Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion

BOOK REVIEW: Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion: An American Story by Daniel Bullen (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2021)

There is truth to the adage that history is told by the victors. It is no coincidence that we are taught that the rebellion named after Pelham, Massachusetts, farmer Daniel Shays was the event that led to the Constitutional Convention. Massachusetts was unable to suppress a domestic insurrection because the federal government, then under the Articles of Confederation, could not assist. Henry Knox wrote to George Washington and described the nightmare that other states might face as a result. If an agrarian rebellion could happen in western Massachusetts, it could happen anywhere. Washington was so alarmed by Knox’s warning that he started planning a meeting of the states to amend the Articles. This resulted in the famous Philadelphia convention of the summer of 1787.

The story is not quite so simple and compact. Author Daniel Bullen’s new book about the rebellion shows that the actual history is more complicated, but also more interesting. Even the title of the book, Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion: An American Story, gives the event more respectability than it usually receives. According to Bullen, what happened in western Massachusetts simply followed the American Revolution playbook. The people were oppressed by damaging taxes and were in danger of losing their rights and livelihoods as a result. Shays and his followers were acting as the militias did in 1775. But the Minute Men have become heroes in the national story, whereas the Shaysites have been seen as nothing more than dangerous insurrectionists. Bullen succeeds in changing that viewpoint.

The book begins with the well-known skirmish that happened in front of the Springfield arsenal on January 25, 1787, when Shays and his men marched towards the building in the hopes of preventing Benjamin Lincoln’s mercenary army from getting the weapons stored there. The soldiers defending the federal building fired several warning shots at the Shaysites before delivering grapeshot that ended up killing four men. Bullen then spends the first few chapters explaining how the situation in western Massachusetts had become intolerable for the farmers. The American Revolution was very expensive for Massachusetts merchants in the Boston area. These merchants borrowed great sums of money from European banks. After the war, the British “stuck it” to these merchants by denying them access to British ports as one of the conditions of the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783. With that market closed off, the merchants needed to raise funds to pay off their debts. They refused to give their own monies, but they instead looked to the poor farmers of the central and western parts of the state. These farmers could not pay in the demanded specie because they had a barter economy. As a result, the farms of these unfortunates were taken and farmers were thrown into debtor’s prison.

The farmers, Daniel Shays among them, continuously petitioned the General Court in Boston for relief from the unfair taxation. They did not make any threats regarding overturning the government. Gov. James Bowdoin sided with the merchants and refused to alleviate the oppressive taxes. The farmers felt that they had no other choice than to close the courthouses. Bullen explains how the farmers organized themselves to do this, and what steps they took to prevent foreclosures. Shays ended up being only one of the commanders of these forces, who called themselves “Regulators.” The other prominent leaders of the Regulators were Job Shattuck and Luke Day. It was only when the eastern elite hired an army, to be led by Revolutionary War General Benjamin Lincoln, that Shays and his men headed towards the federal arsenal in Springfield.

The “rebellion” did not end with the bloodshed of January 25, for Shays fled the state. Bullen chronicles the movements of Shays and his followers to Vermont and then to Quebec City, where they sought refuge. While Shays kept moving, he continued to seek a redress of the grievances the farmers had made to the General Court. But Shays was a marked man. The book’s description of his journeys after the Springfield incident was very suspenseful and filled with tension, not unlike James Swanson’s narrative about the flight of John Wilkes Booth (Manhunt). Shays finally settled in Sandgate, Vermont. Relief for the farmers came when John Hancock defeated Bowdoin for the governorship and immediately started to reform the tax laws. The rebellion was in fact “honorable.” Daniel Shays, to Bullen, is an unrecognized hero. James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and even Alexander Hamilton come across as uncompassionate villains in the story. And although Benjamin Lincoln’s forces were a threat to the Shaysites, they had a minor role to play.

Bullen includes some illustrations, maps, and a timeline, all of which are valuable to the reader. This reviewer is a life-long resident of western Massachusetts, so the events had personal meaning. Bullen made extensive use of secondary sources for his research, such as books and articles about the rebellion, along with local histories of the communities in western Massachusetts. The writing style is a little inconsistent, going from a straight historical narrative to what seems to be a play-by-play movie screenplay. It is clear that Bullen empathizes with the Shaysites, writing about them subjectively in many instances. However, Bullen’s style only reinforces his view that the rebellion was truly an “American” story.

(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

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  • While Shays fled Massachusetts and never faced prosecution, my uncle, co-commander in the eastern part of the state, Capt. Job Shattuck, lay crippled in a Boston jail. Shattuck was severely maimed by a sword-swinging member of Boston’s Independent Corps of Cadets when taken into custody at Groton in Middlesex County in November 1786. Meanwhile, Shays remained far away and safe as a fugitive as Shattuck was tried for treason before the Supreme Court and sentenced to death. That penaty was later commuted by Hancock in the summer of 1787, but Shays still remained unacocuntable.

    Crippled for life, the honorable Shattuck, who was a Groton selectman leading soldiers during the revolution at Boston, Mt. Independence and Ft. Ticonderoga continued on as a respected member of the community (despite heading the Groton Riots of 1781 – see my JAR article), hobbling about on crutches for the rest of his life (see my book, Artful and Designing Men: The Trials of Job Shattuck and the Regulation of 1786-1787).

    Shays flight (he never returned to Massachusetts, dying in New York) and overall conduct remains a part of any story seeking to characterize him as a hero and his involvement in this event as “honorable.”

  • Gary, you will find Shay’s portrayal in Woody Holton’s new general survey of the Revolutionary Era, Liberty is Sweet interesting. Holton credits, though inadvertently, Shays as a co-author of the US Constitution. Holton also asserts that Shayites demanded tax relief rather than debt relief.

    • Thanks, Gene. Shays was certainly no co-author of the Constitution; perhaps Holton means it implicitly referring to Shays’s actions stoking the fears of the attendees to the convention of 1787 making that document a reality. The line between tax and debt relief seems a fine one rendering it a distinction without any practical difference.

  • My 5th great grandfather, Capt. Thomas Grover marched on the alarm of 1775, was in the battle of Saratoga among others and was a 1st Officer to Daniel Shays. He penned several letters to local newspapers pleading for relief from the courts and time to work out debt issues. I have two 1786 newspapers containing one of those letters to the editor.

    I also have what is purported to be Daniel Shays powderhorn. If I could share a photo of it, I would.

  • At the end of rebellion, Shays led over a hundred of his followers into Vermont and established a new settlement on the side of a mountain in Sandgate. Since 2013, that village has been the subject of archaeological field schools for middle and high school students led by Steve Butz, a New York teacher. It is called the Shays’ Settlement Project and you can explore some of the results at http://www.shayssettlement.org/.

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