“’Are your people getting mad?’ Many of them appear to be absolutely so, if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidences of insanity.”
In 1786, General Benjamin Lincoln led 4,400 American troops to western Massachusetts to put down an armed insurrection by farmers against the state’s government. The rebels were known as “Shaysites,” in honor of their leader, Daniel Shays. Lincoln pursued Shays and his group as they fled to Vermont. In response to a letter from President George Washington, Lincoln offered a frank assessment of Shays’s Rebellion and its implications for the fledgling United States.
Soon after the end of the American Revolution, the new American government was faced with a financial crisis. Trade with Great Britain came to a virtual halt after the British were defeated. Inflation and debt further crippled the economy. Some new state governments looked to counter this crisis by forgiving debts. However, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not pass such policies, maintaining a hard line with those who were in debt (including arresting them and taking their lands and assets). Coupled with an ongoing protest about rising taxes, the relationship between the state government in Boston and the rest of the state was becoming strained.
Such inflexibility and strict enforcement caused a particularly strong backlash in rural western Massachusetts. There, a group of farmers organized to oppose the state government’s actions. Led by a former Continental Army captain, Daniel Shays, the group entered and closed the courts during the summer of 1786. The Shaysites also liberated those who had been incarcerated for outstanding debt.
First Major General Benjamin Lincoln, who had largely removed himself from active military service to work on his farm, quickly denounced the uprising and its participants. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin viewed the attacks as a serious threat to the government, not just in western Massachusetts but in Boston as well. In late January, Bowdoin raised a militia of 4,400 volunteers, headed by Lincoln, to march to the west and put down the uprising.
The work of Lincoln’s forces, however, was made considerably easier when, two days before they arrived, the Shaysites were largely defeated by American military personnel who were already in the area. During an attempt to take the Federal Armory in Springfield, a force of 1,500 Shaysites encircled the facility and the 1,000 troops who were inside. Shays calculated that the troops, led by General William Shepard, would not dare fire on their countrymen. His gamble did not pay off. Shepard’s troops opened fire, killing several and wounding more than a dozen. Shays’s troops retreated and dispersed. When Lincoln arrived, his troops began a pursuit after the Shaysites, defeating one large group of them in the town of South Hadley and pursuing Shays himself, who had fled to Vermont.
With Shays forced into exile, Lincoln sent a letter to him calling upon the former captain to direct his followers to lay down their arms. Two months later, Lincoln joined a commission that was directed to analyze the case of each rebel and determine if that individual deserved leniency. Lincoln’s commission ultimately granted the pardons of 790 followers of Shays (who was ultimately allowed to return to New York, where he lived the rest of his life before dying in 1825).
Shays’s Rebellion, as it came to be known, shook the new nation and became a catalyst for government reform. The weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation was strengthened and given the power to deal with state affairs, inflation, and the unification of currency across the states. The Articles themselves were cast aside for the more definitive Constitution.
Benjamin Lincoln was born in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1733. His great-grandfather had helped establish the town a century before. His father, also named Benjamin, was a well-established farmer and member of the Massachusetts colonial government, having served both on the Governor’s Council and in the House of Representatives. He was also a colonel in the Suffolk County militia.
Benjamin Lincoln married Mary Cushing in 1756, building a family of eleven children, four of whom died while toddlers. Two years prior, Lincoln first entered military service, serving as adjutant in his father’s regiment. A year after marrying Mary, Lincoln assumed the role of town clerk in Hingham, raising his public visage as a leader of the community.
Lincoln was urged by his father to become active in the colonial government. In 1765, the Stamp Act raised anti-British sentiments among the colonists, a form of radicalism that Lincoln’s father sought to quell. Lincoln held his tongue, out of respect for his father. However, when his father died in 1771, Lincoln began to embrace growing anti-British attitudes even as he ascended in his political and military careers.
