Earlier this month, I’d been talking with my friend @HuupyFruud about America’s confusing relationship with the metric system, and the subsequent research I performed led me down some…unanticipated rabbit holes.
I realize, of course, that unless one is gallivanting around a field, rabbit holes are usually unanticipated. Not expecting to fall into a rabbit hole is our default state. But we understand each other on this point, dear Reader, do we not?
After reading my account of how pirates prevented us from embracing the kilogram, @monicajbradbury requested that another historical event of my choosing be explained in a “Josephied” fashion. As I did not voice a preference, @samldanach suggested Shay’s Rebellion.
Gather ’round, children, and Uncle Joseph shall regale you with an exciting (but tragic) tale about taxes, political corruption, Hamilton (yes, of COURSE he’s involved in this story), and a farmer named “Plough Jogger.”
Fresh off the war that established it as a sovereign nation, America had an economy in the 1780s that consisted of agriculture and…well, that’s more or less it. Rural New England’s skills were paying the bills, and the region’s most substantial earner was a cluster of towns in Central and Western Mass. Many everyday homies in these towns owned nothing of note besides their land, although some farms almost certainly had a Zune, whether or not they’d admit it.
The farmers would usually trade commodities with one another–a surly cow in exchange for roof repair, that sort of thing. In years when their supply of surly cows ran alarmingly low, the farmers would mosey their wagons over to local market towns. They’d stock up on Cheez-Its and Aquafina and Zip-Ties and Presto, which they correctly recognized as the best Rush album (despite their lack of a cassette desk or speakers). They’d purchase their Presto albums on credit, promising to pay when they got some decent cows and the economy improved.
But that’s Central and Western Mass, cats and kittens. Over towards the Coast, towns tended to be more economically developed. The economy there was dominated by wholesale merchants, who racked up their Benjamins through deals with Europe and the West Indies. The state government was packed with these Wig-Wearin’ Mitt Romneys, and after the Revolutionary War ended, the Wig-Romneys began to receive some ghastly tweets from their trading partners in Europe. “Um, look, you guys are GREAT,” the tweets read. “But we’re not honoring your credit cards from now on. Cash only. #sorrynotsorry.”
Because Lin-Manuel Miranda hadn’t written a song about it yet, Hamilton’s financial plan didn’t exist at this time. The US hadn’t really gotten around to the whole “paying for things” issue, including trivial details like “We haven’t printed any paper currency.”
So the Wig-Romneys tweeted the local market towns and were like: “Hey. Um, Europe’s being a total muffinhead and it now only accepts cash. We’re broke, so from now on, WE’RE only accepting cash too.” And when our Central and Western Mass farmers popped in for supplies during already-difficult months, the local merchants pressed the same demand onto THEM.
Did most of those farmers have a trunk of cash hidden underneath the floorboards?
You already know, faithful Reader, that they did not. Many slipped further and further into debt. Although John Hancock—the Massachusetts Governor named after your signature—refused to actually prosecute farmers who couldn’t pay their taxes, that didn’t prevent creditors and the government from repossessing anything of value. And as we’ve noted, the only thing of value that most of our friends in overalls owned was their land.
Creditors and tax collectors dragged their cases into court, and many left the courthouse with the legal right to seize the farmers’ homes and farms. Unsurprisingly, this action proved about as popular as ordering steak “well done” in Texas. The farmers began to hold Meetups ™, and at one particular gathering, a man named Plough Jogger (“plough-jogger” being 18th century slang for “farmer”) remarked:
“I’ve paid my dues, time after time. I’ve done my sentence, but committed no crime! And
bad mistakes? I’ve made a few. I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face, but I’m gonna
come through! I fought for this country, and what’s been my reward? To drown in taxes,
fight with the authorities, and to have my cows sold for less than they’re worth? Even
Ethel? These dorks in the government will end up with the entire Jogger estate…or will
they? Think, about it, y’all—how can the police and the courts and the lawyers come after
us if there aren’t any police or courts or lawyers?”
