The January 6, 2021 assault on the Capital rocked America, but it was by no means the largest, or even the most threatening, armed rebellion in the post-Revolutionary War era. In 1786 and 1787, Daniel Shays, a middle-class farmer and decorated Continental Army captain, was one of several leaders of as many as four thousand men against the state of Massachusetts, whose fiscal policies were dictated by the demands of the coastal elite. The Shaysites believed they were well within the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence to alter or abolish any form of government that had become destructive of the consent of the people. After an army of mercenaries hired by James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts, decisively routed the rebels, the Founding Fathers scapegoated Shays, in particular, in order to incite the citizenry to replace the weak Confederation Congress (1781-88) with the powerful tripartite national government that has endured to this day.
Born in 1747 to landless Irish immigrants, Daniel Shays toiled as an itinerant farm worker around Pelham in western Massachusetts. When war appeared imminent, he enlisted in Woodbridge’s militia which quickly became part of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. Joining his father and brother, Shays fought at Lexington and Bunker Hill, rapidly gaining his lieutenancy. By 1777, he was promoted to captain in what had become the 27th Continental Regiment. He participated in the victory at Saratoga and remained with his unit in the New York region afterwards. General Lafayette awarded a ceremonial sword to Shays in recognition of his bravery.
Since the Continental Congress had no taxing authority, it could only come up with the cash to pay, clothe and feed Continental Army soldiers by printing paper money. Over the course of the war, Congress emitted 240 million dollars of currency (and the British counterfeited millions more), setting off an inflationary spiral that drove the value of a Continental dollar below three cents by 1780. An index of wholesale prices skyrocketed from 78 in 1775 to 598 in 1778, peaking in 1780 at 10,544.
Unsurprisingly, farmers and merchants were reluctant to accept Continental currency in payment for army supplies, setting the stage for the disastrous winters at Valley Forge and Morristown. Just settling into camp in December 1777, General Washington wrote to Congress: “I am now convinced beyond a doubt, that unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place . . . this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve—dissolve—or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.”
In addition, many prominent politicians feared both George Washington and his standing army, refusing support on moral as well as fiscal grounds. After surviving the Pennsylvania winter, Washington wrote to a friend, “the jealousywhich Congress unhappily entertain of the Army, and which, if reports are right, some Members labor to establish . . . there is nothing more injurious—or more unjustly founded . . . no history, now extant, can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours have done, and bearing them with the same patience and Fortitude.” In 1780, John Jay, president of Congress, requested three million dollars from the states but received less than forty thousand. Despite these financial hardships, the commander-in-chief still expected his officers to dress, ride and reside in camp like gentlemen, an expensive proposition. Accordingly, after five years of essentially unpaid service, Daniel Shays retired in 1780, sold his ceremonial sword, and returned home.
Over the next few years, Shays bought a 100 acre hardscrabble farm (likely with money borrowed from other veterans), joined the Committee of Safety to root out Tories, and was elected town warden. With the state legislature sitting 100 miles away in Boston, unreachable in winter, frontier towns had a history of self-governance. Pelham, for example, provided a ballot to all male adults even though the state constitution mandated a minimum net worth for voting. A literacy rate approaching 90 percent, the highest in the world, as well as a locally elected clergy, also contributed to a culture of independent opinion throughout rural Massachusetts.
Hard money loans from France helped ease inflation in America in the early 1780s, but prices escalated again after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, setting off a nationwide recession. From 1775 to 1790, per capita gross national product fell 46 percent due to the need to repay war debts, property devastation wreaked by the war, and the trade embargo forcibly imposed by the British Navy, lurking off America’s coastline (by comparison, GNP fell 48 percent during the four years of the Great Depression in the twentieth century). Without international trade, the United States and its citizens could not replenish their coffers of gold and silver, further exacerbating the cash crunch.
Under the Articles of Confederation, each state by design was essentially a sovereign entity left to its own devices to raise revenues. Tremendously fearful of a return to a monarchical government (with Washington as the likely King), supporters of the Articles, particularly Arthur Lee of Virginia, glorified them as a “rope of sand” vastly preferable to a “rod of iron.” Despite the sorry condition of the balance sheet of every state, voters still demanded debt and tax relief—and politicians complied, implementing a variety of debtor-friendly measures:
- Close the courts temporarily to prevent lawsuits
- Allow payment in goods or property
- Eliminate interest payments
- Only pay original bondholders, not speculators
- Pay back bonds at purchase price, not par (and calculate interest the same way)
- Use state tax revenue to buy and retire bonds
- Print more paper money
Debtholders countered by waging publicity campaigns and creating “anti-luxury” associations, impugning the spending habits of the masses, particularly on goods such as frilly women’s clothes.
