Surely, everyone knows that this year, 2016, marks the 230th anniversary of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. Magazines will certainly dedicate entire issues to the event, a 2-month long CNN series is planned, and a Ken Burns documentary is inevitable. Who doesn’t know about the exploits of Daniel Shays and his fellow farmers in the tumultuous days of 1786 and 1787?
Well, for those who might not, here’s a brief recap [as I finish this, not as brief as I intended].
Daniel Shays was a farmer in western Massachusetts who had been a soldier in the war of national liberation against Britain that had ended just a few years earlier. Like so many others, he hadn’t been paid for his military service–vets had been given certificates, IOUs, that they could redeem later in lieu of any money at the time.
So Shays quit the army in 1780 and headed home, where he landed in court because he hadn’t paid his debts. He wasn’t alone. Farmers all over western Mass were in debt, in arrears for rents, had their lands, crops, and property seized, were homeless and hungry, ended up in debtors’ prisons. And they were, naturally, pissed off. Hence, they became what I like to call Rebellionaires [time to steal the suffix “aires” and use it for the people rather than the titans of wealth and power].
In towns all over Massachusetts [throughout New England, actually] farmers began to challenge such proceedings, often showing up with arms to prevent the court from meeting. They often went into town, en masse, in a caravan–wagons, oxen, horses, on foot–to prevent the courts from meeting and appropriating their properties or imprisoning them.
(We’re getting to Shays). The good patriots who led Massachusetts and had formed the nucleus of the resistance to the British a couple decades earlier, the eastern bankers and merchants in the Boston area, were aghast and alarmed at the temerity of these farmers challenging their position and power [so the Tom Brady-Donald Trump friendship has a solid historical basis]. Even Samuel Adams, the “radical” of the war for independence, alleged that “British emissaries” were agitating among the farmers, proving you don’t need Communists and Terrorists to create a scapegoat and frighten people.
So . . . . in the fall of 1786 Daniel Shays organized a group of farmers in western Massachusetts after the state Supreme Court had indicted 11 indebted protestors for, essentially, sedition and using armed force to prevent the state from taking their lands. Shays and about 700 armed farmers, mostly vets and debtors like him, marched on Springfield, to the state court, picking up reinforcements along the way. Even militia and army troops bailed out and joined Shays Rebellion.
Sam Adams [whose Cherry Ale is the only fruit-based beer I’ve ever liked; it’s like Kool-Aid, you can’t put them down!] drew up a Riot Act and a statement suspending Habeas Corpus, allowing the state to keep farmers jailed indefinitely without trial [18th Century Gitmo]. Massachusetts authorities then “read the Riot Act”–I never knew that was a real thing before I learned about Shays–to the farmers, who responded with even more armed resistance. At Great Barrington, more than 1000 armed farmers forced the court to adjourn and then marched on the Chief Justice’s home and forced him to agree to defer any actions against farmers until the Massachusetts General Court met.
Okay, I haven’t said this yet, because I think it’s pretty obvious, but what was happening in Massachusetts was [insert suspenseful music] . . . class war!
So for the rest of 1786 armed conflicts between farmers and the state militia continued. Shays began a march into Boston, but a blizzard hit and they had to retreat from the snow. For the ruling class of Massachusetts, as they eloquently believed, the shit was getting real. Boston merchants pooled together £6000, £700,000 today, [Robert Kraft was a heavy investor] to form a field army, with cavalry and artillery.
So, as Shays marched on Springfield in late 1786, he was met by a professional military force and his rebellion was routed. A few dozen rebels were tried, and about 12 sentenced to death. Shays escaped to Vermont, was later pardoned, and lived out his life in poverty.
So, really, as a story of class warfare, Shays’ Rebellion falls short of all the hype it’s gotten all these years. The farmers learned a lesson that all protesters eventually “get”–the ruling class has power, weapons, wealth, culture, and an endless number of strategies to crush people who challenge its fundamental interests.
But the ruling class actually used Shays’ uprising for its own benefit too [see “endless number of strategies” above]. In September 1786, delegates from 5 states went to Annapolis, Maryland to discuss the need to create a federal government–since the Articles of Confederation were too weak to organize an economy, pay debts, have a national currency, etc. Many state leaders, especially in smaller states [i.e. not Virginia or Massachusetts], were really leery of federal control, but even more alarmed by “the people” rising up.
Shays gave them just what they needed. James Madison, hero to liberals everywhere and main crafter of the Constitution which established a federal system and paved the way for a capitalist economy to emerge, wrote that “Great commotions are prevailing in Massuchusetts. An appeal to the sword is exceedingly dreaded.” Yep, Madison feared class war, and he and his fellow elite knew they had to act, not because poor farmers were going to take over the government, but because the timing was right to assert centralized, ruling class control.
With Shays as a backdrop, 55 delegates went to Philadelphia in the Spring of 1787 to draft the constitution, the document which created a central government, which fostered the development of capitalism with state support, which sanctioned southern slavery, which made it basically impossible for men, and later women, like Daniel Shays to ever get elected to an important office or have any kind of meaningful role in political society.
So why the big deal about the 230th anniversary of what was, we have to admit, a fairly weak rebellion that was smashed by state power? Well, it was a rebellion against state power, against the power of the courts, against the landlords, the creditors, the Boston elite. Shays and his fellow farmers went to war against people with whom they had fought as brothers against the British, with whom they had pledged their mutual loyalty, with whom they identified racially and culturally.
But the main identity, the real identity that mattered, among Shays and his thousands of fellow farmers, was class. They knew they were poor and in debt and took action to remedy that. They were poor White guys fighting against rich White guys and getting shot at by other poor White guys who were paid by the rich White guys.
Okay, almost done. So what’s the point? Everyone should know about Daniel Shays and his Rebellionaires. The uprising may have been fated to fail from the first, but Hamilton and Madison and the rest of their posse used it to create a federal document that protected and enhanced their own interests, all in the name of “democracy.”
Like Nathaniel Bacon, or Denmark Vesey, or Nat Turner, or Thomas Wilson Dorr, or Gabriel Prosser, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or the martyrs of Haymarket, or West Virginia miners, Shays took on the entrenched elite in a powerful way. While these rebels may have had different identies–black or white, male or female, urban or rural–they had a mighty and common bond: they were not part of the ruling class. They were dispossessed, dependent, and poor.
So now for the cheesy ending. What’s the point of celebrating the 230th anniversary of Shays’ Rebellion? Because Shays and other uprisings like his show that there is a history of resistance to the ruling class based on commons conditions . . . class consciousness we might call it.
Just like in 1786 . . .
Black and White people have more in common with each other than they do with rich people.
Men and women have more in common with each other than they do with rich people.
Rural and urban dwellers have more in common with each other than they do with rich people.
Gay and straight people have more in common with each other than they do with rich people.
Vets and civilians have more in common with each other than they do with rich people.
You get the idea . . .
Historian, Agitator, Sicilian
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I hope the Ken Burns documentary would be better than the one the History Channel made a few years ago. It’s one of the few documentaries my students laugh at for its historical inaccuracy.