In September 1774, Lincoln was elected to the General Court (the legislative body representing the colonial government in Massachusetts). However, Governor Thomas Gage sensed growing obstructionist attitudes within the new court and ordered it dissolved. Lincoln and his fellow court members refused to return home and instead created the Provincial Congress. As the shadow government’s secretary, Lincoln assisted in the building of military assets and weapons, many of which were stored in Concord.
Immediately following the critical Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Continental Army was formed, with General George Washington placed in command. The following year, Lincoln was appointed a major general of the Continental Army. By 1778, he commanded Washington’s forces in the southern colonies.
Lincoln would continue to fight alongside Washington throughout the war, assisting the army in New York and later along the southern Atlantic coastline. He played an integral role at the sieges of several key cities in Georgia and the Carolinas but ultimately surrendered with seven thousand troops in Charleston, South Carolina. He was taken prisoner and later released in 1780.
In 1783, as the newly independent country began to rebuild its political and economic infrastructure, Lincoln’s Continental Army was demobilized. Lincoln and many of his compatriots in the army formed the Society of the Cincinnati, with Lincoln serving as president of the Massachusetts chapter. This group was comprised solely of former officers of the army who returned home to work on their farms in peace.
However, Lincoln did not retire completely from public service. He was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1788. He died in Boston in 1810.
On November 7, 1786, George Washington, another founder of the Society of the Cincinnati, wrote to Lincoln, his fellow Cincinnati member, expressing concern about the troubles in western Massachusetts. Washington asked the leader of the Massachusetts chapter of Cincinnati for his assessment of the uprising, if the people in this region had become disenchanted with their new government, and if they had become “mad.” Washington’s letter was short, asking Lincoln if the new republic, only established a few years earlier, had become endangered by this uprising. Finally, Washington queried his colleague about how the rebellion could be defeated.
Lincoln’s response, which has since been dubbed “An Account of Shays’s Rebellion,” is reflective of Lincoln’s disgust of the rebels’ audacity and his concern that the uprising would not easily be addressed without direct military intervention. Lincoln’s Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati had already denounced the Shaysites’ actions, calling upon Massachusetts citizens to defend their state. In his response to Washington, Lincoln answers each of Washington’s questions directly and openly.
To Washington’s first question, “Are your people getting mad?”, Lincoln responds with cynicism, telling Washington that he believed Shays and his followers were attempting to “annihilate” the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of the Constitution, and “dissolve” the government, both obvious signs of the rebels’ insanity. Lincoln, like Washington, was of the prevailing attitude among the new nation’s leaders that any attempt to rebel against the same government that replaced British tyranny was dangerous and advocated a state of anarchy.
Washington’s third question, “What is the cause of all these commotions?”, receives an equally unsettling response, as Lincoln clearly understands the conditions that gave rise to such antigovernment sentiments. The economy of the early United States was in shambles due to high debt and inflation. The government needed revenue, and one of the simplest ways money could be generated was by calling in the debts owed on real estate, including farms. The western part of the state was predominantly agrarian, and the farmers in this area largely suffered from heavy debts (particularly when crops were not producing in great volume). Debt collections had gone unnoticed during the war, but as government leaders in Boston sought ways to rebuild, the pursuit of overdue debt was deemed absolutely essential.
Adding to the farmers’ frustrations was the fact that the government chose to imprison those who could not pay their debts. Farmers were now complaining of heavy-handed judicial sentences, over-taxation, and assuming responsibility for the government’s debt. These farmers complained to the General Court, but their issues went unresolved. They then complained of becoming disenfranchised from the new republic and, as a result, decided to recapture the Revolutionary spirit by taking over the courthouses in the region, preventing the trials of their indebted neighbors and releasing those who were incarcerated.
Lincoln’s comments about the state of affairs in western Massachusetts can hardly have been comforting to Washington. Lincoln continues to paint a dire situation in that part of the state, suggesting that Shays’s Rebellion had deep roots and major implications for the new American government. Shays and his followers, Lincoln argues, are threatening the “goodly fabric” that Washington, Lincoln, and the founding fathers struggled to secure only a decade earlier.