With four million dollars of debt and thirteen million dollars in paper money outstanding (ten times the emission of neighboring Connecticut), Massachusetts was in worse fiscal shape than almost any other state. In fact, cash was so low that Massachusetts began paying its militia in 1780 with commodity certificates redeemable for “5 bushels of corn, 68 pounds of beef, 10 pounds of sheep’s wool, and 16 pounds of sole leather.” In 1785, the popular, and populist, governor, John Hancock resigned rather than yield to pressure from wealthy debtholders to collect more taxes.
James Bowdoin, a prosperous shipowner involved in the “triangle” trade, large landowner, and bitter Hancock rival, assumed the governor’s seat. Massachusetts promptly passed an incendiary bill that not only imposed tax rates significantly higher than neighboring states, but also required that taxes be paid in hard currency, not paper or commodities (as the state had been paying its soldiers!). To his credit, Hancock was one of the few merchants who continued to accept paper money despite its deflated value. Overall, the tax burden on the ordinary citizen actually quadrupled compared to pre-war levels under British rule. Daniel Shays, like hundreds of other cash-poor backwoodsmen, was taken to court several times by local retailers for failure to meet his obligations, one as low as three pounds. Fees for lawyers, sheriffs, and administrators added to his frustration.
On the polar opposite of the economic spectrum, Robert Morris was believed to be the richest man in America. Born into modest circumstances in Liverpool in 1734, he immigrated to Virginia at age thirteen first to join his father, a successful tobacco trader, shortly thereafter moving to Philadelphia to apprentice in the banking firm of Charles Willing. When his father died in 1750, Morris inherited enough capital to launch his career. Personally sailing to Caribbean ports, Morris traded in agricultural commodities including tobacco, flour, and wheat, as well as enslaved people. His work ethic, global contact network, trading acumen, and willingness to make highly leveraged bets fueled his ascent.
As war approached, Morris took a more active role in politics, serving on Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety and then as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. A “moderate” businessman, Morris at first abstained in the vote for independence, but finally signed the Declaration of Independence in August 1776, stating, “while I do not wish to see my countrymen die on the field of battle nor do I wish to see them live in tyranny.”
Over the course of the war, Morris became the most powerful politician in America, and the Continental Army’s best friend. His “secret” committee secured gunpowder and munitions overseas despite British blockades and seizures. He was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation, becoming America’s de facto chief executive for the next three years as the federal congress simply withered away, often failing to seat a quorum. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson noted in conversation with a visiting Dutch baron: “The men of Congress are no longer men of distinction.” Abigail Adams referred to congressmen as “beardless boys.” Since Congress was essentially bankrupt, Morris issued “Morris Notes,” backed by his own fortune, enabling Washington to purchase crucial supplies and pay the soldiers at least a pittance of what they were owed.
Although Morris clearly supported the nation’s soldiers, he was always a capitalist at heart, strongly advocating that all government debts must be paid in full if the country was to achieve “power, consequence, and grandeur.” In a letter circulated to all governors, Morris blistered Arthur Lee’s analogy, noting that if the states did not pay their share, then “our enemies will draw strong arguments that our Union is a rope of sand . . . No words [alone] will induce men to risk their property on the security of a nominal union.”
When Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut balked, Morris admonished him: “As to the complaint made by the people of a want of money to pay their taxes, it is nothing new to me . . . the complaint is quite as old as taxation and will last as long . . . Hundreds who cannot find money to pay taxes, can find it to purchase useless geegaws, and expend much more in gratification of vanity, luxury, drunkenness and debauchery than is necessary to establish the freedom of their country.”
Unsurprisingly, Morris developed a slew of political enemies who objected to his clout as well as his occasional intermingling of personal and national business. Joseph Reed, President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, the nation’s most populated and powerful state, called Morris a “pecuniary dictator,” further noting that Congress had forfeited “all business of deliberation and executive difficulty”; nevertheless, Reed added that “humiliating as this power is . . . the public has received a real benefit from Mr. Morris’ exertions.”
