Shays' Rebellion, Daniel Shays, Debt, Credit, U.S. Constitution, Violence
Shays’s Rebellion in current scholarship is one example of the widespread endemic pattern of economic distress, protest, and disorder throughout the new nation that precipitated the convening of the Constitutional Convention. Building upon this interpretation in Shays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America, Sean Condon tells a familiar story. Farmers in western and central Massachusetts, removed from commercial centers, deeply indebted, abused by private creditors, and oppressed by heavy taxes, reacted predictably by modeling their behavior upon traditions of revolutionary popular protest. More specifically, they stopped sheriffs from seizing assets for the non-payment of private debts and taxes, organized mass protests to regulate (the term of art for justifying extralegal action) self-interested public officials, petitioned for debt relief, and, ultimately, stopped civil courts from meeting. Unable to obtain redress of its grievances, the regulation spontaneously escalated into armed militias and the insurrection that came to be identified with Daniel Shays.
For Condon, though, Shays’s Rebellion was also a problem of authority: how to govern the regulators and regulate the government when jurisdictional lines and political processes remained ambiguous or in flux. While Samuel Ely’s 1782 protest was resolved with a petition emanating out of the Hampshire County Convention attended by Samuel Adams and two other state legislators, later protests were met with heightened opposition. Confronted with policies imposing impossible [End Page 158] burdens upon debtors, how were ordinary folks to get relief when peaceful protest failed? The answers led to further polarization with government’s own militarization and suppression of the regulators. Condon sees the immediate resolution to the regulation in the realization of both sides that things had gotten out of hand and the moderation of discontent and lawlessness by disbanding the armed groups of regulators, electing the popular John Hancock as governor in place of James Bowdoin, allowing key leaders like Shays and Job Shattuck to escape punishment, and providing legal reforms on debt collection. The real significance of Shays’s Rebellion, however, occurred after the news of the disorders had spread to James Madison and, by means of Henry Knox’s representations, George Washington, concurrently with their recognition of the need for constitutional reform.
Shays’s Rebellion, particularly for Progressive historians, has long held an important place in explaining the rise of sentiment for constitutional reform. A discrete local story, dramatic and well documented, it provides in microcosm evidence supporting two interlocking interpretations for the Constitution: the argument for robust central government and the rise of democratic movements in the early republic. The Shaysite opposition to courts especially seems to embody the polarization of political, social, and economic divisions central to these two interpretative paradigms: of Anti-Federalists and Federalists, of farmers and debtors versus merchants and creditors. Condon is careful to qualify the polarized social interests and the regionalized distribution of credit and debt and demonstrate a more complicated understanding of the difficulties of government’s exercise of authority: Any form of debt relief would have produced adverse consequences for someone somewhere and exacerbated the post-war depression.
Condon’s narrative reflects the predisposition to limit the context of our reading of Shays’s to a local microcosm demonstrating the larger weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and of the inevitability of the Constitution. Historians, and especially current neo-Progressive interpretations, have not given sufficient weight to the larger context of the ways in which the inherent nature of the evidence, the framing of debtors’ legal complaints, sway us toward harsh characterizations of private and public creditors. Not surprisingly, our sympathies lie with farmers and debtors and their claims of impoverishment by rapacious creditors and hard-money policies and not with Bowdoin’s condemnation of “wicked, artful men” seeking to dilute the value of their obligations and [End Page 159] evade responsibility for their promises. Reducing legal fees, assigning small causes to justices of the peace, and mandating arbitration, seen by Condon as forms of debt relief...