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Shays' Tax Rebellion Led To Reforms, Although Fairness Issue Still Remains

People who withhold their taxes to get the government to respond to issues pertinent to their existence can take heart from Daniel Shays' rebellion of 1786-87.

He was born in Hopkinton, MA, about 1747, son of Patrick Psha (sic) and Margaret (Dempsey) who were married there Nov. 22, 1744. His father was a farmer at Saddle Hill, two miles from the Hopkinton meeting house. It is said the family was very poor and depended on neighbors for the necessaries of life. The family was "warned out" of Sherborn, MA, May 30, 1766, (a practice in those days in which destitute families were warned to leave town.)

Patrick served in the Revolutionary War from 1775-1779. His sons James and Daniel also enlisted. Daniel served as an ensign at the Battle of Bunker Hill and became a captain by the end of the war in 1783. He settled in Pelham, MA, and was a yeoman (farmer) like his father. He was called captain and gentleman in the deeds of Hampden County, MA.

Daniel bought land from 1773 through 1785 in Shutesbury and Pelham, MA. In these land transactions, he is referred to as being from Shutesbury, Brookfield, and Pelham, MA.

In late 1786 he took up the cause of the yeoman against their debtors, the merchants. In April of 1787, he is listed in the Book of Executions as losing land to his debtors. He never showed up in court.

The unrest of the people at the end of the war was mainly about money. The people of Massachusetts and other states felt Congress was becoming weakened by the people's unrest. They held conventions and made up lists of grievances against the government they had just fought for against Great Britain.

The former soldiers and patriots were not paid for their service in the war. The farmers, most of who were former soldiers, and their families faced losing their land and imprisonment because they couldn't pay their debts. Without land, they also lost their vote in how their government was run. They couldn't get justice from the courts because of the heavy land and poll taxes, and most grievously, state officials were getting paid high salaries from these taxes.

In August of 1786 the unrest grew into a revolt. On Aug. 29, 1786, in Northampton, MA, a mob succeeded in closing the courts so debtors would not be tried and put in jail. Armed groups forcibly closed courts in Concord, Great Barington, Springfield, Worcester and other towns. They also kidnapped merchants, lawyers, and anyone who had any influence. They placed them at the front as they marched from town to town, as a buffer against the state militia. In December, Daniel Shays was at Worcester, at the head of the rebels. He marched them to Rutland, VT, to escape the Massachusetts Militia.

In the meantime, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln was appointed by the Massachusetts Council to take command of a detachment of militia with about 5,000 (some say only 3,000) men and ordered to march from Boston to stop the rebels.

On Jan. 25, 1787, Shays and a force of about 1,200 men returned to Springfield, MA, to capture the arsenal there. Gen. William Shepard and a small number of militia — about 1,000 men — were ordered to stand and fight against the rebels. The rebels never had a chance. They were forced to retreat 10 miles. They kept retreating until they reached Petersham, MA, on Feb. 3, 1787. From there, they marched 30 miles in a blinding snowstorm, where the rebels were overtaken. About 150 were captured and the rest dispersed. The leaders were sentenced to death for treason.

In May of 1787 John Hancock was elected governor of Massachusetts. Even though he was rich and a lawyer, he was able to pull the state together, both farmers and merchants. He was actually against the rebels and for the merchants, but he realized that to maintain peace and get the economy going he had to quiet the people. He pardoned most of the rebels. The state legislature also enacted laws to reduce court fees and provide some relief for the debtors.

Shays' rebellion in Massachusetts, as well as other rebellions in other states, intensified the fear of weakening federal government. The basic law of the land was the Articles of Confederation, which needed to be reformed. This led to the establishment of the Constitution.

Daniel Shays lived in Vermont before moving to the western part of New York. He was pardoned and received a pension for his service in the Revolutionary War. He died Sept. 29, 1825, at the age of 78. For his family record see The Daniel Shays Family (1934) by Elmer S. Smail, a descendant of Daniel. Also in NEHGR Vol. 140 p 291-311.

More than 250 years later, people and lawmakers are still quarreling over what is considered a fair and just tax.

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Verne Christian Greene, Amateur Genealogist, Historian and Newspaper Columnist