HOW CAPTAIN SHAYS MISSED HIS MARK.
On a bitter January day, in the year 1787, Captain
Daniel Shays, at the head of eleven hundred determined men, marched
into the town of Springfield.
Like Governor Hancock, Captain Shays had an
over-mastering sense of his own importance and ability; like Governor
Hancock, Captain Shays felt himself called upon to lead the people to
liberty; but, unlike Governor Hancock, Captain Shays had neither ability
himself nor wisdom in his methods, and so, again unlike the governor, he
missed his high mark and came to grief. But, for a time, he caused a
mighty stir in Massachusetts,
and the Bay State quivered with alarm when Captain Daniel Shays marched on
He came by the Boston road,—the Bay Path, —along
which, one hundred and fifty years before him, William Pynchon had led to
the same sightly spot, upon the banks of the noble Connecticut, an equally
But those two expeditions
were vastly different. For William Pynchon came to upbuild, while Daniel
Shays came to overthrow.
During that century and a half Springfield had grown
into a town of several hundred
houses, which stretched eastward from the banks of the Connecticut along
the Boston road. It was one of the most flourishing of the
towns of central Massachusetts; it was in the midst
of a fertile farming section; it was the county town, where the
law courts held their
sessions; and, within its limits, the United States, during the
Revolutionary War, had built an arsenal
for the manufacture and storage of guns and military stores.
It was these latter that Captain Daniel Shays
coveted, and was determined to have. For Captain Daniel Shays was the
chief of the Regulators.
Now the Regulators, as they called themselves, though
other people called them rioters and rebels, were made up of recruits
from the ranks of the disaffected, overburdened, and debt-ridden farmers
of Massachusetts, from Middlesex County to the New York line.
They proposed to regulate the affairs of the State to
suit their own ideas and desires; and their main desire was to overthrow
the lawyers who could prosecute them; to disperse and close up the
courts that could punish them, and to make the course of justice run as
they desired, not as the law decreed.
It was the old story over again. Ignorance never
attacks a wrong righteously. Disaffection growls at law and calls it
injustice. Every mob hates a lawyer.
"No tax, no serf, and the head of every lawyer
in England! For not till they are killed will the land enjoy its old
freedom again." That was the demand of the men of Kent and Essex,
of Hertford and St. Albans,—" broken men skilled in arms,
landless men and sturdy beggars," as the old record calls them,—who,
six hundred years ago, under their bold leader, faced a boy king of
England in the days of Wat Tyler’s rebellion.
"Down with the taxes! down
with all lawyers! stand for your homes! "
was the cry of the discontented men of Hampshire
and Middlesex, of Worcester and Berkshire—many of them, like those of
Wat Tyler’s following, "landless and beggared," many of them
"broken men skilled in arms "—in the days of Shays’s
rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786.
It was because so many were "skilled in
arms" that they were so bold in demanding what they called a
redress of grievances. Many of them had fought bravely in the
buff-and-blue ranks of the old continentals to force a redress of
grievances from England and had won their country’s independence.
"What man has done, man may do again," they said; and
forthwith they rushed to arms, unmindful of the fact that resistance to
tyranny depends for the justice of its cause upon the distinction
between a real and a fancied tyranny.
It must be said for the Massachusetts Regulators of
1786 that they, poor fellows, were too greatly imbittered by their sad
condition to be able to discriminate. To them, the "
tyranny" they had risen against seemed real
enough; they called it, as do thoughtless men to-day, the tyranny of
money and the curse of gold; and yet it was no tyranny at the end of the
eighteenth century any more than it is at the close of the nineteenth;
for it was a condition of their own making, as it is of ours, and always
will be so long as money controls the producing power.
The Revolution had left the land burdened with debt.
In Massachusetts alone the national, State, and private debts amounted
to over fifteen millions of dollars, and
there were but ninety thousand voters and taxpayers
in the State, the most of them poor men.
Manufactures were small and weak; the Revolution had
destroyed commerce and broken the fishing industry; the producers of
Massachusetts in 1786 were largely farmers; there was so little ready
money that settlements were made in produce or in kind—in oats,
potatoes, fish or shoes, for instance.
There were only a few rich men within the limits of
the new State. Taxation was hard to bear; but, when a man could not or
would not pay his taxes, the law took him in hand and compelled him to
pay, or seized upon his property for settlement. This is never
graciously accepted; so the farmers of Massachusetts who had fought for
freedom began, some of them, to dislike and defy the very laws they had
made to guard their freedom.
But people who are pinched for ready money do not
stop to argue or reason. They jump at conclusions; they decide that the
man to whom they are in debt and the man who tries to collect the debt
from them are alike tyrants and should be resisted. The distressed
farmers of Massachusetts, in the trying period just after the
Revolution, concluded that things were not fairly distributed in this
world; that distress would cease if a redistribution were made; and that
therefore it was their right to take for those who had not from those
This, at least, was Daniel Shays’s idea; it was the
idea of the half-dozen leaders who worked up the people of Massachusetts
in 1786 to disaffection, rebellion, riot, and war. And though some were
honest enough, some
were demagogues who sought to stir up the old, old
strife—masses against classes.
From August, 1786, to February, 1787, rebellion was
in the air. Before that cold January day on which
Captain Shays marched upon Springfield, he and his lieutenants—most of
them Revolutionary veterans—had carried on a campaign of bluster,
threat, and menace. Men had gathered in arms at Northampton and
Worcester, at Concord and Great Barrington, at Springfield and Groton.
