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The Body of the People: Revolution

How do you determine when a revolution is over? When the fighting is done there are several, often competing, points of view or goals that spurred the revolutionaries to action. How do revolutionaries begin to develop a constructive dialogue of compromise? Who determines the majority and who speaks for the "body of the people"? What happens when the revolution has not achieved its goals for everyone and how can those who disagree express this dissent? This is precisely the challenge that Americans faced after the Revolutionary War. This struggle for defining and defending the various goals of the revolution is illustrated in the climatic events surrounding Shays’s Rebellion - a rebellion sometimes called the last battle of the American Revolution.[1]

In the last article, "The Body of the People: Regulation," we examined the methods of popular dissent in the American colonies with the case studies of the North Carolina Regulation and the New Hampshire Grants. Popular dissent in the American colonies during the 18th century was expressed in several ways from passive resistance to riot. At times groups organized as Regulation movements that included citizens from several different social classes who shared a common goal to end the overreach or corruption in local government. These Regulators usually perceived the courts and magistrates as part of the problem and argued that traditional avenues of legal redress were unavailable or blatantly biased against them. Regulators often first organized to generate group petitions. But if government officials failed to respond the Regulators compelled those officials to listen through disruptions such as organized demonstrations and shutting down the courts. These actions were often accomplished by utilizing the organization of local militia groups. But this use of the militia structure and militiamen made Regulation movements often appear more like armed insurrections; instead of regulating government critics argued Regulators were threatening its very stability. Throughout this process, Regulators struggled to maintain popular legitimacy for their extralegal actions. But escalations in violence and the use of arms often undermined public support and eliminated any leniency or consideration by officials. After this type of escalation the North Carolina Regulation was crushed. Conversely, the settlers of the New Hampshire Grants, led by leaders like Ethan Allen, gained a new foothold by legitimizing their cause under the popular rhetoric that inspired the American Revolution.

After the war, American political leaders became focused on reorganizing state governments and their economies to show the international community that they could stabilize the new country. This was not an easy task and in some states political access, laws, and taxes seemed to maintain a status quo rather than instill the new ideals of the revolution. To express their dissent, some citizens utilized the same rhetoric and action of the revolution which they tied with the process of Regulation. They believed the nascent state governments of the new nation needed to be reminded of the goals and ideals of the revolution which had not yet been realized. In Massachusetts these Regulators wanted to check developments under the new state constitution and reform taxation laws that they believed disenfranchised and oppressed citizens. But state political leaders delegitimized the Regulation as an extralegal movement that ignored the electoral process and the very representative government for which the Revolutionaries had fought.

The case study of the Massachusetts Regulation illustrates how popular dissent was influenced by the rhetoric of the revolution and interpreted by citizens who viewed themselves as "the body of the people." As seen in the first article of this series, it was not unusual for government officials to delegitimize these popular movements. But during the Massachusetts Regulation some political leaders not only criticized popular dissent but used this unrest to promote a stronger federal government. By rebranding the Massachusetts Regulation as Shays’s Rebellion, these politicians moved to rein in the discourse of revolution and control popular dissent. The revolution was over and the only legitimate voice of "the body of the people" was now to be expressed by elected officials within the halls of a new, stronger national government.

The American Revolution – Action and Rhetoric

The rhetoric of dissent and the mobilization of popular action before and during the American Revolution built from and refined older traditions. Community resistance to unpopular laws and officials that threatened the status quo was not uncommon but initially focused on local grievances.[2] Before the revolution the source of these grievances shifted and more citizens directed their attention to the policies of Parliament and the Crown. Protests against excise taxes, the infamous Stamp Act, and impressments were just a few of the government’s actions that turned the citizens’ focus outward.

