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In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion.

Both for people at the time and for historians since, Shays' Rebellion has offered a prime example of the possibilities--and the perils--of revolutionary thinking. Throughout the fall of 1786 and the winter of 1787, the Shaysites of western Massachusetts proclaimed themselves to be the true heirs of the American Revolution. Like the patriots, they said, they opposed unjust taxation policies levied by a distant and unresponsive legislature. Like the revolutionaries, they voiced their objections through peaceful protests, including petitions, instructions to the assembly, and the calling of county conventions. Like their counterparts ten years earlier, they resorted to more violent measures--closing county courthouses and taking up arms--only when previous efforts failed to bring redress of their grievances. And just as Britain had used force to attempt to put down the colonists, so the government of Massachusetts sent in troops to suppress the Shaysites.

Ironically, however, the very people leading the reaction to the insurrection included Governor James Bowdoin, General Benjamin Lincoln, and Samuel Adams, figures who had been instrumental in fomenting the Revolution. In their view, the Shaysites' cause differed radically from their own. While a revolt against a tyrannical monarch could be justified in the last resort, the overthrow of a constitutional government of the people's own making could never be sanctioned. By circumventing established electoral institutions and procedures, extralegal crowd action threatened the very basis of popular sovereignty. Hence, Shays' Rebellion became a symbol not just in Massachusetts but throughout the United States of impending anarchy and the need for a stronger centralized government.

Largely because of its role in catalyzing sentiment in favor of the Philadelphia Convention, historians, in a rare moment of consensus, have generally agreed on the Rebellion's political significance. Yet this is not to say they have always agreed on its long-term causes or consequences.(1) To commemorate the event's two-hundredth anniversary, two historical conferences were held in the Spring of 1986, one sponsored by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the other by Amherst College and Historic Deerfield. This volume of collected essays is the result. Representing an effort to rescue the historiography from what William Pencak calls the "moralistic quagmire where virtuous, democratic country farmers struggle for the soul of the nation with callous aristocratic merchants", the contributors fruitfully examine the conflict using a wide variety of sources and methods. The volume problematizes the Rebellion and challenges traditional categories of understanding. But as Robert Gross notes in his excellent introduction, the essays "arrive at no consensus on the insurgency or its consequences. Shays' Rebellion remains as contested today as ever". Readers are left to determine which approaches they find the most plausible, persuasive, and arresting.

Some of the essays examine the revolt from a short-term perspective that emphasizes familiar political and economic factors in a new light. In "The Public Creditor Interest in Massachusetts Politics, 1780-86," Richard Buel, Jr. asks why the Massachusetts legislature would choose to lay a heavy specie tax on its population in the midst of a severe postwar economic recession, even with the memory of Parliamentary taxation so fresh in mind. Eschewing answers based on merchant self-interest--an argument advanced with sophistication by Joseph A. Ernest elsewhere in the volume--Buel maintains that state leaders felt obliged in principle to meet congressional requisitions as well as to make interest payments on its debt. Representatives regarded it as a grave injustice, not to mention an abandonment of the state's historical leadership role, to have one part of the citizenry violate its solemn pledge to another.

Approaching the debt question from a very different angle, but still within the immediate context of the revolt, Jonathan M. Chu studies the web of debt litigation in the Worcester Court of Common Pleas on the eve of the movement. Contrary to conventional interpretations, which see the courts as the main agent of oppression, Chu finds that small agrarian debtors manipulated the court system to their own advantage. Through suits, countersuits, defaults, and appeals, small debtors were able to postpone indefinitely the day when they had to pay their obligations. Portraying middling creditors in a favorable light, Chu finds this class squeezed from bigger creditors demanding immediate repayment for their loans on the one side and from debtors avoiding repayment of their loans on the other. The only group that clearly benefited was, not surprisingly, the lawyers--a major object of the Shaysites' contempt.