Under Morris’s guidance, Congress established the first national bank, the Bank of North America, but the states still dragged their heels. As the war wound down, mutinies over back pay by Continental Army officers and enlisted men flared. In 1783, Morris personally signed 6,000 “Morris notes” as the Continental Army retired from the field. In 1784, Morris resigned all his government posts, noting that he would not be the “Minister of Injustice.”
Although Morris stepped away, his notes circulated widely. Eliphat Dyer, a congressman from Connecticut, wrote from Philadelphia: “the Financier’s [Morris] notes and bills are in full credit and paid on sight, and are rather preferred to money by the merchants here, and yet a shameful discount is placed on them and large speculations made by traders.” Abigail Adams, long revered as a matriarch of liberty, was one of many prominent speculators, or “sharpers,” on the other side of the bond trade.
In 1776, tasked with running the family farm outside Boston while her husband was in Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail purchased her first Congressional Loan Office certificates, trading at roughly 75 percent below par but promising 6 percent interest on the full face value. At worst, she reasoned, these bonds would depreciate more slowly than the paper money she was forced to accept in rents from her tenants; the upside was huge if Congress could pay the interest and eventually redeem the bonds at par. In September 1777, Congress voted to back these bonds with bills of exchange drawn on French loans, essentially guaranteeing their creditworthiness. Demonstrating his integrity, John Adams, well aware of his wife’s investments, was one of the few congressmen to vote against this proposal. Abigail continued to invest in bonds for the next twenty years.
While the profitability of the bond trade became well known, only a small percentage of the population in the 1780s had the hard cash necessary to speculate. In Massachusetts, half the state debt was held by thirty-five men who had close ties to its legislature. Although outside of this elite circle, the Adams were able to invest John’s salary (elected officials and civil administrators were consistently paid during the war, while soldiers were not), as well as Abigail’s gains. Abigail further supplemented her coffers by launching her own retail business, selling fashionable pins, textiles and fine china that her husband shipped from his ambassadorial posts in Europe. Given the British blockades, these luxury items were scarce in America, fetching several times their pre-war prices.
In 1784, Abigail joined her husband in Paris and then moved with him to London later that year. While they resided overseas until the summer of 1788, Abigail kept abreast of the rebellion brewing in Massachusetts which she knew had depressed bond prices. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, she explained: “Ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretense of grievances which have no existence but in their imaginations . . . you will see the necessity there is of the wisest and most vigorous measures to quell and suppress” the rebellion. In a hypocritical twist, given Abigail’s own import operations, she added: “Luxury and extravagance both in furniture and dress had pervaded all orders of our countrymen and women, and was hastening fast to sap their independence . . . Vanity was becoming a more powerful principle than Patriotism.”
Abigail Adams was conveniently out of touch with the situation at home: equity, not vanity, motivated Daniel Shays and his fellow rebels. Veterans who had been paid for their service with bonds, not cash, were compelled to sell their paper at 70 to 90 percent discounts to feed their families—and then were taxed heavily by Massachusetts so that the state could pay back the speculators at par plus interest. Furthermore, many in the financial/merchant class, like Adams, who had never set foot on a battlefield, actually resented the veterans, fearing that they would form a permanent standing army and corrupt the “glorious cause” of the Revolution.
Popular backlash against the Army gained momentum in 1780 when Congress voted to guarantee back pay plus a pension for life for officers. Although the pension was later commuted to five years, the damage was done. Negative sentiment gathered more appeal in 1783 when Continental officers formed the Society of the Cincinnati (ironically named after a victorious Roman general who retired and returned to his farm) to preserve their memories and provide funds to widows, orphans and disabled veterans. Membership in the Cincinnati would be passed down from father to son. Aghast at the creation of a hereditary military aristocracy, Jefferson (clearly an aristocrat himself) wrote to Washington that the Cincinnati “is a cancer planted in the heart of the Republic.” In 1786, the Massachusetts legislature went so far as to formally assert that the battles at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill were fought by local militia, not the Continental army.