Citizens refined traditional popular protest to pressure local crown officials since they could not vent their frustrations in London. The large crowds paraded, held demonstrations, and rioted but limited their focus to the property and officials directly associated with unpopular laws. For example, during the 1768 Liberty Riot in Boston, citizens launched into protest after John Hancock’s ship Liberty was seized by customs officials. The crowd of a couple thousand used the event to express their frustration with several unpopular customs policies and the recent impressments of men for the navy. But the violence and damage to property was limited to beating a customs official (albeit one not responsible for the confiscation of Liberty) and burning the private boat of another customs official.[3] As seen in the first article, this type of "limited" riot was a way to show officials a "boiling point" had been reached. These riots were part of an unofficial political discourse that used focused or "limited" actions to send a message. In addition to demonstrations and riots, citizens also continued to shut down courts as a way to disrupt the legal system and block unpopular laws. From 1774-1775 several courts in Massachusetts were closed down by citizens to protest the Coercive Acts and prevent crown appointed judges from taking their posts.[4]

In many instances, this collective action was organized through the local militia. During the Revolution the militia’s military effectiveness was sometimes questioned but their role within the communities as a police force and a gauge of public opinion continued.[5] Patriot and Loyalist militias both tried to purge their communities of citizens who disagreed with their point of view. In this way, the militias embodied a democratic process as the general militia forced out officers who did not share their loyalties and shamed and/or removed those that refused to participate.[6] The militia also used traditional protest such as petitions and/or mob action to express dissent. During the 1779 Fort Wilson Riot in Philadelphia the militia was central to the organization of the protest. Their petition outlined their demands for price fixing to protect their families and livelihoods while their mob action included the "arresting" and parading of accused Loyalists through the streets as common criminals.[7] Actions like these helped to further strengthen the tie between the militias and the patterns of popular dissent.

Box 1: Citizens and the Rhetoric of Revolution

"For a nation thus abused to arise unanimously, and to resist their prince, even to the dethroning him, is not criminal ; but a reasonable I way of vindicating their liberties and just rights ; it is making use of the means, and the only means, which God has put into their power, for mutual and self-defence. And it would be highly criminal in them, not to make use of this means. It would be stupid tameness, and unaccountable folly, for whole nations to suffer one unreasonable, ambitious and cruel man, to wanton and riot in their misery. And in such a case it would, of the two, be more rational to suppose, that they did NOT resist, than that they who did, would receive to themselves damnation."

Pastor Jonathan Mayhew, Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non- Resistance to the Higher Powers, 1749[11]

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

The Declaration of Independence, 1776[12]

Dissenters justified these actions with the rhetoric of the revolution that encouraged the involvement of all citizens. Treatises, editorials, and sermons promoted that it was not only acceptable to resist a corrupt government but it was one of the innate duties of a citizen to do so. This is directly and famously stated in the Declaration of Independence (see Box 1). The press and organizations, like the Committees of Safety, helped to spread this rhetoric and call to action. Again, the militia was central to galvanizing the community and organizing their efforts. The militia, considered a protective force by and for the people, also became clearly associated with the expression of the will of the "body of the people."[8] The militia, as the "body of the people," would not support the corrupt but instead champion the people and protect their volition.

But as the revolution continued there were efforts to restrain and rollback the extent of democratic representation that gained popularity, especially through militias.[9] This retraction which historian Terry Bouton aptly calls the, "taming of democracy," continued after the Revolution during the 1780-1790s.[10] During this time, disputes over representation, taxation, and political rights occurred in most states and highlighted the divergence between populist ideals of citizen action and the elite push for political order and stability. The revolution had galvanized the people to act but created discordance when citizens attempted to regulate this new government as well. Some interpreted "the body of the people" as every citizen who not only had the right to regulate government through traditional petition and dissent but also had a duty to enforce this will through the militias when necessary. Others interpreted "the body of the people" as every citizen acting through their elected representatives who then regulated government on their behalf. Under this interpretation, the militia served to protect this electoral process and the laws of representative government. Shays’s Rebellion provides a clear case study of these competing interpretations.