Lincoln was not alone in this opinion. In fact, by the time Shays led his uprising, Massachusetts was becoming increasingly divided. Lincoln, Bowdoin, and others in the state’s leadership represented what many viewed as the wealthy elite. Shays and other rural Americans saw their supposed political representatives as merchants who only enacted policies that served Boston’s merchants. In the minds of those who agreed with Shays, their cause was not dissimilar from the cause that drove the colonists to expel the British during the Revolution.
Lincoln understood that the farmers’ ideals ran counter to the leadership in Boston. However, he demonstrates considerable disdain for the Shaysites. In his letter to Washington, Lincoln argues that these so-called rebels are acting not out of adherence to a noble cause but out of a dislike for law and order. Lincoln’s assessment of the farmers’ attitudes is that, during the war, the farmers were afforded the luxuries of low prices for property and alleviation of debt. When the republic was formed, Lincoln states, the farmers were surprised to find that their “luxurious” lifestyle might be threatened by a return to normalcy.
This reluctance to adhere to the rule of law as established in Boston was, according to Lincoln’s response to Washington, at the heart of what motivated the rebels. Lincoln staunchly defends his state’s leadership regarding the farmers’ issues. He even suggests that the farmers were given an open forum in which to air their grievances. In his letter to Washington, Lincoln argues that, in response to expressions of concern over rising taxes, high debt, and other issues, Massachusetts created a number of “county conventions,” wherein the people of this region would be given an opportunity to speak about the rural Massachusetts experience and offer solutions.
Unfortunately, the proposals offered by the farmers were not well received by the government, according to Lincoln. For example, a number of farmers proposed the introduction of paper currency in their respective counties. The Massachusetts General Court (the state legislature) reviewed those proposals, but based on careful analysis and the input of legislators from throughout Massachusetts, the proposals were deemed ineffectual in addressing the long-term needs of the people. Lincoln argues that the farmers were given ample avenues for input, but the rest of the state ultimately disagreed with those proposals. Lincoln writes that, as a result of their failure in the public policy process, the Shaysites opted to rebel against their government.
Lincoln adds that Shays and his followers will not stop at the actions they have already committed. Unless they are stopped, Shays and the other rebels will move beyond simple acts of civil disobedience; they will build on their occupation to halt the operations of the state government. Once the government is subverted, Shays and his supporters will seek to replace it with their own brand, sending their own people into the legislature in Boston to enact laws that satisfy their interests.
In response to Washington’s query about when and how the conflict with Shays will end, Lincoln sounds a note of pessimism. He acknowledges the fact that the rebellion has many supporters in the western part of the state, all of whom demonstrate a different set of priorities from the merchants and other wealthy residents in Boston. The people for whom debt has become too burdensome have grown in number, and the temptation to jump into the antigovernment camp is far too great, in Lincoln’s estimation. “Too many of them are against the government,” he argues. He continues by writing that there are those in the area who are both financially stable and supporters of the Articles of Confederation. If these people do not reach out to the rebels, Lincoln warns, the push against the Articles of Confederation and the American government will continue.
Lincoln’s assessment of the situation in western Massachusetts was dire. He saw no political accord that could by that time be established. The antigovernment forces there had, in his estimation, become too entrenched and zealous in their cause. Therefore, at the request of Governor Bowdoin, Lincoln raised a volunteer force and marched west to engage the Shaysites.
As Lincoln’s troops marched for the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, Shays’s group began their siege of the Federal Armory in Springfield, just east of the mountains. The rebels made a serious miscalculation of the government forces’ determination and loyalty, however. The federal troops fired upon the rebels without hesitation, killing four. The rest of the rebel group dispersed in retreat. By the time Lincoln’s 4,400-man force arrived, their task had changed from directly confronting Shays’s army to reestablishing government control and pursuing the fleeing Shaysites.
