Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle by Leonard L. Richards

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Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Leonard L. Richards, in Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle walks the reader through the unsuccessful rebellion led by Daniel Shays. Richard concisely reviews the causes that drove the struggle against the state of Massachusetts. The Government’s excessive taxation further burdened the already downtrodden farmers and laborers of the war. Richards argues that this armed rebellion was not, in fact, a rebellion just made up of poor farmers who were being arrested for debt but evolved for several reasons and spanned every class. He also confirms that this rebellion changed the young country’s history.

The author claims that through a sequence of events, such as bringing General George Washington out of retirement, and the Articles of Confederation getting scraped in lieu of a new constitution, which in turn founded the American democracy that is enjoyed by all Americans today. Through this review of Richards’s book, it is hoped that the question of whether or not the actions of Revolutionary War veteran and modest farmer, Daniel Shays, should truly be credited as the catalyst that helped America into its current state of democracy. It is also hoped that Richards has made a strong enough case that the men of this rebellion should henceforth be called ‘Regulators’.

Having received his Ph.D. from the University of California with his field of interest focused on 19th Century America, Leonard L. Richards is currently a Professor Emeritus for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He received the Beveridge Prize in 1970 for his article, ‘Gentlemen of Property and Standing,’ as well as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1987 for The Life and Times of Congressman John Quincy Adams. Students have had his textbook on the Jacksonian era available since 1977. He is the author of numerous books including The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860. Also, interesting to note, Richards was living in the heart of Shays country, Amherst, when he began his research on the rebellion and wrote Shays’s Rebellion.

Richards is very clear that the previously believed accounts of Shays’s Rebellion as a bunch of poor, debt-ridden farmers are just not accurate. It is understandable that the stories of men like Daniel Shay would make such an impact and create a less than perfect picture of the rebellion’s participants. Daniel Shay was a veteran who fought in the Continental Army at the Lexington, Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Battle of Saratoga. He was eventually wounded in action and resigned his commission in 1780. He was unpaid at the time and had no way to cover debts when he went home. Interestingly, Shays had a typical house in the Cape-style that was ‘standard among hill country farmers, and owned one hundred acres and was ranked in the top third of town taxpayers.’ (p. 7) After resigning his commission and returning home, Shays was forced to court for nonpayment of debts. He was not alone in this type of treatment. However, the mistreated veterans were not the only class angry over the severe taxation.

Richards painstakingly combs through archives on microfilm to better understand rank and file. He said it was shocking to find out that the accounts he had read and taught from for years did not include an accurate version of the Shaysites. The archives were gathered from the oath-taking the defeated rebels had to perform in front of the justices. Richards’s argument that this was not a poor farmer’s rebellion is proven by the data.

The author feels that the insurgents’ believed that Massachusetts’ government economic policy benefited the wealthy and members of the ruling class. Because of this, Richards feels that not the weight of debt so much but tax policy and how little government representation is what ignited discontent. Richards states that the answer to rebellion is twofold and a result of ‘the new state government—and its attempt to enrich the few at the expense of the many.’ (p. 63)

An important aspect of Richards’s theory is that the protestors never called themselves rebels, insurgents, or Shaysites. These words were written in a slanderous way by their enemies. Also, they never represented themselves as angry debtors. The author believes and backs this belief up, that the only thing they considered themselves to be were Regulators or enlisted men in a Regiment of Regulators, ‘…for the Suppressing of tyrannical government in the Massachusetts State.’ (p. 63) Richards quoted this directly from The History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts from 1896.

The author does not focus solely on Daniel Shays. He spends quality time on other rebel leaders like Luke Day and Job Shattuck as well as the different communities involved, what their reasons were for rebellion, and how they impacted the cause. Richards delves into the question of why certain towns had so many men participating while neighboring towns had little to none. An example of this would be that Amherst had 121 men join the cause while their neighbors in Hadley had only two join. One hundred fifty-six men came out of Colrain but Heath sent no one. He found that in each case, “…the Regulators had the support of prominent families as well as hard-pressed families.” (p. 89)

Richards explains that there were key families from each town that spearheaded the direction in which the town would lean. The Dickinson’s from Amherst were well-to-do with the top six men on the tax list belonging to their family. One-quarter of all the rebels from Amherst was related in some way to the Dickenson’s. The Scots-Irish rural community of Pelham was led by the Gray family. In fact, twenty of the rebels from this town was Gray’s. Daniel Shays was also from Pelham, though he was fairly new to the area compared to the Gray family. The Gray’s had been ferocious patriots during the Revolution. As a predominately Scots-Irish community ‘…their hatred for the British ran deep.’ (p. 99)

West Springfield had the Day family, the Leonards, and the Elys. Richards writes that the most prominent here was Colonel Benjamin Ely, a wealthy landowner, and according to the author, ‘…the most popular man in town.’ (p. 102) Whately had the well-connected Graves and Smith families. The men who joined from these two families were mostly ones that had married into them, as there were many more women than men. Finally, Colrain, also a Scots-Irish town, did not have one or two families leading the charge but six families shared a similarity. “Of the 156 men from Colrain who took up arms against the state, 32 either served as selectmen at one time or another or were the sons of selectmen.” (p. 107)

Through Richards’s extensive research he provides an analysis on how Shays’s Rebellion was warped in the history books for years as something it was not. The telling of this rebellion was used for political mudslinging. The Pennsylvania Gazette even published this catchy phrase, “Every state has its SHAYS.” The correspondent continued with, “…who, either with their pens—or tongues—or offices—are endeavoring to effect what Shays attempted in vain with his sword.” (p. 139) Another correspondent published that all Federalists should be known as Washingtonians, and Antifederalists should go “…by the name Shayites, in every part of the United States.” (p.139)

Leonard Richards’s research leaves little room for doubt that the failed rebellion was twisted to such a degree that his wish to rename the episode the Regulators has merit. The rebellion’s specter, as Richards puts it, “…hung over the convention, it also crystalized antidemocratic sentiment.” (p. 134) The people of Massachusetts who chose to rise up against unfair governance opened the door to a whole new constitution. Though the rebellion was used as political propaganda, there is no doubt that it gave way to fortuitous events. The new constitution gave the federal government power to “…suppress Insurrections, protect the states from domestic Violence, and suspend the right of habeas corpus in cases of Rebellion or Invasion.” (p. 135) The author makes note that the president and commander in chief, George Washington, used these new rights to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

Richards’s meticulous evaluation of the contemporary records shed new light and gave new life to Shays’s Rebellion. With his detailed lists of participants, he is able to show a more perceptive view of how and why the rebellion occurred. More importantly, he shows the long-term effect the rebellion had not only on the participants but on the state of Massachusetts. His coverage of the convention will help the reader more fully understand the chain reaction Shays’s Rebellion had going forward. The effect on the nation and what inevitably shaped the United States into what it is today, a modern American democracy. The author’s words in the prologue show the importance of the rebellions formation and aftershocks when he writes that Washington could no longer stay in retirement, he has to attend the Philadelphia convention. There was no choice for the retired general. “Everything he represented, everything he had fought the Revolution for, was at stake.” (p. 3)

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