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Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle

Author(s):Richards, Leonard L.
Reviewer(s):McGuire, Robert A.

Published by EH.NET (October 2002)

Leonard L. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final

Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. x + 204 pp.

$24.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8122-3669-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert A. McGuire, Department of Economics, University

of Akron.

Shays’s Rebellion, which occurred from summer 1786 through winter 1787, was an

armed uprising in western Massachusetts against the state government and was,

quite possibly, the crystallizing event that occasioned the constitutional

change in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The rebellion involved the

forced closings of the courts in five Massachusetts counties, an attempted

takeover of the federal arsenal at Springfield, three “major” battles

(including the one at the arsenal) between the insurgents and an army put

together by Governor Bowdoin’s administration (funded by Boston merchants,

financiers, and Bowdoin himself), and dozens of minor skirmishes between the

Shaysites and various local forces. The conventional wisdom about Daniel Shays

and his fellow insurgents is that they were “poor,” “debt-ridden,” and

“destitute” farmers from the backcountry of western Massachusetts who were

trying to avoid payment of their debts; the participants were heavily indebted

backcountry farmers who had been victimized by the post-Revolutionary War

Massachusetts economy.

According to Leonard Richards, a Professor of History at the University of

Massachusetts (Amherst), the “standard story” of the rebellion is that

following the Revolutionary War, Boston and other New England merchants

imported sizable amounts of British goods that drained specie from the economy,

leading to heavy merchant indebtedness. The seaboard merchants (wholesalers)

consequently sold their goods on credit to merchants in the interior

(retailers) who in turn sold their goods on credit to backcountry farmers. This

led to a “chain of debt.” Then, when the British closed their Caribbean islands

to American shipping, matters took a decided turn for the worse. The seaboard

merchants could no longer earn enough revenues through trade to cover their

sizable debts. As a result, they sued the interior merchants for payment who in

turn sued the backcountry farmers. Given the sluggish economy and lack of

specie in post-war Massachusetts, and given existing legal-political

institutions (the court system and “debtors’ prisons”), western farmers were

ultimately dragged into court for nonpayment in record numbers. Many were fined

and often jailed. To avoid debtor trials, potential fines, and possible

imprisonment, Shays and his followers attacked the local authorities and closed

the courts.

Why another book on Shays’s Rebellion? The story has been told innumerable

times and history students know the story anyway. Richards readily acknowledges

that he initially “thought that as a scholarly topic Shays’s Rebellion had been

worked to death” (p. ix). So why would anyone write another book again

telling the well-known story of the rebellion? Richards’ answer: Others have

not gotten the story right. And besides he has uncovered a little-known, unused

set of data that bears directly on the rebellion. He discovered that in the

Massachusetts Archives is a record of the oaths of allegiance signed by

thousands of participants in the rebellion who were offered leniency in return

for a sworn oath of future allegiance to the state of Massachusetts and its

rulers. Thus, they could avoid fines, whippings, imprisonment, or worse, the

gallows! As Richards notes, it is rare that history records the names of more

than the leaders of a local uprising or insurgency. That in the case of Shays’s

Rebellion history recorded the names of “some four thousand” of the

rank-and-file participants is indeed extraordinarily rare. Although the oaths

contain only the names of the insurgents and “usually listed their hometowns

and sometimes their occupations” (p. 55), they allowed Richards to turn to town

histories, records, and tax lists to collect the necessary data to compile

biographical and economic histories of the participants.

Richards also contends that the “standard story” of the causes of the

insurgency ignores the role played by the Bowdoin administration’s fiscal

policies in fomenting Shays’s Rebellion. According to Richards, in its attempt

to enrich Boston financiers, merchants, and speculators during the early 1780s,

the Bowdoin administration decided to retire the entire state debt by the late

1780s. Thus, it decided to consolidate and fund the state debt at an “extremely

high value,” paying both interest and principal in specie. It initially

attempted to raise the necessary revenues through state excises and imposts,

but as trade activities declined the administration turned to direct taxes on

property and men (poll taxes) to be paid in specie. These direct taxes were

especially burdensome to western Massachusetts’s farm families who lacked

specie but not sons.

As Richards tells his sympathetic story, western towns tried unsuccessfully for

several years (1782-1786) to get state legislators in Boston to help with the

depressed backcountry economy. The legislators ultimately made matters worse

when they enacted the direct taxes that were enforced through the court system.

Thus, after four years of unsuccessful petitions to their state leaders, the

backcountry farmers rebelled. The insurgents viewed their actions in the

British colonial tradition of “regulators” not “rebels.” They were opposing the

“aristocratic,” eastern moneymen, lawyers, and “elite,” who had instituted an

anti-republican, British-like “tyrannical” government in Boston with the 1780

state constitution, which included an “aristocratic,” unrepresentative Senate

and repressive courts similar to the British colonial courts that were often

attacked. The insurgents consequently disrupted the state courts, and attacked

local authorities who supported the government. Accordingly, in Richards’ view,

Shays’s Rebellion was “The American Revolution’s Final Battle.”

