Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To John Adams from Benjamin Hitchborn, 16 January 1787 Hitchborn, Benjamin Adams, John
From Benjamin Hichborn
Sir Boston 16th Jany 87

Some weeks Since I took the freedom to communicate to you a few of my political Conjectures1—since which every circumstance has concured to establish my Opinion; our State Concerns will at a Crisis in seven days— The Insurgents have threatend to assemble on Tuesday day at Worcester to prevent the sitting of the Common pleas to 551 be held thereby adjournment on that day— the Governor & Council have ordered out three thousand six hundred Men from the Militia under the Command of Genl: Lincoln to oppose them if they appear, & to hunt up & arrest the Leaders of them if they shoud decline a trial of Strength in the field— I presume you know or will know before this reaches you that our late General Court have suspended the habeas Corpus Act & given authority to the Governor & Council to arrest & imprison in any part of the Commonwealth any person whom they shall suspect is unfriendly to Government & whose enlargement is dangerous to the public peace & Safety— thus armed they mean to purge the State in a few weeks of all its internal Enemies the Sea-port-towns in general are in favour of governmental Measures— the Country in general against them, taken together, I imagine a majority are neutral— I think there can be no doubt without a miraculous interference but the Governm[ent] troops will prevail in the present Conflict—but where it will finally terminate I will not venture to guess—2

The Country in general are much disgusted with Bowdoin they say he is a Frenchman in ——— with the British unfriendly to their peace & happiness & not worthy of their Confidence Step Higginson Jno Lowell Thop Parsons & that Set adore him & get most of the Men of property in matitime Towns to joine them in sentiment— but I beleive notwithstanding their joint efforts this will prove the last year of his Reign under the present Constitution— Lincoln woud have had many votes had he not engaged in the present Expedition, but I beleive the part he must act on this occasion, will leave Hancock almost without a Rival in the Country at the next Election—3

Congress are raising Troops but I beleive they will Soon determine that they have not the means of supporting a fœderal Government & return home or obtain a Convention of Delegates from the States to give Congress new powers which will annunce the End of their appointment— I presume […] this head you have better Information than I c[an giv]e shall therefore Spare observations which the Sc[…] woud justify— as I mean to be unreserved be[…] I suppose all your other Correspondents will be cautious—I cannot omit mentioning that I suppose Gorham the late President of Congress has some expectations of being chosen Governor the next year, but I have not the least doubt of his being disappointed— I presume you have all our Acts of Government & the Newspapers transmitted you, but I shall enclose two of the last lest your other Friends Shoud 552 not have an opportunity by this Ship which I expect will sail in half an hour— I feel myself exceedingly obliged by friendly attention to my Brother Gardner— please to present my Respects to Mrs: Adams & beleive sincerely, with / Great esteem Yr Friend & Servt

B Hichborn

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “His Excellency Jno Adams Esq / Minister Plenipotentiary / at the Court of / London”; endorsed by AA2: “Mr Hichborn. Jany / 1787.” Some loss of text where the seal was removed.


On 24 Oct. 1786, above.


In this paragraph Hichborn refers to the events that brought Shays’ Rebellion to a head and led to its final suppression by a hastily raised army commanded by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. He does not, however, mention his own role in the denouement. When the Mass. General Court reconvened on 27 Sept. at the order of Gov. James Bowdoin, to deal with the closing of the courts, the senate supported suspending the writ of habeas corpus, but the house was less enthusiastic. As a result the first portion of the September session brought the passage of various measures to appease the dissidents by easing the payment of taxes and lessening the burden of the legal system on debtors. Then, in early November, a circular letter signed by Daniel Shays—although he denied any part in its composition—appeared that seemingly called for armed revolt against the government. The General Court reacted on 10 Nov. by adopting a bill to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and permit the imprisonment and trial of insurgents in any Massachusetts county.

The most immediate result of the bill’s passage was a raid by 300 cavalrymen led by Hichborn. Setting out from Boston on 28 Nov., the force reached the northwest Middlesex County town of Groton on the 30th and there captured Job Shattuck, Oliver Parker, and Benjamin Page, prominent leaders of the rebellion. The three men were then taken to Boston, in Suffolk County; the center of establishment support for the government, and imprisoned.

The raid accomplished its purpose but further radicalized the dissidents and led to the formation of organized military units to oppose the forces of the commonwealth. This presented the government with a dilemma. An army was needed to put down the rebellion, but the General Court had authorized no such force, much less provided funds for a campaign. The solution was to create a militia funded by “divers persons,” including Governor Bowdoin, “actuated by a laudable zeal for the public welfare,” according to the bill adopted by the General Court on 6 Feb. 1787 to reimburse the contributors. contributors. Lincoln, with most of the troops, moved on Worcester to protect the scheduled meeting of the courts on 23 Jan., forcing the insurgents to retreat, while another force led by Gen. William Shepard took possession of the federal arsenal at Springfield. There, on 25 Jan., Shepard fired on the rebel contingent led by Shays. That, with the impending arrival of Lincoln’s troops, forced the rebels to retreat again, this time to Petersham in Worcester County. There, on 4 Feb., after an all-night march through a snowstorm, Lincoln’s army surprised Shays and his rebel army, leading to wholesale surrenders by the rebel troops. Shays and other rebel leaders escaped capture, and the coming months saw raids on Massachusetts border towns by unrepentant insurgents who sought refuge in adjoining states. However, Lincoln’s success at Petersham and elsewhere effectively ended Shays’ Rebellion (Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution , p. 150–163; Richards, Shays’s Rebellion , p. 16–32; Mass., Acts and Laws , 1786–1787, p. 102–103, 165–166; Boston Independent Chronicle, 7 Dec. 1786).


Hichborn’s prediction of the political aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion was largely correct. In May 1787 John Hancock defeated Bowdoin for the governorship, and Massachusetts voters elected 173 new members to the General Court (Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution , p. 165–166).