On January 25th, 1787, in Springfield, Massachusetts, militia Major General William Shepard ordered his cannon to fire grapeshot at a peaceful demonstration of 1,200 farmers approaching the federal arsenal.
The shots killed four and wounded twenty, marking the climax of five months of civil disobedience in Massachusetts, where farmers challenged the state’s authority to seize their farms for flagrantly unjust taxes.
Government leaders and influential merchants painted these protests as a violent attempt to overthrow the state, in hopes of garnering support for strengthening the federal government in a Constitutional Convention. As a result, the protests have been hidden for more than two hundred years under the misleading title, “Shays’s Rebellion, the armed uprising that led to the Constitution.”
But this widely accepted narrative is just a legend: the “rebellion” was almost entirely nonviolent, and retired Revolutionary War hero Daniel Shays was only one of many leaders.
In a virtual presentation premiering January 16th at 2 pm entitled “Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion: An American Story,” Daniel Bullen tells the history of the crisis from the protesters’ perspective. Through five months of nonviolent protests, the farmers kept courts throughout Massachusetts from hearing foreclosures, facing down threats from the government, which escalated to the point that Governor James Bowdoin ultimately sent an army to arrest them. Even so, the people won reforms in an electoral landslide.
Thomas Jefferson called these protests an honorable rebellion, and hoped that Americans would never let twenty years pass without such a campaign, to rein in powerful interests.
Bullen’s meticulously researched narrative shows that Shays and his fellow protesters were hardly a dangerous rabble, but rather a proud people who banded together peaceably, risking their lives for justice in a quintessentially American story.
Daniel Bullen earned a PhD in American literature from New York University. He is the author of The Dangers of Passion: The Transcendental Friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller and The Love Lives of the Artists: Five Stories of Creative Intimacy. He lives in western Massachusetts.
This talk is sponsored by the Vermont Historical Society and can be viewed anytime after 2:00 pm on January 16th at the Society’s YouTube page.
Illustration: A contemporary illustration of the attack on the Springfield Arsenal being repulsed during Shays’s Rebellion.