Tag Archives: Shays’ Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion – Background

Home of Daniel Shays in Pelham, MA (which was destroyed by the flooding of the area creating the Quabbin in the 1930’s) was, like most in this rebellion a yeoman farmer

Western Massachusetts was ground zero for Shays’ Rebellion (1786-1788).  Lenox people and institutions were part of the action.

Not Just Shays; Not Revolution

The way most of us heard it, the revolution after the Revolution accelerated the creation of a new Constitution and the tilt toward a strong central government.  This “revolution” had something for all future historians to look back on:  rural vs. city, wealthy conservatives vs. debt ridden farmers, hard vs. soft currency, and distant government high-handedly ignoring the demands of its citizens.

However, the history of this “revolution” has fostered several long lived misconceptions.

  • Daniel Shays was one of several leaders of a largely spontaneous revolt; it is not clear why his name is attached to the uprising.  The participants frequently called themselves Regulators after a pre-Revolutionary revolt in the Carolinas.
  • “Revolution” is a misnomer in two ways:  (a)the protagonists were not shirtless rabble (most owned their own farms) nor did they abandon rule of law (until it seemed they had no choice), (b)there was a great deal of fear and military preparedness on the part of government conservatives but really only one encounter that could be called a battle.

There is even a case to be made that the triumph of the conservative Boston merchants in this interchange- and the soon to be Federalist central government – was almost a counter revolution.  Not surprisingly, the symbol for the Shaysites was a sprig of evergreen — the traditional symbol of liberty and independence for Massachusetts flags and coins.

Reasons for Shays’ Rebellion

A review of some of the literature on the topic* indicates the reasons include the following.

-We, as a new and only loosely organized nation hadn’t learned how to respond to citizens’ concerns through legislation – and had only limited infrastructure to do so.  Official courts were just beginning to be re-convened.

-The loss of breadwinners (both temporary and permanent), inflation, and lack of military pay had worked tremendous hardship on rural communities that had actively supported the Revolution.

-To make things even worse, as trade picked up, the need for cash increased.  The subsistence farmers of western Massachusetts were still a long way from operating on a cash basis and what cash there was was largely worthless paper currency issued by the Continental Congress or state government during the Revolution War.  Collection of hard currency debt by (mostly Boston) merchants (who had to supply hard currency to trade abroad) accelerated and rippled through a country side severely short on cash and long on debt.

-Objections were raised not only to the fact of debt collection but to the manner of collection.  Typically, in what was still largely a barter economy of farmers producing most of their goods for consumption or local exchange, collection was highly negotiable as to what was collected (e.g. not always hard currency) and how quickly.

-Well, there had been a  Revolution, so the notion of protesting what seemed unfair, had become plausible. The infallibility of distant (whether London or Boston) “betters” was less accepted than it had been before the Revolution.

Protests Started with Actions Against Debt Collection

As early as 1782 (prior to the official end of the war), citizens were raising issues via town meetings and protests to local officials about the uncustomary abruptness in debt collection.  Increasingly town meetings, state government representatives and county conventions were petitioned to  ask for the use of paper current,  suspension of debt collection or at least return to practices more consistent with past agrarian custom.

In February 1782, a mob of three hundred  tried to obstruct the proceedings of the Court of Common Pleas in Pittsfield (Berkshire County court met in Pittsfield and Great Barrington until Lenox was selected as the county seat.).  Later that year, Berkshire County farmers stopped the repossession of a team of oxen for debt.  It was just the beginning.

Action and Reaction

800 Close Court at Great Barrington in September 1786

By 1786 farmers were at the end of their rope and the protests started becoming more militant.  Almost 1500 stopped the Court of Common Pleas on August 29, 1786 in Northampton.  Similar actions took place elsewhere in Massachusetts including 800 Berkshire Regulators who closed down the court in Great Barrington in September (Lenox had been named the new location for court in 1782 but court sessions were still in Great Barrington).  The cause directly cited was retailers seeking immediate payment in specie.

The protestors locked up the judges until three (Whiting, Barker and Goodrich meeting at Whiting’s house) signed an agreement that they would not meet until revisions had been made to the state constitution.

The Great Barrington protest was a case of history repeating itself, since these Great Barrington courts had been closed in 1774 in protest of judges appointed by the royal government in Boston…effectively starting the Revolution in the Berkshires.