Shays’s Rebellion

A growing divide between urban eastern Massachusetts and the rural western counties began during the Revolutionary War and intensified during the debates surrounding the new state constitution ratified in 1780. After the war, Massachusetts, like most states, had to repay debts and prove its solvency to maintain future credit.[13] Both the resulting taxes and policies requiring hard currency, or specie, were unpopular and western communities petitioned the Boston legislature for relief. But the legislature adjourned without addressing these concerns in 1786 and several western communities reconvened in local meetings and county conventions to determine their next move.[14] Many felt that the state representatives were only concerned with the interests of the Boston elite and decided to take action to regulate the errant government. Calling themselves Regulators and representatives of the "Body of the People," they did as they had before and during the Revolution and began to close down the courts.[15] In response to the closure of the Northampton court, Governor James Bowdoin called up the militia but when the court at Worcester was also shut down a few days later it became apparent that the militia would not muster and was in fact participating in the Regulation.

Image 1: Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck Click image for a larger view.
Shays's Rebellion
"Shays's Rebellion." The portraits of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, leaders of the Massachusetts "Regulators," Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack of 1787 (c. 1787), National Picture Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, accessed October 20, 2014.

The court closings continued, carried out by regional groups that tried intermittently to coordinate their efforts. Although referred to as Shays’s Rebellion, Daniel Shays was only one such leader and several others including Luke Day, Eli Parsons, and Job Shattuck, also coordinated regional closures and demonstrations.[16] The response from the state representatives was harsh and in October the Governor passed a Riot Act which allowed sheriffs to hunt down rioters with full lethal force. In November a special posse was sent out to arrest rebel leaders and rumors flew that the arrest of Job Shattuck was especially violent; first that he had been killed and then that they had almost amputated his leg. This only served to increase resistance in the western counties against what they viewed as replay of British-style oppression. Unable to rely on the militias, Governor Bowdoin called forth an army in January that was funded privately by wealthy Bostonians. The Regulators tried to coordinate an attack on the federal arsenal in Springfield that same month. But miscommunication and the lack of proper training undermined their efforts and Major General William Shepard successfully defended the arsenal with local militia.[17] The Regulators were soon after dispersed by a surprise attack at Petersham by the Governor’s army led by General Benjamin Lincoln. Although many leaders fled north other small skirmishes continued that accentuated the fragmented and localized nature of the Regulation movement which dissolved after a smaller battle at Sheffield in February.[18] That same month the Disqualification Act outlined that those involved in the rebellion (other than leaders) must surrender their arms, take an oath of allegiance and:

"That they shall keep the peace for the term of three years, from the time of passing this act, and that during that term of time, they shall not serve as Jurors, be eligible to any Town-Office, or any other Office under the Government of this Commonwealth, and shall be disqualified from holding or exercising the employments of School-Masters, Innkeepers or Retailers of spirituous liquors...."[19]

Over 4,000 confessions were collected attesting to the extent of the regulation movement.[20] Shortly after, the newly elected Governor John Hancock restored citizenship rights to most of the Regulators by late 1787. The legislature also cut taxes and provided some relief to debtors.[21] But this debt relief was a limited response and did not fully acknowledge some of the grievances that caused the Regulation. A closer look at these grievances shows how Regulators interpreted the goals of the recent revolution and their active role in the new nation.

The Grievances

Several grievances from the legislators’ resistance to debt relief to power shifts under the new state constitution to the perceived corruption that favored speculators fueled the Massachusetts Regulation.

The earliest press accounts and histories of the Regulation highlighted the western county farmers’ struggle with debt. And this perception was partially accurate as rural farmers grappled with debts after the Revolution in several states.[22] These farmers had experienced a boom during the Revolution as demand for their crops increased. But they also participated more heavily in the consumer market and merchants pushed buying on credit.[23] Before 1785 the market dried up and more found themselves susceptible to the “chain of debt” when British and Dutch suppliers called in debts owed by merchants who then turned the pressure on customers who had bought on credit. From 1785-1786 at least one-third of men in the western counties were taken to court over debts.[24] The debt process became increasingly “depersonalized” through the court system as creditors were encouraged to take debtors to court first before any other creditor might get a judgment against the debtor. Additionally, offers to pay in kind or service were refused as creditors needed hard cash to pay their own debts. Debtors were left with little options but to attend court and be encumbered with additional court and lawyer fees just to delay their payments and evade the seizure of their property.[25] These cases were often foregone conclusions – few contested owing money, but they lacked the means to convince creditors and the courts to accept alternatives. Some of the Regulator leaders were part of this debt cycle. Luke Day had served time in debtor’s prison and Daniel Shays infamously pawned a sword given to him by Marquis de Lafayette to pay debts.[26] The press and critics of the Regulation accused the Regulators of being "levelers" who were bent on abolishing all debts and redistributing property. But not all Regulators were debtors, many had never been to debtor’s prison, and some were even creditors.[27] Although debt and the unequal collections process did increase dissent in the western counties it was not the only influence behind the Regulation.

