Most of us don’t remember much of Shays’ Rebellion from high school history, either because it was mentioned so briefly that it didn’t stick or because it wasn’t mentioned at all. But the events of 1786-1787 were catalytic in the formation of the America we live in today.
The summer protests of 2020 have been criticized for being unruly and destructive; this is not a new story.
More than 200 years ago a group of frustrated Massachusetts farmers grabbed their guns and took to the streets. Post-revolution states were in debt from the war and in Massachusetts they raised unbearable taxes on the citizenry to try and pay those debts. When subsistence farmers weren’t able to pay, their property was seized and they were evicted from their land. Some were put in prison.
These rural farmers made efforts for debt relief by lobbying the state government but no relief was given. Overtaxed and under-resourced, these farmers felt as if no one in the government understood or were listening to them, and so decided their only option was to disrupt.
Armed with guns and swords mobs of farmers confiscated property that had been seized by the government and returned it to the owner. They forcefully took control of local courts and shut them down. On occasion they freed landowners that had been put in prison.
Importantly, this rebellion was not made up of men initially antagonistic to their government. Daniel Shays, the primary leader of the rebellion, had served in the Continental Army as a captain and had fought in numerous battles, including the Battle of Bunker Hill. Most of these men were patriots who had fought for this new country, but that country was now ignoring and oppressing them and they were out of options.
Considering the context of these farmers is important. Was it right for them to forcefully free men from prison who had been put there by state authorities, even if they had been put there for not paying unfair taxes? Was it right for them to forcefully block the courts so that no one else could be tried and lose their property? Was it right for them to take up arms and go to the Springfield armory to try and take the weapons that were being used to detain and arrest them? Maybe not.
But what else were these humble farmers supposed to do? They had tried lobbying the government for relief. They had tried going through appropriate channels to affect a fair and workable outcome for them and their families – but no one was listening. They were losing homes, losing land, losing fathers to prison – and there was no one in authority that would listen or help them.
I am against violence and destruction of property of every kind – but when no one is listening and the reality that you inhabit is unbearable, it will lead to acts of desperation. The context for disruption matters and we must work to change the context that makes people feel so desperate.