Soon to be Federalist and Revolutionary War hero, Major General John Paterson, spoke up for patience and non-violence in a Lenox convention in August and led the state militia to protect the courts in September.  Paterson decidedly represented the conservative faction and it is (Szatmary, p. 81) reported that when he marched into Great Barrington many of those in his militia forces refused to fight their protesting comrades.

Other leaders of the  pro government faction included names that continued to appear in the early Federalist history of Lenox and Berkshire County:

Theodore Sedgewick

Joshua Danforth

Simeon Learned

Erastus Sargeant

Ebenezer Williams

Azairah Egleston

William Walker

Caleb Hyde

David Ingersoll


Protests continued and in early October over 200 Regulators again closed the court in Berkshire County.

The rebellion had no formal organization but that was of limited importance since most of the actions were taken by close-knit neighbors and kin.  In Berkshire County, the Looses, Nobles and Dodges of Egremont helped stop the court in Great Barrington joined by Issac Van Burgh and his son Issac, Jr., brothers Enoch and Stephen Meachum, and Moses Hubbard an his three sons of Sheffield.  The Loveland and Morse families of Tyringham also sided with the Shaysites (Shay’s Rebellion, David Szatmary, p. 62).


The Life of John Paterson:  Major General In The Revolutionary Army, by Thomas Egleston, G.P Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY, 1894

Shays’ Rebellion and the Constitution in American History, by Mary E. Hull, Onslow Publishers, Inc., Berkley Heights, NJ, 2000

Shay’s Rebellion The American Revolution’s Final Battle, by Leonard L. Richards, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2002

Shays’ Rebellion The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, by David P. Szatmary, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 1980







Lenox and Shays’ Rebellion

Repression in Response to Desperation

Debt Ridden Farmers Closed the Berkshire County Courts Twice in the Fall of 1787.
Debt Ridden Farmers Closed the Berkshire County Courts Twice in the Fall of 1786.

The farmers of rural Massachusetts had been struggling with debt and the non-responsiveness of their representatives since before the end of the Revolutionary War.  By 1786 protests were escalating.  Regulators, as they called themselves, closed the Berkshire County court twice in the fall of 1786.

General Benjamin Lincoln

As many as 9,000 farmers across Massachusetts were eventually involved in protesting the debt collection of the merchants and the courts.  Local militia were largely farmers themselves and sympathetic to the Regulators.  The commercially oriented elite asked Henry Knox to form (and funded) an army to protect their interests and supplement the local militia.  Knox demurred but Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Lincoln took up the cause.

Aping their pre Revolutionary British predecessors, the Boston dominated legislature passed laws in the fall of 1786 that legalized severe punishment of crowds gathered to protest or riot.  Finally in November 1786 they suspended habeas corpus  (enabling them to apprehend and imprison protestors for an indefinite period of time without bail).  It authorized the arrest and incarceration of anyone suspected of being unfriendly to the government.  Further, they passed a bill preventing the spread of false reports criticizing the government.

In an attempt to break up the Shaysites, the legislature further offered an opportunity to be awarded total indemnity if they took an oath of allegiance to the government.

The threat of both force and legal action (without addressing the debt problems at the root of the protest) gained little ground with the Regulators.

From Protest to Rebellion

Many Shaysites (including key figures such as Daniel Shays, Luke Day and Reuben Dickinson) had military experience. They knew (whether government loyal militia or paid army from Boston)troops were coming to quell further action.  They needed weapons.  The largest weapons cache in New England was in the Springfield Armory.

Stormed Springfield Armory for Weapons in January 1787
Stormed Springfield Armory for Weapons in January 1787 – the Last and Only Major Military Action

In January 1787, the Shaysites attacked the Springfield Armory. It was successfully defended by Revolutionary War veteran William Shepard.

Meanwhile Benjamin Lincoln, the failed defender of Charleston during the Revolution, was hard on the heels of the rebels with an army funded and armed by Boston. The Regulators fled first to their home area – Pelham – and then north to Vermont and west to the Berkshires breaking up into smaller groups.

Meanwhile Back in Berkshire County

Major General John Paterson Must Have Come Home to Some Prosperity Building This Lovely Home in 1783. It Still Stands at7 Main St.

Major General John Paterson was the leader of the Berkshire militia and a champion of conservative  interests in the Pittsfield and Lenox conventions of 1782-1786.

The Shaysites had, by the time they reached Berkshire County, dwindled to 300-400 dispersed and poorly armed men but still seemed to have engendered enough sympathy with the population and members of the militia to alarm Paterson.