While I am unfamiliar with Plough Jogger’s service record, vets generally weren’t well-compensated during the war—but being paid at all meant they were the lucky ones. Years after the fighting stopped, some soldiers still hadn’t received the wages they were owed. Soldier-led protests began to spring up, and in 1780, a frustrated Captain Daniel Shays said “Screw you, guys; I’m goin’ home.” He resigned from the Army and headed back to the crib, but immediately discovered that he was being sued for failure to pay his debts. Lafayette, Amercia’s Favorite Fightin’ Frenchman, gifted Shays with an ornamental sword in honor of his military service, but Shays was desperate for cash and ultimately sold the sword for a few dollars. As his own troubles mounted, it dawned on Shays that he might not be the only chap kept down by The Man.
One of the early protests was led by Job Shattuck. Shattuck owned the largest amount of land in Groton, Massachusetts, which automatically entitled him to also own the most badass name in town (though not the country; Hercules Mulligan held that particular title until his death). In 1782, he led a group of farmers in physically preventing tax collectors from working. Job’s entourage had expanded considerably by the following year; in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, the protestors seized confiscated property from the police and returned it to the original owners. Governor Hancock, a man obviously unaware that the disruptions were led by someone with a magnificent name like “Job Shattuck,” ordered the sheriff to handle the mob.
Rural towns without a Shattuck around to rouse their rabble fought back in a different way: they pelted the government with petitions and proposals. “If you flood the country with paper currency,” the farmers argued, “money’ll be worth less, so we can wipe out our debt!” For some bizarre reason, merchants generally weren’t fans of that concept.
In early 1785, Governor Hancock resigned for “health reasons,” although it’s more probable that he realized the ship was sinking. His replacement, James Bowdoin, decided that given the mounting tension and instability all around him, the best course of action he could take would be to threaten the farmers who owed back taxes. The state legislature “helped” by declaring that what everyone truly needed to simmer things down was…an additional property tax.
Well done, state legislature. Well done.
SHUTTING DOWN THE COURTS
In August 1786, the state legislature in Boston could have:
A. Considered the mountain of petitions in front of them, mailed by farmers desperate for relief, or
B. Taken an early vacation.
But you, constant Reader, are reading the history of Shay’s Rebellion. You do not require time to consider the options, because you’ve already guessed that those lawmakers grabbed their swim trunks and hit the In N’ Out drive-thru, leaving the petitions behind, unread.
As it happened, the legislature’s choice was unpopular. In Northampton, protestors blocked the county court from convening. Recognizing that every successful rebellion requires players with catchy names, the protestors dubbed themselves Regulators, a reference to the 1994 G-funk / hip-hop hit by Warren G and Nate Dogg. A few days later, Governor Bowdoin wrote a strongly-worded letter ranting about “mob action” and, sensing that this entire kerfuffle was almost certainly going to get worse, began to prepare for the inevitable militia response.
Since shutting the court down worked in Northampton, protestors tried it again a week later, in the town named after that sauce you can’t pronounce. The county militia was summoned, but refused to show up.
Government: The protestors are at it again!
Militia members: The farmers?
Government: Yes! They’re PREVENTING the court from doing its job!
Militia members: Are they, now? Well, we agree with ’em. Good luck sorting it out.
Government: What? No, that’s why YOU’RE here! Remove those men!
Militia members: How about a nice big cup of NOPE?
Militia members: You wanna make it a Venti NOPE?
Well-aware of how badly their colleague was screwing up in Massachusetts, governors of the neighboring states put on their Tough Guy Pants and ordered their militias to hunt down and stamp out any similar organizing that might be brewing at home. In Rhode Island, this plan backfired spectacularly when the farmers gained control of the government. Boston’s merchants recoiled in horror—as did Governor Bowdoin, who had significant personal wealth at risk.
