Milton Bass: Cautionary tale of Shays' Rebellion



How do you gauge public response to even the simplest of announcements? Right now we are seeing it in action in the armaments industry. If a state seems likely to curtail the sale of guns and ammunition, there is an immediate run on any establishment that sells guns and ammunition.

This is also true in Massachusetts where throngs have been invading gun stores to buy up whatever is legally available in this state which has fairly tough gun laws.

People keep muttering that President Barack Obama has a secret plot to take away all their weapons and eventually move gun owners to the vacant camps where we interned our Japanese citizens during World War II. This plot with the government has been hatched by the secret cooperation of our federal legislators, Republican, Democrat and even the so-called independents.

It is easy to laugh off such ridiculous beliefs but it could be that our section of the country is the one where such an eruption might occur because we have precedence for revolt -- remember Sam Adams? -- and who knows what embers are still hot enough to start a conflagration.


Let me take you back a couple of hundred years to a fracas that has been dubbed "Shays' Rebellion." In 1786, Daniel Shays decided he was mad as hell, stuck his head out the window of his farm house and declared "I'm not going to take this anymore." He was talking about a post-Revolutionary economic depression (ring any bells yet?) in which the farmers were being squeezed by merchants and lenders for the money they owed.

Shays was one of those poor farmers. He had served nobly during the Revolutionary War, rising from private to captain (an extraordinary feat in those days) in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment but had received little or no pay for the five years of his service. For his feats and accomplishment, Shays received a ceremonial sword from General Lafayette but no hard cash.

In need of money, Shays put his sword up for sale, which raised havoc among his fellow officers, so he resigned his commission and bought a farm in Pelham where he scrabbled out a living with his wife Abigail.

Meanwhile, hoping to pay off the extensive debts that occurred during the revolution, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted high taxes which they demanded be paid in hard currency. Most of the towns petitioned for debtor relief and the lowering of fees. They told the petitioners to be frugal and pay the taxes. Whereupon, thousands of men, dubbing themselves the Regulators, marched on the courts and shut them down. Because of his military experience, Shays was picked to lead a contingent.

The Boston merchants, who had been doing quite well in international trade, put up enough money to form a militia representing government and the battle was on. And because of his experience and leadership qualities, Shays became a marked man for the opposition. At the same time, the government was offering full pardons to those who would quit the Regulators and become model citizens.

There were all kinds of small battles in which a few were killed and several wounded, and Shays, accompanied by several of his officers slipped over the border into New Hampshire. Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Pittsfield all had important events occur within their borders. These semi-battlegrounds had an important influence on the Constitution that was at that time being drawn up in Philadelphia.


Shays was pardoned and moved around in New England and New York State but he was never able to make it as a farmer. His wife died and at the age of 74 he married an innkeeper named Rhoda Havens. At the age of 77, he applied for government help as an "indigent veteran" of the Revolution. He asked Congress to either make good on the five years of pay he had not received as a combat officer or to be put on the pension list. They gave him only the pension. A year later he died.

So for those of you who are buying all those guns and ammunition to protect yourselves from "them," I would cite Daniel Shays and his battle with the forces of government. It's tough enough to fight Boston and as for the big guys in Washington, they have all those drones now.

There will be no quiz on this history lesson.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle


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