Richards’ examination of the oaths of allegiance yields several important

insights. (1) The insurgents were primarily from Hampshire County in western

Massachusetts, which “produced nearly half the insurgents” (p. 55). (2) The

next largest groups of rebels were from Worcester County to the east (only half

as many as from Hampshire) and Berkshire County in the far west (about

one-fifth as many as from Hampshire). (3) In the two counties (Bristol and

Middlesex) closest to Boston in which court closings took place, only a handful

of towns produced any insurgents. Nearly all insurgents in Bristol County were

from Rehoboth and nearly all in Middlesex County were from four towns (Shirley,

Townsend, Groton, and Pepperell). (4) The insurgents were not evenly

distributed across towns; some towns hardly had any insurgents while others

were heavily represented. In the five counties with court closings, “72 of the

187 towns produced not a single rebel, and 34 others only one to four rebels.

At the other extreme, 5 towns produced more than 100 rebels, 12 towns between

51 and 100, and 28 towns between 21 and 50″ (p. 55). Nearly eighty percent of

all rebels came from these 45 towns. (5) Even in Hampshire County, the

distribution across towns was quite uneven. Five towns (Colrain, Amherst,

Pelham, and West Springfield; the fifth was not named) supplied more than 100

Shaysites each and eight towns supplied not one (p. 55). In total in the

county, between about twenty-five percent and nearly seventy percent of all

adult males in sixteen towns were Shaysites, in seven other towns only about

one to three percent were rebels, and in seven other towns zero percent were

rebels (unnumbered table, p. 57).

Even more important, the data complied from town histories, records, and tax

lists yields evidence that differs greatly from the conventional wisdom. (1)

Shaysites were not primarily poor, debt-ridden farmers. (2) Many Shaysites were

“gentlemen;” many were members of the most prominent families in their towns;

many were local leaders (militia officers and selectmen); many were former

Revolutionary soldiers; a fair number were former officers in the Revolution; a

few were even members of the Society of the Cincinnati. (3) Few insurgents were

heavily in debt; many non-participants were. (4) Few insurgents were ever sued

or appeared in court for debts; many supporters of the state government were

and did. (5) In total, few Massachusetts men ever spent any time in debtors’

prisons. In Hampshire County, for example, only 90 men were imprisoned for debt

in 1785 and 1786. And only two of the 90 participated in the rebellion while

nearly eighteen hundred rebels were from the county (p. 53). (6) Many Shaysites

not only appeared among the top half of their town’s taxpayers, many appeared

among the top twenty percent of taxpayers.

If Shaysites were not poor, or debt-ridden, or dragged into the courts, or

spent time in debtors’ prison, what explains their involvement in the

rebellion? If not debts and destitution, then what? And what explains the

uneven participation across towns? According to Richards, the “regulation” was

first and foremost a reaction to what the “regulators” perceived as a

“tyrannical” state government and ultimately a reaction to the repressive

fiscal polices of the Bowdoin administration. But why did particular men and

towns participate and not others? This is where Richards takes a decidedly

sociological turn.

The crucial factor in the decision to participate, according to Richards, was

family ties. Men generally participated because their kin participated; it was

a “family affair.” In most towns, participation was highly concentrated among a

small number of families. But why didn’t others join? Why did veterans in some

towns join but not in others? Richards admits “[T]hese are tough questions to

answer. Probably the best explanation comes from one of General Lincoln’s

aides” (p. 113). As the aide explained, the insurrection was strictly local.

The rebel leaders’ prestige and power did not extend beyond their local

community; they had no statewide prestige. And an integral part of the local

community was the clergy, the other factor in the decision to participate. The

clergy were respected, conservative, and did not generally support the

“regulation.” Many local clergy in fact denounced the “regulation,” while at

the same time realizing that it was dangerous to “wholeheartedly” support the

state. Consequently, the vast majority of men in western Massachusetts never

joined the rebellion. When they did, it was because their father, or brother,

or some in-law, or some other kin had joined. According to Richards, in the

backcountry “family, kin, and community generally prevailed” (p. 115).

The aftermath of the rebellion was much bigger than the rebellion itself

because the Boston elite portrayed Daniel Shays and the rebellion as much more

than either was. He was portrayed as an anarchist; the rebellion as a threat to

the entire nation. Not only was neither portrayal true, Shays was not even

“the” leader, according to Richards, but just one of several (among other

leaders were Luke Day, Eli Parsons, and Job Shattuck). But the Boston elite

labeled the participants as “rebels,” “insurgents,” or “Shaysites;” the

participants referred to themselves as “regulators” (p. 63). In the end, the

“regulators” lost the public relations campaign after the insurgency. As a

consequence, a fear of “anarchy,” “mob rule,” and “democratic excesses” became

the rallying cry of the nationalists and the movement toward a stronger

national government. And playing to that fear was successful during the

drafting of the Constitution, as the nationalists succeeded in designing a

much-strengthened central government.