A few of the essays reexamine the political context with an eye toward reevaluating the consequences of the insurgency. Stephen E. Patterson argues that nationalists used Shays' Rebellion as a convenient symbol from which to build a Federalist movement in Massachusetts. Operating from a core of committed merchants, the Federalists manipulated the public's understand-

ing of the threat in order to garner wider support for their cause. In the process, they broadened their base to include artisans, lawyers, bankers, financiers, army officers, and other groups. Approaching the subject from the field of political theory, Michael Lienesch traces the subtle but essential changes in the concepts of resistance and revolution that occurred in the aftermath of Shays' Rebellion. Although supporters of the U.S. Constitution rarely mentioned the event itself in the debates over ratification, their defense of the proposal showed unmistakable signs of having revised radical ideas into reformist notions more compatible with the emerging constitutional order. Going farther afield, James Leamon explores the effect of the Rebellion outside of Massachusetts proper. In order to discourage efforts to partition Maine from Massachusetts, political leaders portrayed the revolt as part of a widespread attack on the republican system. "To the Federalists," he concludes, "it became increasingly evident that separatists, Antifederalists, and Shaysites were united in an unholy trinity against political unity and social harmony". As these authors show, the movement's political implications were even more extensive than previously understood.

The most striking essays, however, probe the revolt not in narrow political or economic terms but by employing broader cultural categories: political religious, and popular. Gregory H. Nobles's article, for example, sets the Rebellion in a long tradition of rural unrest and resistance. Living in a world of scarcity, young men in their late twenties and thirties often mobilized in defense of their rights throughout the colonial period. Rather than a single unified movement, Shays' Rebellion, he says, should be seen as part of an ongoing pattern of local protest led by local leaders. But it was also a watershed moment. "In the wake of the insurrection," Nobles says, "former Regulators turned from violence to the vote".

In discussing other aspects of the political culture of western Massachusetts, both Alan Taylor and William Pencak invoke the notion of the "protection covenant,"(2) an implicit agreement between the rulers and the ruled which guaranteed the acquiescence of the people in governance by their superiors. The protection covenant was supposed to be in force as long as the government did not intrude on the people's customary rights and privileges. In his analysis, Taylor contrasts the Shaysites of Massachusetts with the so-called "White Indians" of central Maine and New Hampshire. Disguised as Indians, settlers used the protection convenant to justify their struggle with the nonresident "Great Proprietors." Alternately terrifying or ignoring the owners, the squatters were able to fend off for years numerous attempts to evict them or make them pay for their land. During this time, they--unlike the Shaysites--were able to make the transition from a prerepublican protection covenant to a democratic understanding of the electoral process. Partisan politics and voting superseded crowd scare tactics as the preferred method of expressing grievances.

Employing the "protection covenant" for different purposes, Pencak provides a fresh examination of the political elite's response to Shays' Rebellion. According to the author, the Shaysites acted more like an army than a pre-Revolutionary crowd. Their protests, he claims, implied a wholesale rejection of constitutional government. "The rebels sought," he said, "to supplant a social order based on republicanism and a communitarian vision of civic virtue with a minimal state government guaranteeing free pursuit of private and town interests". In this light, the "restrained" responses of the elite in putting down the Rebellion--their efforts to avoid bloodshed and to conciliate the disaffected--seem all the more remarkable. The event's greatest significance thus lay, according to Pencak, not in its influence on the writing of the Constitution but in demonstrating how republics could overcome their historical tendency toward decay and achieve a modicum of stability.

Impressive as Pencak's formulation is, he does not adequately demonstrate that the Shaysite band, described by Patterson as "disorganized, unconcerted, mostly verbal, and largely nonrebellious", had anything like a coherent plan to overthrow the existing social and political order. Moreover, in vindicating the elite's response to the outbursts, he minimizes the extent of their repression. Although few people died, the legislature did disenfranchise the participants, strip them of their right to habeas corpus, and sentence twelve to hang. While the assembly later remitted many of these punishments, their initial response was quite harsh--and quite effective.