Daniel Shays, the former soldier who resigned from the Army and was quickly attacked by a lawsuit, was beginning to emerge as a leader, while simultaneously denying said emergence. Towards the end of September 1786, The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted 11 leaders of the Rebellion, classifying them as “disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons.” The Court was scheduled to meet in Springfield. Luke Day organized a protest there, while Shays did the same in Northampton. A dual protest! The government’ll never see it coming!
Except that they did.
William Shepard, the local militia commander in Springfield, spent his entire weekend collecting dudes with muskets, and when Luke Day arrived at the courthouse, he found himself staring at 300 men who would’ve rather been at home playing Madden. Shays and Day shifted to Protest Only mode and did not attempt to prevent the proceedings. The judges spent two days looking out their windows, and ended up heading home without hearing any cases. By that time, Shepard’s militia had ballooned to 800 men. While munching on a delicious rosemary organic bagel, he’d heard a rumor that the protestors might attempt to target the Springfield Armory next, so he sent the militia there as a precaution.
T’was but a momentary setback, Reader. As one young protestor cryptically offered: “Shutting down courts is Da Bomb Dot Com.” Protestors blocked court business in Great Barrington, Concord, and Taunton. The courts could often convene in larger towns and cities, but only if and when Governor Bowdoin fired up his Militia Protection app and ordered a militia to arrive.
Samuel Adam, widely known to be a sentient beer bottle, claimed that the protestors were, in fact, British operatives being paid by George Soros. He assisted with writing the Riot Act, commonly known as The Thing Your Mom Read To You When You Claimed You’d Cleaned Your Room, But Actually Just Shoved Everything Under Your Bed Again. Sam also supported a resolution that suspended habeas corpus, which allowed the police to hold the protestors in jail without a trial.
Meanwhile, John Adams—Sam’s second cousin—received a letter from Anti-Federalist politician James Warren, in which Warren complained that anarchy and confusion reigned, with Civil War not far behind. “Well, it’s simple,” Adams concluded. “We can solve this quagmire we’ve embroiled ourselves in! All we have to do is declare that Acts of Rebellion will now result in execution!”
For their part, the legislature attempted to help, and then immediately exacerbated the mess.
The Big Kahuna Legislator: Well, everything’s metaphorically on fire, and we’re about five minutes away from everything actually being on fire, so it might be prudent at this juncture
to, um, do something, y’all.
Legislator 2: What if we permitted them to pay their back taxes in physical goods instead of cash? Won’t solve the crisis, but it could sooth some of the anger.
Legislator 3, almost definitely named Chad: That’s cool, fellas, but what if we also banned speech that criticizes us?
Legislator 2: Um, that’s not really—
Chad: AND we could pardon protestors if they agree to take an Oath of Allegiance!
Legislator 2: What? That’s a horrible idea! Why would you even—
Big Kahuna: Chad, you’re the type of go-getter we need around here. Oaths! Love it.
Did the protestors love these attempts to suppress their liberty as much as the Big Kahuna did, Reader?
They did not.
Warrants were issued for the Rebellion’s leaders. Nearly 300 men rode to Groton to arrest Job Shattuck and a handful of his subordinates. Shattuck suffered a sword wound during his attempted escape, because he was too suave for a standard-issue bullet wound. Following his arrest, the protestors declared war, and could conceive of only a single path forward:
They must smash the “tyrannical government of Massachusetts.”
The Feds found themselves unable to hire soldiers to deal with the Massachusetts Issuse because….well, money. In January 1787, our old pal Governor Bowdoin tweeted his peeps with “What if we just created our own private army? What could go wrong?”
Daniel Shays, Luke Day, Admiral Ackbar, and the other rebel leaders responded by targeting the Federal Armory in Springfield, a move William Shepard had anticipated months earlier. Shepard was now a General in command of 1,2000 men, and received orders from Governor Bowdoin to seize the armory. As the armory was Federal property, Shepard had no legal jurisdiction to use it for a Massachusetts matter, and neither he nor Bowdoin had bothered to obtain permission from Henry Knox, the Secretary at War infamous for creating all those excellent pillow forts.
