This letter, dated 25 January 1787, was written by Daniel Shays and Daniel Gray, two of the leaders of Shays’ Rebellion, a revolt by citizens of central and western Massachusetts against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts during 1786 and 1787 over oppressive taxation and unresponsive government. The letter to General Benjamin Lincoln, who was marching westward to quell the rebellion, seems to offer one last chance to avoid armed conflict.
In the years immediately after the Revolution, the individual states and the weak federal government owed enormous war-related debts. Americans had suffered hard economic blows during the war and now were excluded from traditional trade within the British Empire. The financial crisis in Massachusetts was especially severe because of a scarcity of currency and attempts by the Commonwealth to liquidate its war loans quickly through heavy taxation. The subsistence farmers and small-scale artisans in central and western Massachusetts found themselves in a particularly difficult position--mired in personal debt and resulting lawsuits and oppressed by heavy state taxes levied on behalf of wealthy speculators who controlled much of the outstanding state debt. At the same time, onerous property qualifications for voting or holding office, and the high cost of maintaining local representatives at meetings of the state legislature in faraway Boston meant that the citizens of central and western Massachusetts—including many veterans of the war that had made the new nation—found themselves with no say in a distant state government. Their grievances, which had been growing since the Revolution, were marked by protests, public debates, riots, and interference with local officials and courts (to prevent legal action from being taken against debtors and riotous behavior), but events only boiled over into violent resistance in 1786.
Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, first came to prominence in September 1786 when a group of insurgents closed the state court then meeting at Springfield, Massachusetts, and threatened to seize the federal arsenal located there. The insurgent groups called themselves “Regulators” after the Regulator Movement in North Carolina that sought to reform corrupt practices in the 1760s. After a standoff with the local militia, both sides pulled back, but in January 1787, the Regulators (by then often referred to as “Shaysites” after their putative leader, “Generalissimo” Daniel Shays) returned. General William Shepard’s state troops, armed with military equipment taken from the arsenal, prepared to defend it against what Shepard thought was an overwhelming force of armed rebels. At the same time, a large force under General Benjamin Lincoln, recruited in the eastern part of Massachusetts and funded by wealthy eastern merchants, was advancing on Springfield to relieve Shepard. Only a little more than three years after the end of the Revolution, a new rebellion seemed about to begin.
This 25 January 1787 letter from Daniel Shays and Daniel Gray to Benjamin Lincoln, written from Wilbraham, a few miles east of Springfield, is a bit of a mystery. It appears to be a last ditch effort to prevent violence in, as Shays and Gray put it, “this Convulsed Commonwealth,” but they sent it to Lincoln on the same day that the Regulators attacked Springfield. Was it an attempt by Shays and Gray to forestall Lincoln’s advance upon their rear while they overwhelmed William Shepard’s men and seized the munitions in the Springfield Arsenal? If so, the plan to strike before Lincoln arrived with reinforcements failed. The loose confederation of local commanders who led the Regulators could not coordinate their operations and the Shaysites were routed by artillery fire during a brief but deadly skirmish at the Springfield Arsenal in which three rebels were killed and another mortally wounded. Citizens of Massachusetts had killed each other over their political differences.
Federalist leaders at the state and national level, including George Washington, saw the agrarian unrest in Massachusetts as a danger to national unity. They desired a strong national government to prevent a descent into anarchy. Benjamin Franklin, the chief executive of Pennsylvania, offered to send troops to Massachusetts to support the state government and his old friend, Governor James Bowdoin. Other members of the Revolutionary generation were more sanguine. Writing from Paris, just as violence erupted in western Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson told James Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
General Benjamin Lincoln’s eastern army marched rapidly to the relief of Springfield and then thoroughly defeated the Shaysites in a hard winter campaign, but at the cost of additional fighting and more deaths. Moving with astonishing speed through bitter winter weather, Lincoln’s forces routed Shays’ remaining insurgents at Petersham on 4 February 1787. Most of the leaders of the Regulator movement, including Shays, fled the Commonwealth, but Massachusetts Attorney General Robert Treat Paine constructed a “Black List” of those he suspected as ringleaders. Some rebel leaders who could not be caught were tried in absentia. Sixteen men were sentenced to death, but later pardoned; two others were hanged for property crimes related to the insurgency. Thousands of Regulators were forced to take oaths of allegiance to the state in order to regain their civil rights. Although he was never tried, Daniel Shays was pardoned by Massachusetts in 1788. He never returned from exile, however, living first in Vermont and then in Scottsburg in western New York, where he finally secured a pension as a Revolutionary soldier and died in 1825.