Hounded by debt collectors, scammed by lawyers, thrown in jail by sheriffs, and scorned by the well-to-do, Shays and his fellow farmers gathered at Conkey’s Tavern in Pelham on July 18, 1786 to draft a petition to the state legislature. They adopted the moniker “Regulators” (first used by rebellious farmers in North Carolina twenty years earlier), because they sought to rein in the excesses of the ruling class and level the economic playing field. Their petition called for a new state constitution granting more representation to the working class, lower salaries for legislators, and that the seat of government be moved out of Boston.
After the legislature adjourned for the year without responding, fifty western towns banded together to form a Committee of Safety, reminiscent of pre-Revolutionary times. On August 29, fifteen hundred armed Regulators marched towards the Northampton courthouse, the state’s primary outpost in its western territory, where they were joined by several hundred more sympathizers. The elders of Pelham wanted Shays to lead this “army” but he initially refused, preferring to serve in the ranks. Confronted by a hostile mob, the three judges adjourned the court.
When the tribunal tried to reopen in September in Worcester to issue foreclosure notices and arrest warrants to delinquent debtors, the judges faced the same angry opposition. The scope of the insurgency should not have been surprising given that debt lawsuits in Worcester had jumped fourfold in the past decade and now involved one third of the adult male population. Unsurprisingly homogeneous, the list of Regulators included only three Blacks and three women; almost all the white males considered themselves yeomen and were members of the Congregational church.
As local newspapers carried accounts of the Regulators’ success, the rebellion steadily spread to courthouses in Concord, Taunton, and Great Barrington throughout the fall. Enraged, Governor Bowdoin called out the state militia but many “minutemen,” particularly veterans, resisted the call. In Great Barrington, the militia put the issue to a formal vote with 80 percent electing to join the Regulators.
Meanwhile, the neighboring state of Rhode Island placated its Regulators by printing more paper money and mandating its acceptance, driving down the price of bonds throughout New England. Abigail Adams argued that “debt was the price of freedom” and demanded to be repaid in full. Terrified that the clarion call of the Regulators might spread nationwide, the Continental Congress moved to raise an army under the generalship of Henry Jackson. This army’s official mission was to fight Indigenous Peoples, not American citizens, but the poorly cloaked effort never gained traction with the states who would have had to foot its bill.
By late November, Bowdoin finally raised a large enough force to venture out of Boston. The troops arrested five Regulators, including Job Shattuck, the wealthiest farmer in the west, and four of his compatriots, shepherding them to Boston for trial. This sortie only served to further radicalize the countryside. Much to Bowdoin’s surprise, the Regulators marched on the court in Springfield in late December and shut it down. To their ultimate detriment, the Regulators did not seize the largely undefended federal arsenal at Springfield at this time.
Thoroughly angered and embarrassed, Bowdoin raised funds from 153 Boston bondholders (but not Abigail or John Adams who were still overseas) to hire a four-thousand-man army of mercenaries, primarily from eastern Massachusetts and territories north. William Phillips, namesake of Andover and Exeter academies, was the single largest contributor. Bowdoin handed the reins of his army to Massachusetts native Benjamin Lincoln, a retired Continental Army general and merchant/speculator in his own right.
Lincoln had fought well, sustaining a serious ankle wound, at Saratoga in 1777, but was overshadowed by the exploits of Benedict Arnold. Washington placed Lincoln in command of the Southern Department in 1779 culminating in the siege of Charleston, South Carolina in 1780. Here, Lincoln overestimated the strength of his position, vowing to fight “until the last extremity,” and missed the window to evacuate his troops safely. Two weeks later, Lincoln surrendered the key city, dooming 2,500 soldiers to British prison ships, the largest such loss of Continental Army forces in the war.
Washington immediately replaced Lincoln with Nathanael Greene as head of the Southern Department; but Lincoln, exchanged for a captured British general in November 1780, returned to the field, playing an important role in the victorious siege of Yorktown. When Lord Cornwallis, pleading illness, sent his second-in-command to the formal British surrender on October 19, 1781, Washington appointed Lincoln to represent the American side.
After Yorktown, Lincoln moved into politics, becoming Secretary of War under Robert Morris from 1781 through 1783. He joined the Society of the Cincinnati as an original member in 1783 but had little empathy for his fellow veterans who were in rebellion three years later, an opinion held by Washington, Knox, and other senior officers as well. Determined to regain lost glory, Lincoln marched west at the head of Bowdoin’s mercenaries on January 19, 1787.
