Sunday, June 23, 2024

News and Ideas Worth Sharing

HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: A rebellion...

CONNECTIONS: A rebellion of ‘desperate debtors’

In August 1786, Daniel Shays, a Massachusetts farmer, ceased the search for “representatives who can find means to redress the grievances of the people” and took up arms.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

“In as plain a manner as I am capable, I will tell the story of the current economic crisis…”  Connecticut Courant, 1787

The Revolutionary War began in 1775 and ended in 1783. It left the country heavily in debt. To reduce the debt, taxes were imposed. Whether fact or fancy, it was generally believed that the heaviest tax burden fell on the poorest citizens. The poor, primarily farmers, were already reeling from personal debt.

A drawing of Daniel Shays from the 1878 book ‘Our First Century’ by Richard Miller Devens

Farmers’ debt rose exponentially during the Revolutionary War. When they left their farms and took up arms to help win the war, their crops suffered and profits plummeted. Though promised compensation for military service, it was not paid at all or paid in worthless currency. The farmers were forced to borrow to pay taxes and then could not repay the loans.

Debtors were hauled into court where harsh laws favored the lenders. Their land and assets were seized, and the farmers were imprisoned. They languished in debtor’s prison without the means to repay the obligations. Debtors could only wait to be bailed out by friends or relatives. Some were sympathetic and did, others were embarrassed by their plight and turned away, and still others were in no financial position to help. The debtors suffered in county jails described as “dark and filthy,” the sentence for debt “hopeless and endless.”

The combination of these economic pressures and the laws created “desperate debtors.”

“As people lose all they own to bankruptcy and seizure their only hope lays in full and fair legislative reform, but the representatives seem to represent ‘The Few’ not the many. In these circumstances, the Few are anxious for the support of the government, and so they call those with grievances names and even threaten prosecutions. This must now put the people in a most zealous search for remedies … for representatives who can find means to redress the grievances of the people.” Connecticut Courant, 1787

In August 1786, Daniel Shays, a Massachusetts farmer, ceased the search for “representatives who can find means to redress the grievances of the people” and took up arms. The idea to close the courts — by violence if necessary — spread from Massachusetts to Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York. At the height of Shays’ Rebellion, he commanded 4,000 men.

“They are,” the Courant concluded, “the most discontentedest.”

The “most discontentedest” became the soldiers in Shays’ Rebellion. Their anger was focused on the courts where the foreclosures, bankruptcies and incarcerations were sanctioned. Shays’ men were called the “Regulators” because they wanted to regulate laws that disproportionately favored the wealthy. The Regulators wanted more protection for the poor.

A print of Sheffield in the early 19th century. Image courtesy Sheffield Historical Society

Initially the movement grew in strength and numbers. After an attack on the Springfield Armory — planned to arm the Regulators — failed, the rebellion began to fall apart. Some leaders were arrested and Shays fled. The Regulators became ragtag and unfocused but no less violent.

It is said they came across the Massachusetts border at West Stockbridge, rampaged through Stockbridge as far as Great Barrington and then ran back across the border. An earlier “attack” was focused on the objective of closing the court at Great Barrington.

Judge William Whiting described one encounter as: “a numerous concourse of men had surrounded my house with the declared intention of demolishing it…they truly terrified me so that I deemed my life to be in danger. They conducted me into my own home and there compelled me [with fixed bayonets] to sign the agreement [to close the court].”

Later encounters at Sedgwick House and the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge became less focused on justice and more focused on collecting trinkets and booze.

The Widow Bingham described a drunken band marching some Stockbridge residents down the road from the Red Lion Inn to Great Barrington without apparent purpose.

President George Washington commanded Gen. John Fellows of Sheffield, his aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, to put the uprising down. In June 1787, on a field in Sheffield, Fellows did. In the 18th century, Berkshire County was at the center of both the spiraling incarcerations for debt — the first steps to end the practice by closing the courts — and the end of the rebellion.

A sketch of Daniel Shays as depicted on the cover of Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack of 1787. Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Shays’ Rebellion, the agrarian resistance, was defeated. In 1787, the Regulators were called traitors and murderers. Some Regulators escaped; others were hanged. Centuries later, historians canonized the Regulators as men who influenced the United States Constitution. Was Shays an enemy of the new Republic or a contributor to the shape of the new nation?

On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention began its deliberations at Independence Hall, Philadelphia. They grappled with the very problems that prompted Shays’ Rebellion: currency regulation, debts and contracts, and ways to thwart domestic insurrection. The uprising in Massachusetts was fresh in their minds and the Constitution reflected the determination of the Founding Fathers to do all they could to prevent future rebellions.

George Washington dismissed Daniel Shays as irrelevant, but James Madison said Shays exposed weaknesses, excesses and injustices that had to be addressed in order to have a strong Republic.

Shays’ Rebellion seemed “mad” to George Washington but, while Washington called the Regulators “mad,” the rebels called the government officials “thieves, knaves, and robbers.”

After his first reading of the Constitution, Jefferson said, “our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts. …”

Who was right: Washington, Jefferson or Madison? Historians claim both: Shays influenced the Constitution and Madison’s concerns were not adequately addressed.

Oh well, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

Continue reading

BITS & BYTES: Seo Jungmin at PS21; The Trocks at Jacob’s Pillow; Carrie Mae Weems at Bard College; Opera Lafayette and Ariana Wehr at...

Seo Jungmin creates bridges between classical Korean forms, native shamanic singing, and a cosmopolitan palette drawn from contemporary Eastern and Western vocal and percussion practices.

BITS & BYTES: Tom Chapin at The Guthrie Center; ‘The Thin Place’ at Chester Theatre; ‘A Body of Water’ at Shakespeare & Company; ‘Ulysses’...

In a career that spans six decades, 27 albums, and three Grammy awards, Tom Chapin has covered an incredible amount of creative ground.

BITS & BYTES: Pamyua at Bennington Theater; Center for Peace through Culture exhibition; New Marlborough Meeting House Gallery exhibition; Brandon Patrick George at Tannery...

Often described as “Inuit Soul Music,” Pamyua’s style derives from traditional melodies reinterpreted with contemporary vocalization and instrumentation.

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.