This revolt had far reaching local and national consequences. Governor James Bowdoin was voted out of office in the 1787 election—defeated by John Hancock, a Boston merchant who had managed to maintain his popularity as a Revolutionary leader—and the Commonwealth moved quickly to conciliate the rebels. At the same time, exaggerated reports of anarchy in Massachusetts moved national leaders to call for a constitutional convention in Philadelphia to reform the weak national government. In 1787-1788, during the national debate battle over ratification of the new federal Constitution, “anti-federalist” opponents of ratification often were referred to as “Shaysites” by their federalist opponents.
There is very little verifiable information about the life of Daniel Shays. Although he denied that he was a leader of the agrarian revolt that has been named for him, for a few months in 1786-1787, he rose from obscurity to play an important role in the early history of the United States and then slipped back into obscurity again as a fugitive and exile from Massachusetts. Shays was born about 1747, possibly in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. He probably lived in Brookfield and then Shutesbury in the western part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony before the Revolution. During the war, he served for five years, rising to the rank of captain. He was discharged in 1780 after he was wounded and settled in Pelham, a hill town south of Shutesbury, where he was a member of the committee of correspondence and safety during the last years of the Revolution.
Early in January 1787, in the midst of the troubles that would be named for him, Shays had a long conversation with Rufus Putnam, with whom he had served in the Continental Army. Putnam was gathering information about the unrest in western Massachusetts for Governor James Bowdoin and reported that Shays claimed that his sole purpose in taking command of the insurgent forces was to prevent the shedding of blood. Governor Bowdoin, encouraged by Putnam’s report, offered to pardon Shays, but at the same time raised a state army to march against the rebels.
In some respects, Daniel Gray (1726 -1803), who also signed the letter featured here, was a more typical “Shaysite” than Shays himself. Unlike Shays, who had only recently moved to Pelham, a hotbed of the insurgency, Daniel Gray was one of twenty members of the long-settled Gray family who marched with the Regulators. The leaders of the Regulators usually were, as in the case of Deacon Gray, respected members of their small farming communities who had fought in the Revolution and then against centralized authority in the battles over the Massachusetts state constitution.
Grammarians seem to be as divided over how to spell the possessive form of Daniel Shays’/Shays’s name as historians have been over the causes and consequences of “his” rebellion. The Chicago Manual of Style would make it “Shays’s,” but notes, “feelings on these matters sometimes run high.” The Massachusetts Historical Society library conforms to the spelling of Library of Congress subject headings, so has it, “Shays’ Rebellion,” but authors who have written about this topic are almost equally divided. An early history of Pelham, Massachusetts by Charles O. Parmenter gives us an alternative by referring to it as “The Shays Rebellion.”
Feer, Robert A. Shays’s Rebellion. New York: Garland, 1988. Harvard Dissertations in American History and Political Science. A facsimile reprinting of Robert Feer’s comprehensive 1958 Harvard University Ph. D. thesis.
In Debt to Shays: the Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion. Ed. by Robert A. Gross. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 65. The volume consists of selections from papers presented at conferences sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and Historic Deerfield, Inc. in 1986.
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Pauline Maier discusses the influence of Shays’ Rebellion on calls for a constitutional convention, and then on the ratification of the Constitution in Massachusetts.
Minot, George R. The History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts in the Year MDCCLXXXVI, and the Rebellion Consequent Thereon. Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1788. The first published history of Shays’ Rebellion. Although an apology for the state government written by the clerk of the House of Representatives, Minot, a founding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, wrote in the immediate aftermath of the events he describes.
Parmenter, Charles O. History of Pelham, Mass. from 1738 to 1898, including the Early History of Prescott. Amherst, Mass.: Press of Carpenter & Morehouse, 1898. Rufus Putnam’s account of his interview with Daniel Shays is reprinted on p. 395-398.
Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Last Battle. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Robert Treat Paine Papers, 1659-1916. Massachusetts Historical Society. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine's records of his investigation of the Shaysites, including his "Black List" for Hampshire County, are on reel 17 on the microfilm edition of his papers.
Shays’ Rebellion Papers, 1786-1787. Massachusetts Historical Society. An artificial collection of manuscript documents, acquired by the Historical Society between 1938 and 1985, that includes the 25 January 1787 letter from Daniel Shays and Daniel Gray to Benjamin Lincoln. The letter, with other Shays-related documents, was purchased from the William Randolph Hearst collection in 1938.
Shays’ Rebellion: Selected Essays. Ed. by Martin Kaufman. Westfield, Mass.: Institute for Massachusetts Studies, Westfield State College, 1987.
Szatmary, David P. Shays’ Rebellion: the Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Taylor, Robert J. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence: Brown University Press, 1954. Taylor places the agrarian unrest in Massachusetts after the Revolution in a broader context.