Incensed by the “invasion” of their homeland, the Regulators crossed the Rubicon separating political protest from outright rebellion; however, they were loosely organized and poorly armed. At this point, Daniel Shays stepped up to lead the Regulators’ largest regiment as part of a concerted action to capture the Springfield armory. If successful, the Regulators would have been the best-armed military force in North America.
While the rebels beat Lincoln’s troops to the armory, a local militia general and Cincinnati member, William Shepherd, got there first. Shepherd feared that Shays would “set up a military government . . . and declare himself dictator.”His 1,200 men armed themselves from the federal till and dug in. As important, Shepherd intercepted Regulator communications that would have postponed the attack. In the fog of war, Shays charged the armory on January 25, 1787. Shepherd first ordered his cannons to fire over the heads of the rebels but, when they did not halt, his men lowered their aim, leaving four dead and twenty wounded.
The Regulators scattered north, uncharacteristically terrorizing local merchants in their panic along the way. Shays regrouped his men in the town of Petersham, forty miles from Springfield, a few days later. By that time Lincoln had arrived in the west, pursuing the Regulators and itching for battle. He marched his troops twenty miles through an overnight blizzard, catching Shays completely off guard on February 4, sending the rebels scattering into the hills. A hundred-man coterie of Regulators launched one more unsuccessful foray in April in Sheffield, purportedly trying to kidnap Lincoln, but he narrowly escaped, further cementing his status as a hero in his home state. Shays’ Rebellion was effectively over.
Ironically, Samuel Adams, the instigator of rebellion against the British monarchy only a decade earlier, became the loudest voice in Boston demanding severe punishment for the Regulators who had dared rebel against his cherished ideal of an elected, “republican” government. Adams spearheaded the passage of the Disqualification Acts which stripped rebels of their right to hold office or own property, suspended habeus corpus, mandated jail time and public whippings for the common rebels, and recommended the death penalty for the leadership. Other wealthy merchants, however, proclaimed that they would prefer a return to a monarchy over the tyranny of the mob.
After Petersham, fourteen Regulators, including Shays, were sentenced to death, but none were actually executed at the time (although two were hanged, primarily for looting, at year-end). Recognizing the grass roots popularity of the rebellion, Bowdoin relaxed enforcement of the Acts, allowing four thousand Regulators to simply swear oaths of allegiance and return to their farms. Daniel Shays escaped to the Vermont wilderness, never to return to Massachusetts.
With Robert Morris retired from public life, Alexander Hamilton, former right-hand man to George Washington, assumed the mantle of advocacy for a powerful federal government and central bank. Hamilton had established a successful legal practice in New York City, gaining notoriety for his defense of the property rights of the wealthy, including Tories who had stood firm against the fight for independence. In this vein, he preached that bondholders were property owners whose gold and silver had rescued the Revolution in its darkest hour. Like Morris, Hamilton believed that they needed to be repaid in full if our fledgling nation ever hoped to attract the new investment necessary to grow.
After Lincoln’s defeat of the Regulators, Hamilton painted Shays as a desperate anarchist intent on overthrowing the government. The fear of a second revolution actually motivated Washington himself to come out of retirement in Mount Vernon. Not only did Washington preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in June 1787, but he also volunteered to command troops to defeat any future insurrections.
Arguing that the country suffered from “too much democracy,” Hamilton and his fellow Federalists vociferously advocated replacing the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution. Shays’ influence is readily apparent in the widely-read Federalist Papers, written by Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison under the common pseudonym Publius. These Papers, eighty-five in total, exhorted the citizenry to implement a national government armed with executive, legislative, and judicial powers that actually suppressed the rights of both state legislatures and common citizens.
In Federalist #9, Hamilton wrote:
A Firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust . . . at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.
James Madison subtly seconded the anti-Shays opinion in Federalist #10:
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States . . . A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union.
Newspapers like the Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit, bellowing that “every state has its Shays” and “should the federal government be rejected none other than Daniel Shays would seize control of Massachusetts.” In fact, Bowdoin was overwhelmingly defeated by Hancock in the 1787 gubernatorial election and 75 percent of the state legislators were voted out of office. Massachusetts immediately pardoned Job Shattuck and cut taxes; bond prices dropped 30 percent.
