Shays’ Rebellion – Your Revolutionary Heritage
By Don Ogden
Many Valley residents may not be aware that the American Revolution started and ended right here in Western Massachusetts. No, I’m not referring to the War of Independence that began, in a sense, in Lexington and Concord in 1776, but to the grassroots rebellion that grew out of these very hills ten years later as a result of the injustices perpetrated on the people of Western Massachusetts by a new American aristocracy enthroned in Boston, the capitol of the state. Shays’ Rebellion was the real American Revolution, one that drew little blood and eventually led to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. How come more Americans are not aware of this? Good question. Perhaps it’s because they might apply that legacy to their present condition!
The Rebellion was prominent on the minds of such luminaries as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson back in the 18th century. The writing was on the wall for these founding fathers: economic and social inequities were creating a growing disturbance among the people. Today, that heritage languishes in street names, some classrooms, and among those few who appreciate the event’s real meaning and the thread that connects Shays’ Rebellion to current events in these United States.
It’s worth your time to revisit this legacy from the dustbin of history. While Western Massachusetts has changed tremendously in the past 200+ years, many of the unjust social and political dynamics still remain to haunt us. The corruption and favoritism that reins on Beacon Hill lives on, as do the policies on both the state and federal level which disenfranchise voters and pander to corporate interests and the wealthy. During Shays’ time, economic issues like unfair taxes, currency manipulation, unjust laws and undemocratic practices were the issues that the people of Western Massachusetts tried to resolve through the existing governmental process. When that failed and the health and welfare of their families was at stake, they were forced to resort to civil disobedience.
While some historians make the point that the Rebellion’s support was more widespread across income levels and among extended families than had been previously recorded, many seem unable to convey a sense of how these issues effected the people of Western Massachusetts day-to-day, what it might have been like to face the loss of one’s homestead or small business due to the policies of faceless oligarchs on the other side of the state; or exactly how the self-described Regulators felt when compelled to march on Northampton, Great Barrington, or Springfield to close the courts or release fellow debtors from prison, (not to mention their eventual armed march on the Springfield Armory). What did these folks say to each other as they gathered in taverns like Conkey’s in Pelham, or Bruce’s Inn of Amherst, or at the home of Col. Seth Murray in Hatfield? What were their wives and children talking about as the yeomen went off to drill on the town common? Of course, it’s hard to present 18th century realities from a 21st century position. Much of the history of everyday experience, culture, beliefs and thinking of that period has been lost to us. Due to illiteracy and the impermanence of written records, much of the history of the common man or woman is gone. Even so, what remains needs to be conveyed to us here in the 21st century in order that we better understand not only what brought us to this point in time, but to help us see the big picture: the timeless struggle for justice in these United States and the validity of that struggle. Many of the issues faced by our ancestors have staid on with us. Look no further than Springfield No One Leaves’ ongoing struggles to keep low income residents in their homes and out of the grips of the banksters and their criminal mortgage schemes. Look no further than the Occupy Wall Street movement, the pushback on the 1% and the message now being carried by presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
So, who was this guy Daniel Shays, anyway? Shays was a small subsistance farmer and veteran of the War of Independence who moved to Pelham, after a brief stay in Shutesbury, and settled on 100 acres of ledge and hillside. Having been to the site of the home where he and his wife Abigail and their children lived, I can attest to its poor farming potential. Shays had been a Captian in the Continental Line under Lafayette who, upon the close of the war presented Shays with an honorary sword Shays eventually had to sell in order to survive the economic depression of the 1780s. In other words, Daniel and Abigail Shays, and many of their contemporaries, were dirt poor, in debt, with few if any prospects. Adding insult to injury, like most veterans of the war, payment for their services to the nation came in the form of useless promisary notes, many of which were sold to ruthless speculators from Boston for a song. Many historical records portray Shays as a reluctant leader who tried on numerous occasions to seek redress of the peoples’ grievances through petitions and various reformist actions. Unable to get any realistic response from the elite in Boston, Shays was eventually pushed to the fore as one of the leaders of the insurgents, if for no other reason than his military training and respect among his neighbors. However, Shays was just one of many such figures and as mentioned previously, many of these otherstories may be lost to us. As it is, no one seems to know what became of Abigail and the children after the Rebellion was routed and Shays escaped into Vermont, eventually settling in New York’s Finger Lakes region to live out his life.
Shays and the Shaysites are dead and gone but guess what? Yes, the struggle lives on!