Again With the Taxation Without Representation: Shays’ Rebellion in Western Massachusetts
Shays’ Rebellion was the result of farmers in central and western Massachusetts, who were barely eking out a living, pushed to the brink by the tax and debt-collecting policies set by politicians back east in Boston.
Pretty ironic when one considers the spark that lit the American Revolution was taxation without representation by the British Crown. The newly-minted U.S. elites were quick to emulate their British oppressors. Hypocrisy has always been a pillar of American society.
The rural settlers did not use paper money and relied on the barter system. Although they couldn’t pay with hard currency even if they had it, the state intended to take what little property the inhabitants of rural Massachusetts had.
Many of these farmers fought in the Revolutionary War, and none were paid for their years of service to their new country. Now they faced the loss of their farms and imprisonment because they lacked the means to pay their taxes. And once they lost their land, they also lost their right to vote, with the full knowledge that the politicians responsible for their misery were living large off the proceeds from their foreclosed properties.
Why did they risk their necks to fight a war against England — free of charge no less — again?
One of these farmers was Daniel Shays, an American Revolutionary war veteran from Pelham, MA. On August 29, 1786, he led a well-organized group of at least 1,500 men, most former soldiers, to the courthouse in Northampton. They prevented the justices from entering so no more foreclosures could be finalized and no more debtors imprisoned.
Other armed groups did the same in numerous towns across the region. In early September 1786, Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin called in the Worcester militia. Located in central Massachusetts, Worcester was predominately populated by farmers. They refused to answer the governor’s call.
The Feds shot the governor down as well. Under the Articles of Confederation, Bowdoin’s request for federal funding for military operations to quell the rebellion was denied. In November 1786, the governor suspended the writ of habeas corpus so the state could detain any suspects indefinitely. Additionally, that January Bowdoin coaxed legendary Revolutionary War General Benjamin Lincoln to head a 3,000 man army to defeat the rebel forces.
Daniel Shays and the other farmers saw these actions as outright tyranny and claimed the right to overthrow a government intent to oppress them.
On January 25, 1787, Daniel Shays and about 1,500 other men stormed the Federal Arsenal in Springfield, MA attempting to capture it. General Lincoln was alerted to the plan thanks to an intercepted communiqué, so thwarting the take-over attempt and chasing the rebels back to Petersham was a piece of cake. On the morning of February 4, 1787, Lincoln’s troops showed up complete with four cannons, and the rebels scattered in a million directions. If you listened carefully, you could hear the fat lady singing.
In May 1787, John Hancock became governor of Massachusetts. Although he was a wealthy Boston city boy, he was smart enough to grasp that to keep the peace and rev up the economy he had to placate the country folk out west. Laws were put into place to reduce court fees and provide relief for overburdened rural debtors.
Shays’ Rebellion also made it painfully clear how inadequate the Articles of Confederation were and how pitifully weak the federal government was, which led to the drafting of the Constitution.
And Daniel Shays himself? He lived in Vermont for a time before moving to western New York. He was pardoned for his participation in the rebellion and a pension for his service in the Revolutionary war. Daniel passed away on September 29, 1825, when he was 78 years old.