Shays’ Rebellion: Just Cause, or Just a Nuisance? Part One

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Last month I wrote a story about swords in the MHS collection and while researching that topic, I came across a compelling diary entry by a 19-year-old John Quincy Adams (JQA) in 1786. He wrote the following on Friday, 1 December 1786:

They proceeded a little further, and saw in the snow the tracks of a man, going from the common road. They suspected them to be his, and followed them. Mr. Sampson Read, first saw him, on the opposite bank of a small river, and immediately cross’d it on the ice; Shattuck then came to a stand, and said to Read: “I know you not; but whoever you are you are a dead man.” Read ascended the bank; a scuffle between them ensued. Read fell over the Bank, and the other, in making a violent push, at him, lost his sword, and fell upon him. He recovered his sword however, and was just about to pierce his antagonist with it, when Dr. Rand of Boston, arrived, and drew the sword from his hand, backwards by the hilt; at the same time Fortescue Vernon aimed at Shattucks arm, but the sword glanced, and wounded him dangerously in the knee, upon which he immediately surrendered himself; but said he should be rescued in half an hour: the gentlemen, were not molested however in bringing him off; but had every where every assistance given them, that they were in want of, and the apparent good will of every one, wherever they went.

The men relaying the tale caught Job Shattuck, who was one of the leaders of some of the preliminary actions leading up to Shays’ Rebellion, in particular, preventing courts from meeting. Reading JQA’s diary entries on the previous days reveal his interest and excitement on hearing this news, with a small bit of reflection on 30 November:

A republic must very frequently be called back to the principles of its government, and so long as it has sufficient virtue for that, its constitution will stand firm.

I didn’t know too much about Shays’ Rebellion, so I did some reading, and here is what I gleaned. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, soldiers returned home to Massachusetts where hard currency was scarce, and a barter economy became more popular in the western hills of Massachusetts. Creditors, however, demanded to be paid in hard currency. Soldiers had been paid little, if at all, during the war, and many returned home impecunious. The financial situation was so dire that the only assets for some farmers were their land and their animals. Despite Great Britain’s ban on all trade with the colonies (and John Adams was in London trying to restart that trade during this period)― Massachusetts’s coastal towns were faring much better with their markets based on hard currency. This was the economic situation when Massachusetts started levying land and other taxes to help pay for its war debt and a portion of its foreign debt.

These taxes also had to be paid with hard currency, which was easily accomplished in the coastal towns but presented a heavy burden to the inland communities. Tax collectors began seizing property—usually farm animals—to sell at auction for a fraction of their worth to pay off the tax. Standoffs between tax collectors and citizens began as early as 1782. In 1783, mobs formed to take back the property brought to auction. Dissenters wrote petitions to the state legislature, calling for the state to print and distribute money to reduce the worth of the currency in circulation, but these petitions were denied or ignored. In addition, citizens without land still owed taxes, but could not vote, and thus were not represented in the Massachusetts legislature that was deciding on the tax laws. To these citizens, the circumstances were the same as just before the Revolutionary War. Some citizens even said that life was better under British rule!

In 1785, John Hancock, who did not enforce tax collection where it was a burden, resigned as the first governor of Massachusetts, and James Bowdoin replaced him. Bowdoin aggressively pursued both current and back taxes. In August of 1786, the state legislature adjourned without considering the many petitions sent that year addressing the burdensome taxes. That month, a force of men called Regulators formed to take direct action to force the leaders of the Commonwealth to do something.

The group prevented the courts from meeting in Northampton, Worcester, Great Barrington, Concord, and Taunton but were stopped by militiamen in Springfield. Courts in larger towns and cities were able to meet without conflict but had the protection of militia outside the building for protection. Samuel Adams, a member of the state legislature, drew up a Riot Act, which suspended citizens’ right to habeas corpus, allowing them to be jailed for long periods without being accused of a crime. Adams also proposed that rebels to the republic should be punished by execution.

This is when we return to JQA’s diary entry and what had occurred to cause him to write with such fervor and interest. Come back to this column next week to read part two!

Other resources for further reading on Shays’ Rebellion

Petition from Job Shattucks, Middlesex County Court

Grand Jury Notes, October 1786

Letter from Mary Smith Cranch to Abigail Adams

Letter from Benjamin Hichborn to John Adams