Shays, Day, and a third leader named Eli Parsons planned to conduct simultaneous attacks on the armory from three sides. The assault had been penciled in for January 25th, but Luke Day realized at the last second that his guns weren’t properly polished and he couldn’t find the good cumberbund. He sent a messenger to inform Shays and Parsons that he needed another day, but Shepard’s men intercepted the rider, resulting in a touchdown at the 49-yard line.
When Shays and Parsons arrived on the 25th, they still believed Day would be arriving from the west. Instead, they found themselves outgunned and outmatched. General Shepard fired warning shots first, then hurled grape shot through cannons. Four of Shay’s men died, 20 others were wounded, and the Rebel Alliance smashed the hyperdive button and retreated north.
General Benjamin Lincoln, a Bowdoin hire, marched into Worcester with 3,000 troops. Hoping to avoid him, the rebels swerved to the left, then to the right. “Take it back now, y’all!”, they howled as they perfectly executed a single hop. “Cha cha! Real smooth!”, Lincoln replied as he chased them around the state.
During what historians would later dub “Snowmageddon 1787,” Lincoln forced his militia through Petersham, arriving at the break of dawn. Because the rebels couldn’t predict that anyone would be nutty enough to trudge through a snowstorm overnight, they woke up to find themselves thoroughly surrounded and woefully unprepared. Lincoln claimed that he’d captured 150 men, although some historians believe this to be an alternative fact. Shays and most of the other leaders escaped into New Hampshire and Vermont, where their peers hid them and whistled innocently when the government came calling.
The rebel leaders stayed up north and avoided Massachusetts, while famers there launched much tinier protests. Lord Dorchester, the British governor in charge of Quebec, reportedly called London and asked for a gaggle of Mohawk warriors to fight alongside the rebels, but his proposal was vetoed.
The Massachusetts state legislature had become just slightly agitated with the rebellion it caused. Within a week, it passed bills that:
- Granted Governor Bowdoin “broad powers” to act against the remaining rebels
- Declared martial law
- Stated that any “acknowledged rebels” were forbidden from holding elected or appointed offices
- Authorized the state to reimburse the merchants who funded Bowdoin’s private army
- Authorized recruiting even more soldiers, despite the fact that lack of funds was the reason a for a private army in the first place
Unlike The Civil War, which everyone quite incorrectly assumed would last approximately five hours, the time estimate for the government’s private soldiers was relatively on fleek. Enlistment contracts begin to expire; by late February, General Lincoln commanded only 30 men, but most of the fighting had concluded anyway. As a last-ditch effort, a small cluster of 120 rebels pillaged the town of Stockbridge, raiding shops and the homes of wealthy merchants. Word reached General John Ashley, who immediately hit up the cell and mustered 80 men. He encountered the rebels at Sheffield that afternoon. Both sides lost one soldier and had several others wounded, but Ashley managed to capture 150 rebels.
The government, dear Reader, was less than thrilled—but more lenient than you might expect.
Four thousand rebels confessed their involvement in exchange of amnesty. Two were hanged, as they were found guilty of looting in addition to rebellious activities. Several hundred people were initially slammed with charges, but the vast majority of them were later pardoned. Eighteen were sentenced to death, but even most of those escaped their fate: their punishments were eventually overturned, pardoned, or commuted.
Daniel Shays was among those pardoned, but he likely didn’t throw a picnic. The Boston press ate his liver with a nice Chianti, painting him as an anti-government loon. He moved to Upstate New York sometime later and died in 1825, poor and largely ignored.
And what of Governor James Bowdoin, the man who carefully examined situations, conceived of the worst possible responses, and then routinely topped his own garbage-fire plans?
Well, Reader, it will not shock you to learn that after years of turbulence and political shenanigans, Bowdoin had become about as popular with rural Massachusetts voters as Liam and Noel Gallagher are with each other. When Bowdoin ran for reelection in 1787, he was crushed—by John Hancock, the guy who’d bailed two years earlier. Apparently, Hancock’s “health problems” mysteriously cleared up after the rebellion ended. Although Hancock actually did suffer from gout, several critics and some modern historians noted that over the years, his symptoms seemed to increase whenever his approval ratings dropped, but coincidentally improved when voters viewed him more favorably.
