American Civilization

October 7, 2008

Shays’s Rebellion, etc.

Filed under: Early republic — equiano @ 9:52 pm
Tags: , ,

“What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

— Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith Nov 13, 1787.

It’s interesting to note that few of the rebels who attacked the Springfield armory were punished with death. Instead, they were required to swear an oath of allegiance and deprived of certain rights. We can categorize this response to the insurrection as a form of restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice (ie, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”). 

I did some digging on the economic situation which precipitated Shays’s Rebellion. 

Soldiers of the Continental Army were paid not in cash but in certificates. Lacking money, the economy in turmoil, many sold these financial instruments for a pittance to speculators who were convinced that the government would eventually redeem them. 

From a review of a recent book on Shays’s Rebellion:

“According to Leonard Richards, a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), the “standard story” of the rebellion is that following the Revolutionary War, Boston and other New England merchants imported sizable amounts of British goods that drained specie from the economy, leading to heavy merchant indebtedness. The seaboard merchants (wholesalers) consequently sold their goods on credit to merchants in the interior (retailers) who in turn sold their goods on credit to backcountry farmers. This led to a “chain of debt.” Then, when the British closed their Caribbean islands to American shipping, matters took a decided turn for the worse. The seaboard merchants could no longer earn enough revenues through trade to cover their sizable debts. As a result, they sued the interior merchants for payment who in turn sued the backcountry farmers. Given the sluggish economy and lack of specie in post-war Massachusetts, and given existing legal-political institutions (the court system and “debtors’ prisons”), western farmers were ultimately dragged into court for nonpayment in record numbers. Many were fined and often jailed. To avoid debtor trials, potential fines, and possible imprisonment, Shays and his followers attacked the local authorities and closed the courts.”


Read the US Constitution for next Tuesday, Oct. 14.

The reading assignment for Oct. 16 is fairly ambitious: The Contrast, Fashion, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin– plays that are all found in Early American Drama, which is available in the bookstore.


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