Shays' Rebellion

David P. Szatmary, Visiting Assistant Professor in the history department at the University of Arizona, has written a fascinating study of Shays’ Rebellion. This uprising of yeoman farmers in Massachusetts in 1786-1787 is one of the most intriguing incidents in our history, and the causes and impact of the rebellion continue to interest historians and political scientists. It is easy to dramatize Shays’ Rebellion and make villains and heroes of the participants. In most of the books of the last century, the farmers were the villains, and the merchants, lawyers, and professional and government officials were the heroes. In the years after Professor Charles A. Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States in 1913, the roles were reversed with the commercial, professional class seen as securing its own gain by ruthlessly crushing the farmers who had a legitimate demand for economic relief. The thesis of this book is that the insurrection was a result of a conflict between cultures; the subsistence farmers represented the traditional lifestyle, and the merchant capitalists the commercial way of life. In order to sustain this characterization of the conflict, evidence is needed that the farmers preferred their way of life and were fighting to preserve it.

The evidence presented to support the position that the subsistence farmers desired to avoid being drawn into the money economy and commercial society is that they did not cultivate all their land and that they did not plant the crops which could most readily be sold on the market. A few individual farmers are selected, and detailed information is given concerning the numbers of acres planted in each crop; the number of animals raised along with the pork, beef, and vegetables a family needed; and the amount of land that was left uncultivated. Szatmary seizes upon the percentage of uncultivated land to show that the farmers could have produced surplus for the market if they chose, and their decision not to represented their choice of a subsistence traditional way of life. This is a total misunderstanding of the problems faced by farmers without machinery, hired labor, slaves, and oxen rather than horses for work animals. They were cultivating all the land they could. Although a more mature man might have several sons to help him for a few years, he also had more family members to feed, clothe, and shelter. In one instance, Szatmary quotes a farmer who seemed unable to understand why a farmer who had three hundred acres needed to destroy wood and clear land any faster than he could make use of it. Instead of proving that he wanted to remain a subsistence farmer, this illustrates the limits to the amount of land a man could cultivate.

As further proof that these were subsistence farmers by choice, questions are raised about their failure to experiment with new crops and to continue to plant corn rather than flax, which was more marketable. Again the answer is to be found in the marginal nature of their existence. Farmers could not afford to experiment or to risk a crop failure, which would deprive their family of the fundamental necessities of life. The argument that they were subsistence farmers because they wanted to maintain this traditional pattern of life and avoid being drawn into a commercial society is not convincing. Although the failure to sustain the argument is critical to the thesis that Shays’ Rebellion was a conflict between a traditional way of life and a commercial society, it in no way detracts from the pleasure of the book. The detailed information drawn from records, diaries, and other primary sources about the life of farmers in western Massachusetts affords a rare view of life in the late eighteenth century.

Unlike the characterization of the conflict as one between two cultures, the discussion of the economic conditions in Massachusetts in 1786-1787 and the description of the economic problems of the new nation generally are consistent with those commonly accepted. The merchants along the seaboard began to require the retail merchants in the western part of the state to pay their debts, and they in turn demanded the farmers pay their debts. The merchants were calling in their debts because they were hurt by the general depression that followed the war. Moreover, they were especially hard hit because the British cut off their trade with the West Indies and created restrictions and burdens on their trade with Britain. The demand to be paid in hard money created an impossible situation for the farmers who had little or no hard money and had, in the past, been allowed to pay their debts in produce.

The economic pressures on the farmers in Massachusetts were particularly great not only because trading patterns of New England were more disrupted than elsewhere in the new nation, but also because the policies regarding taxes and repayment of state debt were harsher. While some states were content to pay only the interest on their debts until the economy recovered, the policy in Massachusetts was to press for full payment of the debt, requiring an increase in taxes. As...

(The entire section is 2090 words.)