Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle
By Leonard L. Richards
Univ. of Pennsylvania Press
204 pages; $24.95

The textbook I have on hand offers the standard spiel: Daniel Shays was "a destitute" man from Massachusetts who led a "ragtag" army of "beleaguered farmers" from western Massachusetts in a brief revolt against an uncaring taxing authority centered in far away Boston. There is something to all that, but as Leonard L. Richards observes in his demythologizing and generally satisfying book on the Massachusetts rebellion of 1786, Daniel Shays wasn't poor: his one hundred acre farm in Pelham "ranked in the second 20 percent of town assessments." Neither was Shays the sole leader of the movement that bears his name: many of the men who set out in January of 1787 to seize the federal arsenal at Springfield and, earlier, to shut down courthouses—symbols of a "bloodsucking" tax system that seemed mostly to benefit lawyers and judges—didn't heed the war veteran Shays' commands.

According to the standard account, the men from Amherst, Pelham, Colrain (and other towns) who joined the rebellion were motivated by rage at the level of taxation they faced, and there is also much truth in that. Under the prodding of Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin, the elite in the Massachusetts legislature passed tax bills that were, as Richardson puts it, "disastrous." Indeed, the combined weight "of overdue taxes and current taxes was more than many residents could pay in a year, five years or even a decade. Taxes levied by the state," Richardson continues, "were now much more oppressive—indeed, many times more oppressive—than those that had been levied by the British on the eve of the American Revolution." But, in Richardson's estimation, anger over taxation isn't what directly motivated most of the rebels to take up arms. What compelled them, rather, were family and kinship ties—sons acting in concert with angry fathers, brothers with outraged brothers, cousins with ticked-off uncles. This partly explains why only three western towns lent significant support to the rebellion—why over 150 men from Colrain joined the revolt but none turned out from neighboring Heath.

Another explanation is that the towns that most contributed to Shays's Rebellion had also made significant contributions, a few years before, to the American Revolution. Four-fifths of the future rebels from Shays's town of Pelham enlisted to fight the British, and when they concluded in 1786 that the Revolution had failed—that one group of taxing "plunderers" (the English) had been replaced by another (the Massachusetts elite)—they were prepared to take up arms again. At the same time, churches in the towns most associated with the rebellion were weak—the church in Pelham "was in a shambles"—and, thus, there were no serious local ministerial authorities in them to denounce the rebellion. Conservative clergy in other towns, says Richardson, "kept thousands from joining the insurgents."

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From one perspective, Shays's Rebellion seems farcical. The efforts of five Massachusetts men who went to Canada "in hopes of getting arms and ammunition" came to nothing. And after Governor Bowdoin recruited a volunteer army in January of 1787, the rebellion was put down quickly, the rebels were scattered.

But looked at another way, Shays's revolt led to a string of important, if unforeseen, successes. After the rebellion, the tax burden on farmers in Massachusetts eased dramatically; and George Washington, who after the Revolution wished most of all to enjoy a peaceful retirement, saw the rebellion as "inextricably tied to the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation," which prevented a federal force from assisting a state in crisis. Shays's Rebellion helped Washington to conclude that the Articles needed to be scrapped. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and other framers of the U.S. Constitution came to a similar conclusion, as did Charles Coatesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, who concluded that a national standing army was necessary. (The usefulness of a standing army would become clear not much later, in the course of another rebellion over taxes—this time in western Pennsylvania.)

Memories of the causes of Shays's Rebellion also helped to breathe life into Alexander Hamilton's later plan for the federal government's assumption of state debts—a scheme that served to glue together the fragile union of the 1780s by making states reliant on the federal government. One result, by the beginning of the 19th century, was that the heavy tax burden that had sparked the rebellion in Massachusetts had ceased to exist. Shays and "his" men, only two of whom were executed though over a hundred were indicted, had succeeded in ways beyond their imagining.

Shays's Rebellion is a case study of how, once in power, the party of the Left can become, quite reasonably, the party of the Right. The anti-British rabble-rouser Samuel Adams called for the heads of his fellow citizens who resorted to revolutionary language similar to what he had employed a few years before against London. And anti-federalists who opposed the national constitution designed to replace the Articles of Confederation were now linked in public rhetoric to the dreadful, threatening specter of Shays, who fled Massachusetts after the rebellion and finally settled in New York.

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Shays's Rebellion revealed, in other words, that once Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown, revolution was no longer cool.

Preston Jones is a contributing editor to Books & Culture

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