Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January 25, 1787 – Daniel Shays Waits to take Springfield Armory

In the economic turmoil after the American Revolution, many of the most valiant fighters for freedom suffered long after the war ended. Daniel Shays was a laborer who had joined the Continental Army, fighting at battles such as Bunker Hill and victory at Saratoga. After being wounded, he resigned and left still unpaid. Upon arriving home, he found himself in court for unpaid debts. He was hardly alone; debtor's prison and courts had pursued hundreds of poor former soldiers in Massachusetts alone. Meanwhile, judges, lawyers, and wealthy merchants in Boston were making fortunes as the young nation grew, controlling specie in gold and silver as inflation made the poor poorer yet.

Shays met with other farmers and laborers, and they began to organize into a new revolutionary army. Numbers grew and altercations began as the masses fought against the bourgeois, who had confirmed power through the Revolution by pushing out the British. Governor John Hancock, famous signer of the Declaration of Independence, had suppressed riots, but local militias were losing support. The new governor James Bowdoin decided to take serious action. Leading wealthy Boston merchants funded a new 3,000-man militia to be commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln.

The militia marched toward Springfield in January, where Shays and Luke Day commanded armies of revolutionaries who had shut down the local courts from prosecuting debtors. The local 900-man armory headed by General William Shepard was under siege, and Secretary of War Henry Knox had ordered him not to use the weapons inside as it required Congressional approval. Shays sent a message to Day suggesting that they attack before Lincoln's army arrived and seize the weaponry, but Day replied that he needed another day to organize. Shays begrudgingly agreed, spending the rest of January 25 writing letters to Shepard explaining his case and asking for a surrender.

The infuriated Shepard felt that his duty to the new United States was to defend federal property, even though the federal government refused him to use it. Judging the times, he decided to let the people choose for themselves. On the 26th, Shays and Day marched on the armory, and Shepard ordered his men to fire their muskets in a warning shot. The revolutionaries refused to be deterred, overwhelming the troops and securing the armory.

At noon on the 27th, Lincoln and his mercenaries arrived. They attacked Shays and Day's joined forces in the defended position of the armory. The battle would last through the afternoon until Lincoln's exhausted troops began to break. Days led a counterattack across the frozen Connecticut River, routing Lincoln. The resounding victory would unite the farmers of western Massachusetts and lead to a march on Boston. Governor Bowdoin and the state legislature called for aid from the government, but Congress was out of session, so there was no way to legally declare war, even on Americans themselves. New York considered putting together a force to make peace, but the matter was deemed internal to a state, and a state invading another state to put down popular movement seemed contrary to the spirit of the Articles of Confederation.

With minimal resistance, Shays and his revolutionaries overthrew the Boston elite. New elections were held, despite stiff resistance from the shouts and writings of Samuel Adams, who now seemed unable to stop the voice of liberty that he had called for a little over a decade before. Heavy taxes were placed on the wealthy, solving the economic crisis while emptying the debtor's prisons. Calls for protection of property rang out but were drowned by councils judging those deemed “opposing the state.”

Backlash flowed across the rest of the United States. George Washington and others called for a constitutional convention to create a stronger federal government. It may have worked, but the summer of 1787 came too late, and ultimately the delegates would disband, creating only a new list of individual rights proposed by the representatives from Massachusetts. Planters in Virginia and Georgia suddenly faced uprising from small farmers who were kept out of competition. Insurrections from the slave class erupted in South Carolina, spreading to the hundreds before being violently put down. In New York, debates over river rights and shipping prices caused violent altercations and blockading of the Hudson. Political and military leaders took charge, promising security in exchange for rights.

Revolution in the states would continue at various levels, weakening the United States into a broken confederation as many in the British Government had anticipated. A similar revolution ran through France, sparking wars throughout Europe. As the states argued about supporting events in Europe, many supported the fellow revolutionaries while others began considering a return to Britain. Seeing possibility that all the work of the Revolution might go undone, George Washington endorsed the increasingly popular Aaron Burr of New York as a central leader. Burr would settle the country by war, eventually setting himself up as Emperor of the Americas, a position that would eventually be broken by fresh revolution a generation later under General Andrew Jackson.


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In reality, Shays' men attacked before Day was ready and were defeated as Shepard used the federal cannon to fire into the crowd of rebels. Lincoln's army mopped up the stragglers over the course of February, but the uprising was an awakening to the American people for the need of a strong, central government. The resulting constitutional convention produced the U.S. Constitution, a model for republican governments for centuries to come.

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