“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing …”
It’s 1786, two years after independence was won and in the western part of the Massachusetts, farmers scratched out a living. Barter was the economic model. Farmers would trade farm products for things they needed. If the harvest was bad, stores gave them credit which would be paid the following year.
Merchants in Boston faced a problem of their own. Their European suppliers now wanted payment in payment in English pounds, French livres, Dutch Guilders or Spanish dollars because the Continental dollar was, in their eyes, worthless.
The merchants passed their problem onto their customers, who unfortunately didn’t have any of the needed currencies. So, they began to seize property to sell to generate cash.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts also needed money to run its government so it levied taxes. Lots of little ones. In 1786 a man known to history as the “Plough Jogger” said to a convention in Massachusetts opposing the government’s actions:
“I’ve labored hard all my days and fared hard. I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates, and all rates… been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth. I have been obliged to pay and nobody will pay me. I have lost a great deaf by this man and that man and t’other man, and the great men are going to get all we have, and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors, nor lawyers, and I know that we are the biggest party, let them say what they will…. We’ve come to relieve the distresses of the people. There will be no court until they have redress of their grievances.”
These were the words of a man who’d fought in the Continental Army until he was wounded at the Battle of Saratoga. His sentiments resonated throughout Western Massachusetts and another Revolutionary Veteran Daniel Shays and his followers were getting ready to seize the Springfield Arsenal in late January 1787 when they encountered a militia force under General William Shepherd. In a skirmish with Shays and his men before General Benjamin Lincoln arrived, Shepherd’s militia killed four and wounded 20.
Because the Continental Congress, now known as the Congress of the Confederation, could not raise taxes, it couldn’t help the state put down the rebellion. Lincoln, with the encouragement of Massachusetts’ Governor James Bowdoin raised enough money from merchants in Boston to field a 3,000-man army, complete with artillery and marched west to Springfield.
When Lincoln joined forces with Shepherd, they forced Shays’ followers to disburse without further bloodshed. Shays fled to the independent Republic of Vermont (see 7/20/20 post – https://marcliebman.com/the-republic-of-…tate-of-new-york/ ). Others took refuge in New Hampshire. Some went to Quebec.
The words in the title of this post were written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter on January 30th, 1787 after learning about Shays’ Rebellion. If nothing else, Shays’ effort added to the momentum building to hold the Constitutional Convention. Many historians believe that several clauses in the document – extradition of criminals, Federal assistance to quell states have the right to quell violence within their borders but can request assistance from the Federal government – stem from Shays Rebellion.
Image is the marker commemorating Shays’ Rebellion in Sheffield, MA.
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