Judges had been overawed; courts had been closed or prevented from
sitting; the men of Worcester County had signed a new declaration of independence;
the militia had sympathized or sided with the malcontents; the jail at
Great Barrington had been emptied by a mob; barns and haystacks had been
fired; blood had been spilled at Groton; and as Captain Daniel Shays saw
four counties in revolt, and knew himself to be the head and front of
the rebellion, no wonder that this simple ex-captain of continentals
should have deemed himself a second Washington raised up to be a leader
of the people.
But Governor John Hancock had seen the storm brewing
and had prudently given way to a successor,—Governor James Bowdoin,—not
wishing to side against the people, even though he were a "
king" of the aristocrats.
Governor Bowdoin was prompt and firm. He too
sympathized with the people, and headed a movement toward simple and
economical living. But he would countenance nothing like rebellion, and
when Captain Shays and his followers proceeded to deeds of violence, the
governor acted at once.
He issued a call for troops to
suppress the insurrection. Forty-four hundred men gathered in camp at
Roxbury, and, under the command of bluff old General Benjamin Lincoln, a
successful Revolutionary fighter, marched, in the dead of winter, along
William Pynchon’s Bay Path to the relief of Springfield, the center of
Thus far the movements of the Regulators had been
scattered, disjointed, and inefficient. General Shepard, another "Revolutioner,"
with six hundred militia had held Springfield and protected the arsenal
from plunder, but that was about all that had been done. The Regulators
were growing more confident and determined, and their January march on
Springfield was with a union of forces amounting to over two thousand
All such movements, however, from Wat Tyler’s day
to those of the very latest agitators, lack union and real leadership.
It was so in the case of Captain Daniel Shays. Other
leaders of the insurrection considered themselves quite as great and
important as he; they refused to obey his orders or to follow out his
plans; and when he reached Springfield, on the 25th of January, his own
eleven hundred men were all there was of his army. The other leaders
acted as each thought best, not as he directed.
But Shays’s eleven hundred, each man wearing in his
hat the sprig of evergreen that was the badge of rebellion, marched
boldly after their leader and prepared to storm the heights back of the
town, where stood the arsenal, defended by General Shepard and a
Within three hundred and fifty yards of the arsenal
the invaders halted and sent a summons of surrender.
General Shepard bade them disperse, but they marched ahead.
Then he sent a flag of truce, and gave them his last
"Step one foot beyond that line that I have
marked," he said to Captain Shays, "and you do so at your
peril. For, as sure as you do, I fire."
"Fire, if you dare!" answered Shays.
"We are here for that arsenal, and we’ll have it." Then he
wheeled about. " Forward,
march! " he said
to his men.
Rebellion’s lines advanced steadily.
"Fire! " commanded
General Shepard. And his men fired—into the air!
It was the same mistake that is made at the outset of
every riot, and one that always means greater trouble. General Shepard
hated to fire into the ranks of men some of whom were old comrades of
the buff-and-blue. So he had told his men to fire, if ordered, but to
fire into the air.
Stern measures are the only thing a mob respects;
lenient measures they take for sympathy or timidity. Besides, there were
among Shays’s followers too many old soldiers of the Revolution to be
frightened by an over-the-head volley. They marched on, unbroken and
undismayed, ridiculing rather than fearing their opponents.
General Shepard saw that the Regulators meant
business. He stiffened into the veteran at once.
"Aim low! Fire! " he
commanded a second time.
Again the guns of the militia spoke, and with deadly
effect. Four men fell dead or dying; others were
wounded; the ranks recoiled; those unused to war
cried "Murder! " and
ranks of rebellion were in confusion, half of them in full flight.
Captain Shays rode among his men, storming, commanding,
pleading; but it was of no avail. Disorganized revolt always hovers on
the edge of cowardice. The Regulators were in a panic; one other shot
scattered them, and, in full retreat, the eleven hundred never
stopped until they were safe at Ludlow, ten miles
Then Lincoln came on with his reinforcements, and
Captain Shays withdrew to Pelham and Petersham.
Lincoln pursued him, despite the cold and snow. In
the midst of a blizzard his advance entered Peters-ham, on the morning
of the 4th of February, with two cannon, and the main army five miles in
Then fear fell upon the Regulators. Cold weather, and
the law in the shape of a real army, defeated all Captain Shays’s
notable plans for supremacy and lawmaking and a newfangled code of
By a vigorous move his men at Petersham might have
captured the frost-bitten advance of Lincoln’s army and held it as
security for treaty or compromise. But conscience, which, as Shakespeare
says, " does
make cowards of us all," took all the conceit out of Captain Daniel
Shays and all the pluck out of his little army of malcontents.
"It was against my intuition that I undertook
this business," he cried complainingly. "Importunity was used
which I could not well withstand. For God’s sake, have matters settled
peaceably. I heartily wish it was well over."
Then, with the other leaders, he made quick time for
safety over the Massachusetts border, and so he disappears from history,
the victim of a lack of backbone, the man who might have been a hero and
a leader but for want of nerve and of faith in the justice of the cause
he had championed.
The cry for redress grew fainter and the schemes for
a rearrangement of society had come to naught. The State was saved from
anarchy. Captain Shays had missed his mark, and his short-lived
rebellion was at an end.