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Enough is Enough Shays’ Rebellion offers lessons for today’s world

By Robert E. Macdonald

Mayor of Lewiston

“A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.” Thus spoke Thomas Jefferson about Daniel Shays.

Who was Daniel Shays and what lessons can be learned from him that would apply to today’s world?

Daniel Shays was a farmer from western Massachusetts. Prior to the Revolutionary War, he, like others of his day, served in the local militia providing a defense force to ward off Indian attacks. When hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord, he and his neighbors responded by defending their colonial countrymen from British soldiers.

As the British forces retreated back to Boston, the colonials followed and trapped them in Boston. During his time as a militiaman, Shays saw action at Bunker Hill. After the battle, he enlisted and served for the next five years in the newly formed Continental Army. He fought at Saratoga and Stony Brook, rising to the rank of captain.

After the war, he returned to his farm in western Massachusetts, penniless and destitute. As a Continental officer, he was responsible for purchasing his own uniforms, supplies and equipment. At the conclusion of the war, he was neither paid nor reimbursed for his expenses during his years of his military service.

Shays resumed a life of farming. Because of the scarcity of money, local people formed a bartering economy. Goods and services were traded for other goods and services. Their survival depended on self-reliance.

But, like Maine today, there were two Massachusetts. In the east, the livelihood of its citizens depended on commerce, retail and wholesale to survive. It was also the center of the state’s political elite.

The lack of hard cash and a glut of goods, sitting in warehouses on both sides of the Atlantic, resulted in a credit crisis. Goods would only be sold for hard currency. In the western part of the state, they could no longer use bartering to pay their debts. This created a crisis in which western Massachusetts farmers were hauled into court, often losing their farms due to the debt they had run up and were unable to pay.

This aggressive enforcement was brought on by a $5 million war debt that Massachusetts had accumulated and was finding hard to pay down. Pleas from the rural towns fell on deaf ears. This was due to Governor of Massachusetts John Bowdoin and members of the Massachusetts General Court who made their living as merchants. The quicker the debt was paid off, the faster their financial fortunes would rise.

This caused unrest in western Massachusetts. These patriotic farmers had spent years fighting against what they considered a tyrannical government only to find the newly created state government even worse. Taxes were now three times more than they had been. Forming into militia groups, they took over and shut down the local courts, stopping the foreclosures on many farms.

Shays, who eventually would emerge as the rebellion leader (his rising is known to history as “Shays’ Rebellion”), threatened to march on Boston and burn down the General Court and the city. The Rebellion was eventually put down, and Shays and other rebellion leaders fled to Vermont and New Hampshire.

When the framers of our Constitution met in Philadelphia, Shays’ Rebellion was on their minds. It served to show how weak the federal and state governments were. It also brought the founders to the conclusion that to survive, they needed all the states to be united under one roof.

Today we live in a country where those who produce are forced to support those who refuse to support themselves—a country where we are coerced to meet the needs of uninvited, illegal aliens to the detriment of our families, the elderly and the truly needy. This situation is forced upon us by politicians who pander to welfare activists and special interest groups.

How broke are we going to become before we rise up?

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