Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle
By Leonard L. Richards
Univ. of Pennsylvania Press
204 pages; $24.95
The textbook I have on hand offers the standard spiel: Daniel Shays was "a destitute" man from Massachusetts who led a "ragtag" army of "beleaguered farmers" from western Massachusetts in a brief revolt against an uncaring taxing authority centered in far away Boston. There is something to all that, but as Leonard L. Richards observes in his demythologizing and generally satisfying book on the Massachusetts rebellion of 1786, Daniel Shays wasn't poor: his one hundred acre farm in Pelham "ranked in the second 20 percent of town assessments." Neither was Shays the sole leader of the movement that bears his name: many of the men who set out in January of 1787 to seize the federal arsenal at Springfield and, earlier, to shut down courthouses—symbols of a "bloodsucking" tax system that seemed mostly to benefit lawyers and judges—didn't heed the war veteran Shays' commands.
According to the standard account, the men from Amherst, Pelham, Colrain (and other towns) who joined the rebellion were motivated by rage at the level of taxation they faced, and there is also much truth in that. Under the prodding of Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin, the elite in the Massachusetts legislature passed tax bills that were, as Richardson puts it, "disastrous." Indeed, the combined weight "of overdue taxes and current taxes was more than many residents could pay in a year, five years or even a decade. Taxes levied by the state," Richardson continues, "were now much more oppressive—indeed, many times more oppressive—than those that had been levied by the British on the eve of the American Revolution." But, in Richardson's ...1