Shays’s Rebellion concludes with an examination of the campaign for the

ratification of the Constitution in Massachusetts. During the ratification

campaign the proponents of the Constitution, the Federalists, were labeled as

Washingtonians, while the opponents, the Antifederalists, were labeled as

Shaysites. Although the labels stuck, Richards maintains that the latter was a

misnomer because the Antifederalists in Massachusetts were a much more diverse

lot. Many of the opponents of the Constitution, and of a more consolidated,

stronger central government, were not participants in Shays’s Rebellion. Yet it

also is true that the Shaysites, without a doubt, were opposed to a more

consolidated government and the Constitution. And many former Shaysites were

delegates to the Massachusetts ratifying convention. In fact, at least

twenty-nine towns sent well-known former rebels to the state convention and

many other towns sent less-known rebels (p. 144).

So who were the supporters and opponents of the Constitution in Massachusetts?

Based on Richards’ calculation, “[O]f the fifty-two towns in which the

insurgency had the most support, not a single sent a delegate” who voted to

ratify (p. 147). According to another’s calculation, “of the ninety-seven towns

with ‘Shaysite sympathies,’ only seven backed the Constitution” (p. 147). But

Richards contends that the Massachusetts ratification battle was much more than

just between Shaysites and Washingtonians. It was more generally between the

more commercial interests, merchants, and individuals from the seaboard (the

supporters) and the less commercial interests, western farmers, and individuals

from the more isolated backcountry (the opponents). Richard’s “economic”

explanation of ratification in Massachusetts is not only consistent with a

formal economic model of the ratification vote, it is supported empirically

with modern quantitative evidence on voting at the Massachusetts convention

(see my To Form a More Perfect Union, Chap. 7).

I do have a few minor complaints about Shays’s Rebellion. First,

Richards’ “standard story” about the “chain of debt” as the primary

cause of the insurgency is somewhat of a “straw man.” It is a view of

Shays’s Rebellion drawn from historical literature nearly a half-century old.

Second, Richards’ argument that the fiscal policies of the Bowdoin

administration generally have been ignored also might be a stretch. The

interpretation of the rebellion appearing in some more-recent accounts,

including economic history texts that mention the story (for example, see

Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History,

1994, p. 74), acknowledges that state fiscal policies mattered and tax relief

was an objective of the insurgents. These accounts though do not portray state

fiscal policies as negatively (or as conspiratorial) as does Richards. Third,

the book would have been improved had it better explained the nature of the

data and evidence discussed in the text (perhaps in a data appendix). Richards

uses the names from “some four thousand” oaths of allegiance and hundreds of

indictments to compile his biographical and economic data. What proportion of

actual insurgents these represent or how representative these are of all

insurgents is never mentioned. Fourth, whether the biographical and economic

data were collected for all names in the oaths or indictments is not

transparent either. In the first chapter, Richards states, “In the case of Dr.

Hines and other obscure individuals mentioned in this book, I used the ‘family

reconstitution’ technique to gather biographical data. I did this for 1,062

rebels and 564 government supporters” (note 1, p. 166). However, in the notes

to later chapters, Richards indicates simply that various data about the

insurgents, which are discussed in the text, are computed from data compiled

from the oaths of allegiance and town histories and records, without any

discussion of sample size. So when Richards lists the “percent of males in the

rebellion” for several dozen towns (Chap. 3), he is probably referring to the

percent that signed an oath of allegiance, but that is not clear. When Richards

presents data on the number of insurgents or on the number from a particular

family or heavily in debt or sued in courts or imprisoned for debt (Chaps. 3

and 5), the data apparently refer to the number of oath takers, but it is not

clear whether the data are for all oath takers or just the 1,062 oath takers or

in fact for some other group. Fifth, the book does not include any formal

statistical or quantitative analysis. At the risk of being accused of unfairly

suggesting that Richards should have written a different book, Shays’s

Rebellion would have been more convincing and would have benefited much

from such formal analysis.

Despite any of these complaints, this is an important book. It includes a

wealth of new, heretofore unreported, information about the participants in

Shays’s Rebellion that differs from most, if not all, previous accounts of the

insurgents. The book involved much painstaking primary research. It is well

written and easy to read. The author has much of which to be proud. Shays’

Rebellion should be read by anyone interested in the Confederation period

and events leading up to the Constitution.

Robert McGuire is Professor of Economics at the University of Akron and author

of To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United

States Constitution (Oxford University Press, 2002) and “A Supply and

Demand Exposition of a Constitutional Tax Loophole: The Case of Tariff

Symmetry,” Constitutional Political Economy 14 (forthcoming, 2003). His

research interests are in American legal and political economic history and

historical bioeconomics. He is currently reexamining the political economy of

southern constitutional interests via a comparative analysis of the drafting of

the U.S. and Confederate constitutions as well as examining the impact of

infectious and parasitic diseases on American economic history and growth.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century