ingredients in the Massachusetts tax system had remained in check” under the governorship of John Hancock.

Hancock allowed poor debtors to pay him in depreciated notes. He also did not enforce tax law and let taxes fall into arrears.  Richards points out that “with little of his own money invested in state notes, [Hancock] had no interest in jeopardizing his great popularity by energizing the cumbersome Massachusetts collection system.” By 1786, some £279,000 was delinquent. That was the year James Bowdoin assumed the governorship.

Hancock had decided not to run for reelection citing health problems. Bowdoin “was a major landlord and far more interested in land and note speculation. He held at least £3,290 in state notes.”  Unlike Hancock, he did not care about maintaining his popularity as much as enforcing the state’s laws. However, the tax burden on the people of Massachusetts now proved insupportable. Richards writes, “The combined load of overdue taxes and current taxes was more than many residents could pay in a year, five years, or even a decade.” Indeed, taxes were now higher than they had been when Massachusetts was a colony under Great Britain. The people of Massachusetts might well wonder if winning the Revolutionary War had truly benefitted them.

In July 1786, people in the rural regions of Massachusetts decided to take up arms against the local government. They did not describe themselves as dissident debtors, rebels, insurgents, or Shaysites. Rather, they called themselves “regulators.” Richards quotes a typical muster form: “We do Each one of us…acknowledge our Selves to be Inlisted…for the Suppressing of tyrannical government in the Massachusetts state.” They  had petitioned the state government for years, outraged by the land speculators and lawyers who had taken over the county courts. Richards observes,

The new courthouse rings fleeced would-be homesteaders, and seized the land of nonpayers. Corruption was blatant. The new sheriffs, according to the provincial governor, embezzled ‘more than half of the public money.’

The alarming tax burden only made matters worse.

The regulators included revolutionary war veterans, lawyers, prosperous farmers, and some men from the leading families in Massachusetts. Indeed, what makes Richards’ book so unique from other accounts of Shays’ Rebellion is his detailed research into the backgrounds of the rebels. Using the archival records of the loyalty oaths each rebel was required to sign at the end of the revolt, Richards was able to piece together a true picture of the regulators. He concludes, “The notion that the Shaysites were poor farmers hopelessly in debt, a notion that appears in scores of scholarly textbooks as well as every American history textbook, accounted for only a minority of the rebels.”  Ultimately, according to Richards, these were “not just a motley assortment of penniless farmers.” Rather, the ranks of the regulators were made up of men from all different social and economic classes in Massachusetts.

The rebellion did not last long. The state of Massachusetts called for help from Congress to help quell the revolt. In order to raise troops, Congress created a spurious story about the threat of an imminent war with Native Americans. Most did not swallow the story, and Congress was only able to raise 100 troops to send to Massachusetts. After several court closings by the rebels and a series of small skirmishes, General Lincoln and his Boston militia eventually succeeded in putting down the insurrection. It appeared that the revolution had failed, ending as quickly as it had begun. However, Richards notes, “If one of the insurgents’ chief goals was to bring the speculators to heel, and to stop the state from shifting money from the backcountry to Boston, the Regulators emerged victorious.”  In 1787, a moratorium was passed on debts and direct taxes were cut “to a bone.” Direct taxes fell to “about 10 percent of what they had been” while “the burden of taxation, formerly placed on polls and estates, shifted to indirect taxes.”

But there was another unintended consequence to the rebellion that the regulators had not foreseen. Shays’ rebellion would have lasting repercussions for the future of the country. Richards notes, “The movement for a stronger national government was well on its way when the regulation began.” Nationalists were eager to hold a constitutional convention in order to radically change the Articles of Confederation. However, they knew that such a convention would have little authority without George Washington presiding. However, Washington had taken a public oath of retirement. The Nationalists needed to find a pressing situation that they could use in order to lure him back into politics. They found it in Shays’ Rebellion.

General Lincoln and others wrote to Washington, characterizing the rebellion as a genuine threat to the nation and condemning the rebels as a lawless mob. They argued that the nation needed a strong central government in order to prevent such rebellions from happening again. Washington believed the reports, and eventually he consented to head the convention. Richards observes, “His participation in the formation of the new constitution provided the most effective propaganda the nationalists could engage to accomplish their objectives.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Ultimately, Leonard Richard’s Shays’s Rebellion is a fascinating account of an event in American history that is often overlooked by the history books. Not only does he delve into the true facts and reasons behind the revolt, he also examines the aftermath: how the rebellion affected the state of Massachusetts and the future of the entire nation. Indeed, although the regulators managed to limit the power of their own state government, their actions unintentionally helped fuel the fire for creating a strong centralized national government.

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