Daniel Shays (c.1747 – September 29, 1825) was an American soldier, revolutionary, and farmer famous for being one of the leaders of Shays' Rebellion, a populist uprising against oppressive debt collection and tax policies in Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787.
Daniel Shays was born in 1747 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the son of two Irish immigrants, Patrick and Margaret (Dempsey) Shays. Daniel was the second of six siblings. He spent his early years as a landless farm laborer. In 1772, he married Abigail Gilbert, with whom he settled in Brookfield, Massachusetts.
Shays joined the local militia during the American Revolution, rising to the rank of captain in the 5th Massachusetts Regiment by 1777. He was involved in the Boston campaign, and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He also fought in the Battle of Lexington and the Battle of Saratoga. He was wounded during the war and resigned from the military, unpaid, in 1780. Upon returning home, he discovered he was summoned to court for unpaid debts, which he still could not pay because he was not paid for military service.
In 1780, Shays was presented with an ornamental sword by General Lafayette, in honor of his military service. Shays later sold the sword for a few dollars to pay off his debts—an act which was frowned upon by his peers.
Debt and tax burdens
After returning from the war, Daniel Shays was alarmed to discover that many of his fellow veterans and farmers were in the same financial situation as he. Commoners' meetings revealed that veterans were treated unfairly upon release, and businessmen were trying to squeeze money out of smallholders in order to pay their own debts to European war investors. Many Massachusetts rural communities first tried to petition the legislature in Boston, but the legislature was dominated by eastern merchant interests and did not respond substantively to those petitions. The petitions and proposals often included a request to issue paper currency. Such inflationary issues would depreciate the currency, making it possible to meet obligations made at high values with lower-valued paper. The merchants, among them James Bowdoin, were opposed, because they were generally lenders who stood to lose by such proposals. As a result these proposals were repeatedly rejected. Governor John Hancock, accused by some of anticipating trouble, abruptly resigned in early 1785. When Bowdoin (a perennial loser to Hancock in earlier elections) was elected governor that year, matters became more severe. Bowdoin stepped up civil actions to collect back taxes, and the legislature exacerbated the situation by levying an additional property tax to raise funds for the state's portion of foreign debt payments. Even comparatively conservative commentators like John Adams observed that these levies were "heavier than the People could bear."
Protests against the courts
Protests in the rural Massachusetts turned into direct action in August 1786, after the state legislature adjourned without considering the many petitions that had been sent to Boston. On August 29 a well-organized force of protestors, Shays among them, marched on Northampton and successfully prevented the county court from sitting. The leaders of this and later forces proclaimed that they were seeking relief from the burdensome judicial processes that were depriving the people of their land and possessions. They called themselves Regulators, a reference to the Regulator movement of North Carolina that sought to reform corrupt practices in the late 1760s. On September 2 Governor Bowdoin issued a proclamation denouncing such mob action, but took no military measures in response beyond planning militia response to future actions. When the court in Worcester was shut down by similar action on September 5, the county militia (composed mainly of men sympathetic to the protestors) refused to turn out, much to Bowdoin's amazement.
Shays, who had participated in the Northampton action, began to take a more active leadership role in the uprising in November. On September 19, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted eleven leaders of the rebellion as "disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons." When the supreme judicial court was next scheduled to meet in Springfield on September 26, Shays in Hampshire County and Luke Day in what is now Hampden County (but was then part of Hampshire County) organized an attempt to shut it down. They were anticipated by William Shepard, the local militia commander, who began gathering government-supporting militia the Saturday before the court was to sit. By the time the court was ready to open, Shepard had 300 men protecting the Springfield courthouse. Shays and Day were able to recruit a similar number, but chose only to demonstrate, exercising their troops outside Shepard's lines, rather than attempt to seize the building. The judges first postponed the hearings, and then adjourned on the 28th without hearing any cases. Shepard withdrew his force, which had grown to some 800 men (to the Regulators' 1,200), to the federal armory, which was then only rumored to be the target of seizure by the activists.
Plan to seize the Springfield Armory
On November 28 a posse of some 300 men rode to Groton to arrest Job Shattuck and other protest leaders in the area. Shattuck was chased down and arrested on the 30th, and was wounded by a sword slash in the process. This action and the arrest of other protest leaders in the eastern parts of the state radicalized those in the west, and they began to organize an overthrow of the state government. "The seeds of war are now sown", wrote one correspondent in Shrewsbury, and by mid-January rebel leaders spoke of smashing the "tyrannical government of Massachusetts."
While government forces organized in the east, Shays, Day, and other rebel leaders in the west organized their forces, establishing regional regimental organizations that were run by democratically elected committees. Their first major target was the federal armory in Springfield. General Shepard had however, pursuant to orders from Governor Bowdoin, taken possession of the armory and used its arsenal to arm a force of some 1,200 militia.
Attack and collapse
The insurgents were organized into three major groups, and intended to surround and simultaneously attack the armory. Shays led one group east of Springfield near Palmer, Luke Day had a second force across the Connecticut River in West Springfield, and the third force, under Eli Parsons, was to the north at Chicopee. The rebels had planned their assault for January 25, but Luke Day changed this at the last minute, sending Shays a message indicating he would not be ready to attack until the 26th. Day's message was intercepted by Shepard's men, so the militia of Shays and Parsons, some 1,500 men, approached the armory on the 25th not knowing they would have no support from the west.
When Shays and his forces neared the armory, they found Shepard's militia waiting for them. Shepard first ordered warning shots fired over the approaching Shaysites' heads, and then ordered two cannons to fire grape shot at Shays's men. Four Shaysites were killed and twenty wounded. There was no musket fire from either side, and the rebel advance collapsed. Most of the rebel force fled north, eventually regrouping at Amherst. On the opposite side of the river, Day's forces also fled north, also eventually reaching Amherst.
General Benjamin Lincoln had mustered 3,000 men at Worcester to deal with the rebels. When he heard of the Springfield incident, they immediately began marching west. Shays led the rebel force generally north and east to avoid Lincoln, eventually establishing a camp at Petersham; along the way they raided the shops of local merchants for supplies, taking some of them hostage. Lincoln pursued them, reaching Pelham, some 30 miles (48 km) from Petersham, on February 2. On the night of February 3–4, he led his militia on a forced march to Petersham through a bitter snowstorm. Arriving early in the morning, they surprised the rebel camp so thoroughly that they scattered "without time to call in their out parties or even their guards." Although Lincoln claimed to capture 150 men, none of them were officers, leading historian Leonard Richards to suspect the veracity of the report. Shays and some of the other leaders escaped north into New Hampshire and Vermont.
Some four thousand people signed confessions acknowledging participation in the events of the rebellion (in exchange for amnesty); several hundred participants were eventually indicted on charges relating to the rebellion. Most of these were pardoned under a general amnesty that only excluded a few ringleaders. Eighteen men, including Shays, were convicted and sentenced to death. Most of these were either overturned on appeal, pardoned, or had their sentences commuted. Two of the condemned men, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged on December 6, 1787. Shays was pardoned in 1788 and he returned to Massachusetts from hiding in the Vermont woods. He was, however, vilified by the Boston press, who painted him as an archetypal anarchist opposed to the government.
Shays was later granted a pension by the federal government for the five years he served in the Continental Army without pay. Shays lived the last few years of his life in poverty, a heavy drinker. He supported himself on his pension, and by working a small parcel of land. Shays died at age 78 in Sparta, New York.
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- "Captain Daniel Shays". History of Pelham, Mass: from 1738 to 1898, including the early history of Prescott. Press of Carpenter and Morehouse (Original from Princeton University). 1898.