When Lincoln’s troops reached Springfield, Shays’s troops had already scattered. He and his army pursued the rebels to a number of locations, including to the north at Pelham. Lincoln, observing that Shays had become entrenched in that area, wrote a letter to him on January 30, calling upon Shays to lay down his arms and to command his troops to do the same. Lincoln was uncompromising in his language, telling Shays in no uncertain terms that his plans would not work; the government remained steadfast in its will to crush the rebellion.
Shays and his followers responded by moving to Petersham, where they expected the harsh winter conditions and terrain to give them sanctuary from Lincoln’s forces. Prior to pursuing them, Lincoln met with local government officials to confirm the officials’ loyalty to Boston. According to Lincoln’s February 22 letter to Washington, these selectmen and county leaders expressed concern that Lincoln’s troops would cause more bloodshed. Lincoln saw their response as a stalling tactic. He claimed that those leaders were attempting to hold out until a new General Court was elected so that new leaders might be sympathetic to Shays’s cause. In his letter, Lincoln writes that he was not swayed by their efforts, telling them that surrender was the only option for the rebels and that adherence to the government was the only avenue for all others.
At this point, Lincoln’s focus turned to tending to his troops, who, after a long march across the state, were showing signs of fatigue. As he addressed this issue, he also prepared his men for more assaults on Shays’s forces. Meanwhile, there were continuing signs that the “Regulators,” as the rebels were known to some, were weakening in their support of the antigovernment effort. A key member of the rebellion, Captain Adam Wheeler, a hero of both the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, contacted Lincoln’s chief aide, General Rufus Putnam. Wheeler, according to Lincoln, wished to discuss terms of his surrender.
During that same day, Lincoln heard the news that Shays was preparing to move on to Petersham in Worcester County. Lincoln was very concerned about this move, as he believed that Shays would be well received and supported in Petersham and the towns surrounding that village. He immediately mustered his forces for an assault on Petersham. However, an overnight attack in the middle of a New England winter proved to be a challenge.
At first, Lincoln reports, the effort was not as difficult as he had first feared, with minimal winds and conditions he describes as “clement.” As the night progressed, however, the New England winter arrived, with high winds and heavy snow buffeting the troops. Lincoln recalls in his account that the weather and conditions made the campaign extremely difficult, with snow completely covering the roads and the cold air so biting that troops could not stop moving for fear of hypothermia. The troops had to keep marching the entire thirty miles to Petersham.
Lincoln correctly assumed that the weather would prove to be both an enemy and an ally. Clearly, it took its toll on Lincoln’s troops, although the general reports that the storm caused no serious casualties. Then again, the regulators at Petersham were thoroughly unprepared for Lincoln’s arrival the following morning. They did not have any troops in the forward positions, save for a few guards. As Lincoln’s troops marched up the steep hill into Petersham, the Shaysites were taken completely by surprise, and 150 regulators were captured without incident. Shays and his lieutenants quickly scattered, with Shays escaping into New Hampshire and Vermont. With the nucleus of Shays’s Rebellion crushed, Lincoln saw the end of hostilities on the horizon. He turned his attentions back to the western part of the state, moving his volunteer army back to the Berkshires to put down the remaining fragments of the conflict.
In his February 22 account for Washington, Lincoln offers a final assessment of the situation in western Massachusetts. He observes that the Shaysites, who had only a few days earlier spoken out with venomous tongues against the government and made menacing movements toward the Massachusetts and federal governments, were now defeated. He also pays great tribute to his troops, citing their patience, fortitude, ability to obey orders, and passion for the new government. Without such qualities, Lincoln argues, the rebellion would have seen much more bloodshed and hardship.
Lincoln’s comments about the high quality of his troops also serve as another critique of the rebels’ approach. Shays and his followers, in Lincoln’s opinion, gained support by arguing that the situation was dire; the only avenue available to the people was violence against the government. Such an attitude “buoyed up the hopes of their abettors,” leading Shays’s rebels to show a lack of patience and discipline. As a result of their militant approach, Lincoln writes, the regulators engaged the government recklessly, causing more casualties among themselves than were necessary.