Two other authors explore the connections between political culture and religion. John L. Brooke argues that the support for the Rebellion was strongest not in dissenting communities, but in orthodox towns where no minister presided over the congregation and where a "deacon's orthodoxy" prevailed. Rather than an attack on established institutions, as Pencak would have it, the insurrection represented an effort to stabilize a society that was experiencing wrenching change. Modifying Brooke's thesis, Stephen A. Marini maintains that the principal Shaysite parishes were undergoing deep theological and ecclesiological crises. Not only did they have problems filling their pulpits, they also faced challenges from dissenters, confronted internal controversies over doctrine, and had enormous difficulties paying for parish maintenance. The western Massachusetts of Shays' time, he says, sustained "a religious culture caught in the throes of change at many different levels, intellectual, institutional, and constitutional". While neither Brooke nor Marini insists on a direct causal role between the religious upheavals and the insurgency, they indicate a strong probable connection.

Taking a totally different tack, Robert A. Gross studies the popular culture surrounding the revolt. In "The Confidence Man and the Preacher: The Cultural Politics of Shays' Rebellion," the author analyzes two apparently disparate episodes. The first involves an actual event, an attempt in 1784 by one Stephen Burroughs to dupe the town of Pelham, Massachusetts--coincidentally the home of Daniel Shays--into accepting the untrained Burroughs as its Congregational minister. The second consists of Gross's brilliant explication of "The Contrast," the first play written by an American and performed on an American stage. Expounding on the widespread fear of deceit and duplicity in Shaysite America, the author sees in the two events the emergence of the prototypical figure of "the Yankee." The defeat of the Shaysites, he says, allowed American authors to celebrate and mythologize in writing the very radicalism that had been so threatening in real life.

As these summaries can only suggest, the volume presents essays of uniformly high quality and originality--though in two cases, the long lag between the conferences and the publication of the collection has allowed the authors to present similar ideas in book form.(3) One perspective that is notably lacking from the volume, however, is that of gender. In a recent article in The Journal of American History, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points the direction for such an inquiry.(4) She notes that at times the elite responded to the Shaysites by attacking their masculinity and accusing them of effeminacy as a way of undercutting their self-portrayal as manly, heroic patriots preserving the true heritage of the Revolution. Although sketchy in its present form, such a study would obviously take our understanding of the Rebellion in new directions.

Yet the present volume does have important implications. The essays provide a fascinating contrast between the newer cultural methods of analyzing the revolt and the more traditional social and economic approaches. Whereas the latter concentrate on the immediate causes and contexts, the former explore the broader, deeper, and more long-term factors at work. Although in some cases the interpretations conflict, they often seem quite compatible.

And what emerges in the end is a more complex, sophisticated understanding of the Revolutionary era. Comparisons between Shays' Rebellion and the American Revolution are at once less obvious and more profound than has hitherto been realized. Like the Revolution, Shays' Rebellion resulted from long-term changes in society, religion, and the economy. While in both cases unjust taxation provided the immediate catalyst, both uprisings were outward expressions of deeper trends in rural society. Many local conflicts and tensions fed into a community's decision to take up arms. Both revolts, moreover, drew on traditional patterns of resistance and helped bring down a government. But the outcomes were quite different. While the Revolution celebrated direct popular participation in government, Shays' Rebellion represented, as Nobles put it, "a political cataclysm, or perhaps catharsis, that brought to an end the traditional forms of rural protest". Party politics and the voting box replaced county conventions and self-mobilization. The "revolution against the Revolution", as Pencak called it, delegitimized revolution in a republic.

Rosemarie Zagarri, Department of History, The Catholic University of America, is the author of A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (forthcoming, Harlan-Davidson).

1. Two important book-length works that approach the revolt in different ways are Robert J. Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution (1954); and David P. Szatmary, Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection (1980).

2. As the authors acknowledge, the concept was first articulated by Richard Bushman in King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (1985), pp. 40-46.

3. See John L. Brooke, The Heart of the Commonwealth: Society and Political Culture in Worcester County, Massachusetts, 1713-1861 (1989); and Alan Taylor, Liberty Men and the Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (1990).

4. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, "Discovering the Subject of the 'Great Constitutional Discussion,' 1786-1789," The Journal of American History 79 (December 1992): 854-57.
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Author:Zagarri, Rosemarie
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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