The key word in the title of Daniel Bullen’s “Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion,” subtitled “An American Story,” is “Honorable.” It is Bullen’s contention that the grievously unfair portrayal of the Western Massachusetts farmers as violent, anti-government rebels by their foes has stuck, while the men in fact peacefully opposed government injustice. The author makes an excellent argument in his meticulously researched book.
The rebellion of 1786-1787 was triggered by the attempt of Gov. James Bowdoin and the wealthy merchant class, primarily of Boston, to increase taxes on farmers to pay off the state’s Revolutionary War debt. The punishing taxes would, at best, eat up the profits of farmers and, at worst, drive them into bankruptcy, leaving their farms and homes to be taken by government and bought by the merchants.
Rural Western Mass., with its heavy concentration of farms, bore the brunt of policies that were not much different than the policies of the foreign power that many of the farmers had successfully fought to end. Shays was an officer in the Revolutionary War and a gentleman farmer in Pelham. By virtue of his war experience and leadership skills, Shays emerged as the unofficial leader of the rebellion, a position he did not seek but accepted out of obligation.
The rebels strategy was to employ sheer numbers to prevent the state’s courthouses, including the courthouse in Great Barrington, from opening and addressing the complaints of the merchants. It was largely successful for several months.
The infuriated Bowdoin and wealthy class used their friends in the press to spread malicious lies that Shays and his men sought to take down the government. Dirty politics and craven media have been with us since the dawn of the nation, although misinformation that travels at the speed of light today travelled at the speed of horse in the 1800s.
Samuel Adams, a revered hero of the Revolutionary War, emerged surprisingly as an implacable foe of the new revolutionaries. Col. Henry Knox, who heroically dragged cannons from New York State through the snowy Berkshires to rescue the Continental Army outside of Boston, fielded an army to fight the farmers under the false pretense that he was responding to an Indian uprising. Shays’ rebellion was a mini civil war, chock full of ironies.
While the majority of the rebellion took place in and around Springfield, Berkshire County played key roles, and here again ironies abound. Judge Theodore Sedgwick, of Great Barrington, who famously challenged Massachusetts’ slavery laws to free Col. John Ashley's enslaved housekeeper Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman, accused Judge William Whiting of sedition for siding with the rebels and refusing to open the Great Barrington court. A mob engaged in looting tried unsuccessfully to capture Sedgwick. Coming to the rescue and dispatching the rebels was a force led by the same Ashley, of Sheffield, who had once listed Mum Bett as among his possessions.
The monument to Shays’ Rebellion in Sheffield marks this mob uprising led by Perez Hamlin of New York. As Bullen points out, Shays was in Quebec at the time unsuccessfully seeking political asylum. He was horrified by the violent acts of Hamlin and his men, knowing they would be linked to him. Hamlin and company were akin to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists. Shays advocated peaceful protest and did not want to overthrow the government but to persuade it to treat all of the state’s residents fairly. It was government forces that ultimately shed the blood of citizens.
Bullen writes that he was a relative newcomer to Western Mass. when he came across the “Daniel Shays Highway” between Pelham and Shutesbury and decided to learn more about Shays. His prose is elegant, much of it dedicated to the changing of the seasons and how that impacted farming and the course of the rebellion. Bullen’s book is a riveting read, one that sets the story straight on Daniel Shays and the honorable rebellion that carries his name.