With the Shays Rebellion defeated decisively, Lincoln returned to Boston. In March of 1787, Lincoln and his forces were recognized by the Massachusetts General Court for their valor and strength in defeating what the legislature viewed as a very real threat to the new government and the Articles of Confederation.
While Lincoln was fighting against Shays’s forces, the legislature passed the Massachusetts Disqualification Act, which pardoned non-officers who joined the Regulators. These individuals were required to lay down their arms and take an oath of loyalty to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. However, the act would still disqualify participants in Shays’s Rebellion from voting, serving on juries, or taking jobs as teachers or tavern keepers. Lincoln disagreed with the harshness of the act’s punishments, suggesting that such measures could alienate former rebels from the government.
Lincoln’s opinions on this matter are revealed in his account to Washington. When describing the causes of the rebellion, Lincoln cites the intransigence of the rebels who were seduced by antigovernment sentiments. These individuals were given a number of open forums in which to air their complaints and seek resolutions. When their proposals were denied by representatives of the other parts of the state, they opted for rebellion rather than further engagement. Lincoln was of the mindset that, had the Shaysites continued to speak with rather than take action against the government, there would likely have been some form of accord and resolution.
Lincoln brought this opinion with him to a special commission to which he was appointed after returning to Boston. The commission would review each individual case for the rebels who had been captured and offer, where applicable, more moderate sanctions. Lincoln’s commission ultimately pardoned 790 of Shays’s men, returning them to society. Shays himself was eventually pardoned and allowed to return from exile to Massachusetts. He later moved to New York, where he lived out the remainder of his years.
Shays’s Rebellion was a significant event in what most historians determine was a critical period for the early United States. The newly independent country needed to rebuild quickly after the war as well as lay the groundwork for a political and economic infrastructure. However, the country was mired in significant debt from expenses paid to the Continental Army during the Revolution. Needing a large infusion of revenue, the new government in Boston sought to raise taxes and aggressively pursue those who held debt.
Lincoln was steadfastly opposed to the uprising, suggesting that the activities of the Regulators were based on laziness and irresponsibility. The irony of the situation, it has been argued, was lost on Lincoln and others. They failed to observe that the Massachusetts government that replaced the British colonial government called upon citizens to pay taxes without adequate representation in government.
Despite the irony of the situation, Lincoln demonstrated disdain not for the people of this rural region but for the paths they chose to satisfy their interests. Lincoln states in his reports to Washington that Shays and others were given an open forum and a chance to participate in the democratic process. When others from other parts of the country disagreed with the farmers, the Regulators opted for violence and antigovernment campaigns.
Based on his account on the Shays-led uprising, Lincoln may be regarded as both a patriot and a strong military leader. He remained committed to his country and the Articles of Confederation, both concepts for which he had fought tirelessly only a decade earlier. He clearly understood the mentality of his adversaries, however, acknowledging the tremendous debt and economic stress that the people of western Massachusetts were experiencing. Then again, he disagreed with their approach and, like most of the leadership in Boston and in the federal government, sought to put down the rebellion quickly and decisively.
To this latter point, Lincoln proved himself to be an exemplary military leader. Despite the fact that the new United States of America had just emerged from a physically and economically exhausting war with Great Britain, Lincoln was able to muster a force of over four thousand men to pursue and engage a growing army comprised of many fellow Revolutionary War veterans. In his account, Lincoln commends the troops’ ability to maintain composure and patience against their enemies, even in the harshest of conditions. Such even-handedness and fortitude, demonstrated by Lincoln and instilled in his troops, not only enabled them to defeat the Regulators; it also helped keep the conflict’s bloodshed to a minimum and allowed the scars caused by this conflict to heal quickly.
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