The only actual winner in Shay’s Rebellion turned out to be Vermont.
Vermont: Hello! Um, being an unrecognized independent republic is OK and all, but I’d really like to be a state! States have all the fun.
Massachusetts: Are you drunk?
New York: Look, Vermy, we’ve been fighting about this for well over a decade. I’m tired. You’re part of ME. Just accept it.
Vermont: I’M part of me!
New York: That’s what I said!
Alexander Hamilton: Hey, all you other New Yorkers. I’m Alexander Hamilton, and I’m trying SO HARD to abstain from references to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical about ME. Critics have—
Vermont: Alex. C’mon, dude.
Hamilton: I’ve done it again. Sorry. So, we’re gonna be debating soon whether or not we’ll permit Kentucky to separate from Virginia. If that measure passes, it’ll win a victory for the Southerners.
James Madison: In other words…
Thomas Jefferson: Oh ho!
James Madison: A quid pro quo.
Thomas Jefferson: I suppose.
Hamilton: Kinda busy here, guys.
Hamilton: Anyway, if the South is gonna create a new state, the North should get one too. Plus, Vermont sheltered the rebels and never returned Bowdoin’s calls. I kinda like ’em.
Vermont: Really? Sweet! Here’s the other two bigwig leaders we were hiding!
Eli Parsons and Luke Day: HEY!
Vermont: Good luck, you two!
IMPACT ON CONSTITUTION
As he had with most of the other important Events At Home in the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson missed Shay’s Rebellion. He was serving as ambassador to France at the time, and frankly didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. In a letter to James Madison, he argued that occasional rebellion was actually pretty dope, calling it the “natural manure” that refreshes the “Tree of Liberty.” We do know, dear Reader, that Washington was not in favor of the “disorder,” but we shall perhaps never discover whether or not Jefferson spoke with Washington about liberty manure.
Henry Knox, the Secretary at War under Washington, believed that Shay’s Rebellion helped sway some Anti-Federalists to advocate for a stronger central government, a view shared by many modern historians. John Jay, who was US foreign policy in the 1780s in the same way that Randy Bachman penned every US radio hit from 1965 to 1973, pointed out that the Federal government couldn’t even fund its own army, and maybe that…wasn’t awesome?
By the time Constitutional-Con opened its doors, the attendees had strong-government fever. Oliver Ellsworth, a delegate from Connecticut, argued that Shay’s Rebellion proved people couldn’t be trusted. Therefore, the House of Representatives clearly needed to be chosen by the state legislature, not by the popular vote. Others claimed that too many players had thrown themselves into the game; with a single entity in charge, the Rebellion might have been significantly shortened.
When Massachusetts voted on whether or not to sign the Constitution, most of the rural representatives voted no…but their efforts were defeated by a coalition of merchants and wealthy market leaders. Our old friends, the Wig-Wearin’ Mitt Romneys, had triumphed.
Several memorials commemorating the people and events of Shay’s Rebellion exist.
- There is a monument in the Town of Sheffield, the bloodiest and final battle where General John Ashley and the raiding rebels fought. It was in danger of being destroyed by algae and fungus, but the town had it professionally cleaned in May 2018.
- A statue of Daniel Shays sits in Pelham, the town General Lincoln reached before proceeding with Operation Snowmageddon 1787
- A section of US Route 202 that runs through Massachusetts is called the “Daniel Shays Highway”
- In Petersham, where the massive snowstorm occurred, a memorial celebrates General Benjamin Lincoln. Its final line is: “Obedience to the law is true liberty.”
- Westfield, Massachusetts has a statute of General William Shepard. Westfield was Shepard’s hometown.
And that, children, is the tale of Shay’s Rebellion.
Be sure to visit again next week, when we break down the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act.
It’s gon’ be LIT, fam.