Revisiting Shays’ righteous ‘rebellion’: New book takes a fresh look at the farmers’ uprising in 1786

  • A 1787 engraving of Daniel Shays, left, and another leader, Job Shattuck, of the uprising by Massachusetts farmers against ruinous taxes in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. Photo by Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery

  • A drawing of Daniel Shays from an 1878 book by Richard Miller Devens, published in Springfield.

  • Easthampton author Daniel Bullen argues history has miscast Daniel Shays and the 18th-century farmers’ uprising as a movement to overthrow the government. “It was never that” he says. Photo by Laura Masonn

Staff Writer
Published: 2/10/2022 1:34:19 PM
Modified: 2/10/2022 1:32:36 PM

Daniel Bullen’s introduction to a key chapter in local history came almost 10 years ago, when he was headed north on Route 202 between Pelham and Shutesbury and saw a sign that identified the road as the “Daniel Shays Highway.” Bullen, who was still relatively new to the area at the time, remembers going home to look up some information on this fellow Shays.

That was the start of a lengthy research project that has now culminated in Bullen’s newest book, “Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion: An American Story,” a fresh look at the resistance Massachusetts farmers raised in 1786 against controversial state tax laws and debt collection policies put in place following the end of the Revolutionary War.

The book’s title is a very deliberate one. Shays’ Rebellion, Bullen believes, has long been miscast — and misnamed — as a violent attempt to overthrow state government, one that prompted national leaders like George Washington to call for a stronger federal government, leading to the creation and signing of the U.S. Constitution a few years later.

Not so, says Bullen, who has a Ph.D. in English and is the author of two previous books. This is a case, he adds, of history being written by the victors, particularly the wealthy merchants and bankers of eastern Massachusetts and the commonwealth’s governor, James Bowdoin, who in newspapers of that era attacked the farmers as ruffians and lazy malcontents. (The Daily Hampshire Gazette was started in 1786 as an anti-Shays broadsheet.)

“It’s really important to point out that the protests in Shays’ Rebellion were nonviolent,” said Bullen, of Easthampton. “They were never about overthrowing the government … they were a sustained effort to draw people into a discussion.”

Indeed, he bats away any comparison between Shays’ Rebellion and the attack by Donald Trump supporters on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

The protests took the form of farmers, many of them Revolutionary War veterans and local militia members, surrounding courthouses in Northampton, Springfield, Worcester and other communities to prevent judges holding sessions in which debt-ridden farmers had their land and possessions stripped away.

“On not one of those occasions was a shot fired or a judge or other official harmed or threatened,” said Bullen, adding that the farmers’ actions enjoyed broad support from many other residents of rural communities. The farmers “conducted their protest with real discipline,” he said.

Yet the myth that debt-ridden farmers in the 1780s were no better than an armed, lawless mob persists, Bullen says. He points to a recent MSNBC editorial by Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, in which Steele wrote the Shaysites were indeed trying to overthrow state government.

In addition, says Bullen, linking the whole uprising to Daniel Shays, the Pelham farmer and Revolutionary War officer who (somewhat reluctantly) became one of the leaders of the Massachusetts movement, ignores the fact that farmers throughout the state — and in other states as well — were fighting ruinous taxes that had been introduced following the Revolution, when war debts had already piled up.

“This really was a grassroots movement,” he said.

Looking back on the incidents, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted?” That was another inspiration for the title of his book, Bullen says.

“I think what Jefferson said was much closer to the truth than what history has taught us,” he added.

‘The people’s perspective’

In writing “Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion,” brought out by Westholme Publishing, Bullen says he reviewed much of the historical record on the uprising — one that suffers from a dearth of perspectives from the farmers’ side, he notes — and spoke with other area historians about the issue, including members of the Pelham Historical Society and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.

But as he notes in an introduction, he wanted to write a narrative history, one that “tells the story from the people’s perspective, allowing them to speak in their own voices as much as possible.”

As part of that, he works to create a sense of the rhythms of 18th century rural life: what it was like to work the land and grow your own food, while also noting the particular landmarks of the Valley.

“Day to day, wheat, oats, and corn stretched their stalks, potato vines spread in the fields, and squashes’ and pumpkins’ wide yellow flowers peeked out from underneath leaves … When the farmers paused in their work, their growing produce filled them with a pride they could claim as wealth in the face of debts measured in money,” he writes.

The origins of Shays’ Rebellion, Bullen notes, began in early 1784 when Great Britain, to punish its former colonies, closed British ports in the West Indies to American traders. Wealthy eastern Massachusetts merchants, facing huge losses as a consequence, leaned on inland distributors of their goods to pay in cash for material they’d bought on credit.

Those inland distributors in turn demanded farmers pay their debts in hard coin, something very few had; farmers were used to bartering crops for goods. Meanwhile, the state was also passing on significant war debts to working people.

Though the same problems cropped up in other states, it was only in Massachusetts that the government did not work out a solution to help farmers, Bullen says. Gov. Bowdoin, who in portraits from that era appears quite the aristocratic dandy, sided with the eastern merchants and showed no sympathy to farmers, even when they continually petitioned him in letters for tax relief, Bullen notes.

“Really, [the rebellion] was a self-inflicted wound on Bowdoin’s part,” he said. “It was only in Massachusetts that the government pushed things to the point where farmers felt they had no option but to take direct, nonviolent action.”

As Bullen puts it, farmers, having fought the British over unfair taxes and the heavy hand of royal rule, now felt they were facing the same situation with the new American government, and “they would not consent to be peasants on land they themselves had broken to plow.”

His book offers a tense re-creation of the marches that farmers made to regional courthouses, including the one in Northampton, to shut down debt proceedings. Bowdoin issued arrest warrants for Shays and numerous other rebellion leaders in late 1786, then with money raised from 129 wealthy Bostonians, hired a private militia to confront the western farmers near Springfield.

As those familiar with the story know, when Shays led a force to take weapons from the federal armory in Springfield and prevent their use by Bowdoin’s militia in late January 1787, the militia fired cannon at the farmers, killing four and wounding numerous others. They drove the farmers from the field and some from the state; Shays and his family took refuge for a time in Vermont.

But Shays’ Rebellion ended in “the people’s victory,” as Bullen puts it, as Bowdoin was soundly defeated just a few months later for reelection by former Massachusetts Gov. John Hancock, who with legislators’ approval then threw out Bowdoin’s onerous tax laws and pardoned the vast majority of farmers.

Bullen sees the story having resonance today as an example of regular people coming together to protest government policies that enrich the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else.

“I think the Daniel Shays story lives on in the way more and more of us are demanding the government deal with the threat of climate change, as just one example,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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