Sunday, August 19, 2007

Shays' Rebellion or Shays Rebellion was an armed uprising in Western Massachusetts from 1786 to 1787. The rebels, led by Daniel Shays and known as Shaysites (or Regulators), were mostly small farmers angered by crushing debt and taxes. Failure to repay such debts often resulted in imprisonment in debtor's prisons or the claiming of property by the state. Though initial reactions were peaceful, the farmers eventually forcibly attempted to prevent courts in Western Massachusetts from sitting. The rebellion started on August 29, 1786. A Massachusetts militia that had been raised as a private army defeated the main Shaysite force on February 3, 1787. There was a lack of an institutional response to the uprising, which energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation and gave strong impetus to the Constitutional Convention which began in May 1787.

Shays' Rebellion Origins
Calling themselves "Regulators," men from all over western and central Massachusetts began to agitate for a change to a more democratic system. Initial disturbances were mostly peaceful and centered primarily on freeing jailed farmers from debtor's prisons or stopping courts from holding trial to claim land. Shays gathered many outraged farmers for a meeting at Conkey's Tavern, where he vented his anger and said they should rebel. In August 1786, the conflict escalated into a statewide movement when armed Regulators shut down the unpopular debtors' courts in Northampton, Worcester, Concord, and elsewhere. Shays continued to hold meetings at Conkey's Tavern and encourage rebellion. Militia groups called out to confront the Regulators often refused to confront their neighbors or failed to muster.
What is striking about Shays' Rebellion is that, although there was a great deal of confrontation, there were few casualties or damages until the final battles. This was a political struggle of armed demonstrators. For example, in July, 1786, militia units had converged on Springfield, Massachusetts. There, instead of seizing the federal arsenal, they had merely paraded in the streets before a politely drawn up local militia. However, they were dispersed after a volley of cannon balls was fired upon the ranks killing four regulators on the command of Major General Lincoln.
The rebellious forces were led by a number of prominent local people. Although Daniel Shays, a farmer from East Pelham and a former captain in the Revolutionary War, was most often identified as the overall commander of these forces, in fact leadership was collective among a number of local leaders. For example, another key leader was Luke Day, the son of a wealthy family in West Springfield. This points to the fact that while the Regulators were usually characterized as rabble, they were, in addition to yeoman farmers and other small landowners, town leaders, members of prominent local families, and very often veterans of the Massachusetts Line including their officers. For example, in Amherst, virtually every key town leader was involved in the regulation in one form or another. Many had distinguished military records; Daniel Shays, for example, a former enlisted man who was eventually promoted to an officer, had been decorated by the Marquis de Lafayette and honored by George Washington himself.

Springfield, 1787
Shays and his followers were pursued by Lincoln's now-legitimate militia to Petersham, The breakup of this rebel army was followed by guerrilla warfare, including attacks on wealthy landowners, the freeing of jailed farmers, and arson. The last known battle of this kind was fought in South Egremont. In the end, only two men, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged for their part in the rebellion.
In exchange for amnesty, Shays' followers were banned from elected office for three years and were not allowed to serve on juries or vote. Eventually the force for the rebellion was dissipated both by an improving economy and by elections that replaced some incumbents with individuals sympathetic to the rebellion. These elections (despite the ban) included many of Shays' followers.

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The earliest account of the rebellion was George Richards Minot's History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts…, 1788. Although this account was deeply unsympathetic to the rural Regulators, it became the basis for most subsequent tellings, including the many mentions of the rebellion in Massachusetts town and state histories.
David Szatmary's Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection (Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press, 1980) reassessed earlier interpretations of the rebellion. It is noteworthy for its reexamination, but some Wikipedia editors have raised concerns about the book's sources, methods, and conclusions.
Other works of note include Shays' Rebellion: Selected Essays, edited by Martin Kaufman (Westfield, Mass., 1987) and in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, edited by Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: U. Press of Virginia, 1993).
A recent examination of the rebellion and its aftermath is found in Leonard Richards' Shays' Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). An exploration of the rebellion and its cultural legacy to the 1960s antiwar and communal Movement can be found in Amy Stevens' "Daniel Shays' Legacy? Marshall Bloom, Radical Insurgency & the Pioneer Valley" (Amherst, Collective Copies Press, 2005).
In fiction, the rebellion is the central story of James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier's children's novel The Winter Hero (Four Winds Press, 1978). It also plays a central role in William Martin's The Lost Constitution (2007).

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