While the “people” would not rise again, the spirit of Shays’ Rebellion would ultimately force the Federalists to compromise. When 90 percent of the western towns in Massachusetts voted against the proposed Constitution, threatening its ratification, Hancock and Samuel Adams reconciled to supportamendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights (applicable only to white men at the time), which guaranteed critical freedoms to the farmers. As significantly, Federalist leadership caved to the Southern states’ demands to maintain slavery. By June 21, 1788, nine states, including Massachusetts, had accepted these amendments and ratified the Constitution, ensuring its passage. Rhode Island became the thirteenth and final state to ratify on May 29, 1790. By then, bond prices had skyrocketed more than 50 percent from their lows.
Did Daniel Shays and the Regulators represent the true spirit of the American Revolution? Or did Abigail Adams, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and their fellow financiers/merchants? What if the Boston capitalists had not raised their own army? Would the rebels have toppled Bowdoin’s government? Would overtaxed farmers in every state have followed suit? Would Indigenous Peoples, fleeced out of their homelands by speculators, have joined the revolt? Would the Southern states have seceded, forming their own nation to protect the profits imbedded in the institution of slavery?
If so, the United States as we now know it might have remained a wishful dream, while a loose confederation (or several feuding confederations) of states, lacking any clout on the global stage, lingered on. Alternatively, the Regulators might have captured Boston and unleashed a Reign of Terror, guillotining wealthy capitalists like French revolutionaries did just a few years later.
In fact, the quashing of Shays’ Rebellion benefited the entire country (albeit white men in particular). The federal government arising from the Constitution gained the faith of the world’s financial community, sparking investment in the United States and its westward expansion. From 1790 until the War of 1812, the United States economy boomed: gross domestic product growth averaged 3.9 percent per year while inflation remained low at only 2 percent per year. On the economic front, at least, Morris, Hamilton, and Abigail Adams were right.
Robert Morris signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and served as the first United States Senator from Pennsylvania from 1789 to 1795. George Washington asked Morris to become his initial Secretary of the Treasury, but Morris declined, recommending Alexander Hamilton in his stead. Unfortunately, Morris’s business dealings turned sour in the late 1780s. He then compounded his problems by over-speculation in western lands. While he was right in concept, his timing was too early and his debts massive. Morris was incarcerated in 1798, serving over three years. He died in poverty in 1806.
Riding the electoral success of her husband, Abigail Adams became the nation’s first Second Lady in 1789 and the second First Lady in 1796. It was, however, her financial speculation that ensured the couple’s comfortable retirement while other founders, notably Jefferson and Madison, who had elected to invest in land and slaves, not bonds, fell into pecuniary distress. She died in 1818 at the age of seventy-four.
Daniel Shays was pardoned by Massachusetts in 1788 and later granted a military pension by the federal government. He subsistence farmed in Vermont and New York for almost thirty years, dying with little but his pension in 1825. After his passing Shays’ stature grew steadily. Poems were written, ballads sung, monuments erected, and highways named in his honor. On the two hundredth anniversary of the assault on the Springfield armory, President Ronald Reagan declared January 25, 1987 Shays’ Rebellion Day, noting in his proclamation: “Shays’ Rebellion was to have a profound and lasting effect on the framing of our Constitution and on our subsequent history.”
While these profound, lasting effects were all actually achieved through peaceful, democratic processes, would they have gained momentum without the kickstart of a violent insurrection? Several months after Shays’ Rebellion had ended, and the new Constitution was well on its way towards ratification, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
“Congress issues Continental currency, June 22, 1775,” www.politico.com/story/2018/06/22/congress-issues-continental-currency-june-22-1775-652244.
George Washington to Henry Laurens, December 23, 1777, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0628.
Washington to John Bannister, April 21, 1778, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0525.
Charles Rappelye, Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2010), 250; Morris circular, July 27, 1781, Papers of Robert Morris Volume 1 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973) 1:464.
Rappelye, Robert Morris, 251-2; Joseph Reed to Nathanael Greene, November 1, 1781, cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16124coll1/id/50415/rec/2.
Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 29, 1787, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-07-02-0181.
Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, November 13, 1787, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0348. For the record, the author heartily disagrees with Jefferson here. While democracy was a novel concept in 1787, we now have 235 years of proof that it works, albeit clumsily at times. I would hate to see the United States march violently backwards.