Guest columnist Don Ogden: A little rebellion, now and then

  • Shays Rebellion monument File photo

Published: 2/7/2022 5:01:47 PM
Modified: 2/7/2022 5:00:06 PM

In 1986 the bicentennial of Shays Rebellion was observed in these pages and elsewhere in the Valley in various ways. That historic moment was noted for its importance during the birth of this nation and the effect it had on the those who came before us in Massachusetts.

This writer was somewhat taken up by the bicentennial festivities, which led to researching the rebellion rather extensively. At that time, perhaps the most comprehensive study of the history was David P. Szatmary’s “Shays’ Rebellion — The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection.” (UMass Amherst Press, 1980). While that laudable effort was helpful in raising awareness of the rebellion, it also contained some observations which have recently come under question.

As a founding member of the Daniel Shays’ Non-violent Bioregional Liberation Front affinity group (yes, it is a mouthful) some 30 years ago I can attest to the foibles of history. At the time it seemed necessary to add the term “nonviolent” to the unwieldy name of our group, which was indeed engaged in nonviolent protest of government overreach.

As a group, we were operating under the assumption Shays’ Rebellion was more violent than not. Today, that and other aspects of the history are under question in an excellent new book by western Massachusetts resident Daniel Bullen titled “Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion — An American Story” (Westholme Publishing, 2021).

Bullen’s cogent rendering of this epic tale of struggle by self-sufficient yeomen and their families laboring under the yoke of an economic depression and an unresponsive state government asks us to reconsider just how violent regulators from Pelham, Amherst and the region actually were. By the same token, the author notes “ ... when powerful men use the mechanism of the state’s laws to benefit themselves at the people’s expense, they will then use their authority to demonize their opposition, portraying them as an existential threat to the state, in order to polarize the debate, to isolate their critics, and keep the rest of the population on the sideline.”

Bullen is, of course, referencing exactly who writes history as well as freedom of the press belonging to those who own one (full disclosure, The Daily Hampshire Gazette began as an anti-regulator publication). In purposefully standing with Shays and the many who joined the struggle, Bullen takes the further step of helping his readers identify who these people were.

This writer may have read every book on Shays’ Rebellion available but in none of those did I come away feeling as if I really had a sense of the day-to-day realities faced by families living off the land, interacting with the elements and their surroundings, their neighbors and the times.

“Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion” does that. The book draws the reader directly into the lives of those who lived here in this Valley and the region. Further, the story reveals personal information about the Shays family I never seemed able to access. In other words, it is deeply researched, even ground breaking in its descriptions of the regulators flight into Vermont and New York at the conclusion of the rebellion.

Fairly recent archaeological work in that area has revealed much of the untold story concerning the rebellion and the Shays family. Bullen has been there.

“I drove to Brookfield, where Daniel Shays met his wife while he was a laborer on her father’s farm, and to the hills of Sandgate, Vermont, where Shays and his family started from scratch in exile after having been hounded out of Massachusetts. I looked at the hills through the eyes of families who had got their food and clothing from the fields and woodlots, people who had worked on each other’s farms for years before the men marched through knee-deep snow to stop the courts.”

As refugees from the commonwealth, the plight of the Shays family brings to mind the refugee struggles taking place today, some due to the economic hardships and political turmoil of their homelands. Likewise, Bullen points to the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and its aftermath that took place here while he was researching and writing his book as another example of economic crash brought on by speculation and fraud, by “the powerful, wealthy, and deeply entrenched interests that captured the government.”

So yes, Shays Rebellion is an old story with recent history written all over it. As you read this we are approaching another anniversary of the rebellion in January and February.

Don Ogden lives in Florence.

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