Stockbridge, January 31, 1787

To General Lincoln:

Sir:  The desperation of the factions in the County against Government has induced a kind of frenzy, the effects of which have been a most industrious propagation of falsehood and misrepresentation of facts, and the consequent agitation of the minds of the deluded multitude.

Last night, by express from several parts of the County, I am informed of insurrections taking place.  My only security under present circumstances will be attempting to prevent a junction o the insurgents, which probably cannot be effected without the effusion of blood; to extricate me from this disagreeable situation, therefore, I pray you, Sir, to send to my aid a sufficient free to prevent the necessity of adopting that measure.” (Egleston p. 186)

By late February, Benjamin Lincoln was in Pittsfield but he had released the militia.  His force had dwindled to 30 men.

The Rebellion Had Started to Disintegrate Into Housebreaking and General Lawlessness by Late Winter 1787

In fact the “revolution” may have started to disintegrate into a general breakdown of law and order among increasingly disheartened Regulators.  Several stories that have been preserved paint the picture.

Just before Benjamin Lincoln reached Pittsfield 250 rebels,under Peter Wilcox, Jr. collected at Lee to once again block the court.  Paterson and 300 militia came out to oppose them.  The rebels took cover on Perry Hill and got a yard beam from Mrs. Perry’s loom and rigged it to look like a canon.  Paterson’s men beat a retreat.

Mum Bet Protected the Sedgwick Home in Stockbridge from Rebels

During the same 1787 winter, rebels under Captain Perez Hamlin (from Lenox but residing in New York at the time) Massachusetts and attempted to pillage, among other things, the home of leading conservative – Theodore Sedgwick.  The famous Mum Bet hid the family silver and became, once again, a great heroine.

Shortly thereafter Hamlin and his men imprisoned 32 men including Elisha Williams and Henry Hopkins.  With these prisoners and their booty they proceeded in  to Great Barrington and then, in sleighs on towards Sheffield.

The End of the Insurgency and the Consequences

The Marker Noting the End of Shays Rebellion Was Installed in Sheffield About 100 Years After the Event
The Marker Noting the End of Shays Rebellion Was Installed in Sheffield About 100 Years After the Event

They were pursued by Ingersoll and Goodrich from Great Barrington, Colonel Ashley of Sheffield and later William Walker of Lenox.  It seems to have been something like 100 men on each side but the records are somewhat contradictory.   They skirmished across modern-day Sheffield and Egremont.  The dead included Solomon Glezen who had been taken prisoner in Stockbridge and allegedly used as a human shield.

The prisoners exceeded the capacity of the Great Barrington jail and the overflow was taken to Lenox.  Most were granted pardons.

Most of the Regulator leaders had fled to New York or Vermont so the Berkshire courts were somewhat hard pressed to find an appropriate number of rebels to punish.  Two were broken out of the Great Barrington jail by their wives Molly Wilcox and Abigail Austin (really – smuggled saws and everything).

Two, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hung in Lenox (apparently as of Fall 1787 taking its place as the legal center of the County).  Richards (p. 41) suspects they were guilty of not much more than breaking and entering in an atmosphere of lawlessness but had few connections so took a fall that many others avoided.

Judge Whiting, who had sympathized with the rebels in the 1786  protests at the Great Barrington courts, was savaged by strong Federalist Theodore Sedgwick.  It is likely other sympathizers in positions of authority met the same exclusionary fate.

As everyone knows, Shays Rebellion supported the arguments of men like James Madison, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton that the loose confederation that had won the war against Great Britain, needed to be strengthened.  Needless to say, Thomas Jefferson, then Ambassador to France disagreed.

A May 1787 meeting of the Continental Congress had been called and was held before the raid on the Springfield Armory in January 1787.   Many delegates decided to come after hearing of the1786-1787  uprisings in Massachusetts.

The resulting US Constitution now included provisions such as creation of a national army that could suppress revolt.  Who knows what would have happened to the Constitution sent to the states in September 1787 if the state legislators had not been worried (perhaps unduly) about falling into chaos – the perceived outcome if the Regulators succeeded.


The Life of John Paterson: Major General In The Revolutionary Army, by Thomas Egleston, G.P Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY, 1894

Shays’ Rebellion and the Constitution in American History, by Mary E. Hull, Onslow Publishers, Inc., Berkley Heights, NJ, 2000

Shay’s Rebellion The American Revolution’s Final Battle, by Leonard L. Richards, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2002

Shays’ Rebellion The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, by David P. Szatmary, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 1980