Charges of political elitism and corruption also fueled the regulation movement. Many in the western counties were not satisfied with the new state constitution ratified in 1780. They felt the distant Boston legislature gained too much power over civic and political decisions that western residents had previously decided locally. For example, many communities had allowed citizens in good standing to vote even if they did not meet the property requirements. But during the 1780s there was increasing pressure to follow the "Bostonian" laws. Additionally, they objected to losing the power to vote for their own judges and justices of the peace which may have compounded the growing depersonalization of debtors’ courts as well.[28]

The biggest objection that pitted the Boston elite against the rural farmers was the favoritism for speculators that fueled accusations of corruption. In an attempt to pay off debts and reestablish confidence in the state economy, the Massachusetts legislature agreed to pay state notes at full value. These notes had been used to raise funds for the war and pay soldiers but had devalued to such an extent that many, especially war veterans, had sold their notes for a fraction of the cost to speculators. In part they had sold the devalued notes to pay bills but also because the state had refused to accept them for tax payments which seemed to eliminate any chance of them regaining value. By the time the state agreed to honor the notes at full value, most were owned by speculators and as many as 80% of the notes were held by the elite of Boston.[29] The legislature raised taxes to collect the funds to pay off the notes. A poll tax and property tax increased taxes so that they were higher than before the Revolutionary War.[30] To compound this accumulation of questionable decisions, the state only allowed hard currency, or specie, for taxes and refused to accept alternative forms of payment. Other states facing similar economic challenges offered alternatives such as allowing the use of paper money or capping the devaluation of notes and making creditors accept them as payment.[31] But the Massachusetts legislature refused to consider these options even when petitions from the western counties argued that there simply was not enough legal tender in circulation to meet the demand.[32]

The mounting debt in the rural counties was compounded by new taxes and limits on acceptable legal tender. Additionally, the new state constitution had provided the state legislature in Boston more control over the western counties than before. Finally, the decision to pay state notes at full value after most of them had been gobbled up by speculators appeared corrupt to many. For many in the western counties high taxes, lack of representation, and political corruption all appeared to be the same problems that the Revolution had sought to eliminate. For some it was time for a Regulation to check government with the hopes to finish the course of the Revolution which had somehow lost its bearings in Massachusetts.

The Struggle for Legitimacy

"That however unjustifiable the measure may be which the people have adopted, is having recourse to arms, various circumstances hath induced them thereto. We are sensible of the embarrassments the people are under; but that virtue which truly characterizes the citizens of a republican government hath hitherto marked our paths with a degree of innocence...."

Daniel Shays to General Lincoln, January 30, 1787 [33]

The Massachusetts Regulators felt that they were both following the tradition of regulation and carrying forward the ideals of the American Revolution. For many in the western counties the legislature had failed the "protection covenant" wherein the government was supposed to look after the welfare of its citizens and not let them fall prey to a minority (the elite) or be forced into "economic inequality."[34] Their petitions had gone unanswered and the only way to protect their communities was to shut down the courts as had been done during past regulations and patriotic protests against Britain. The Regulators relied on the local militias to organize and provide legitimacy to these actions. As seen in Part I of this series, the militias had taken on larger roles in popular dissent in the colonies during the 18th century. The recent experience of the American Revolution further promoted the militia as the modus operandi. Locals did not view the militia as a "creature of the state" but thought they expressed local sentiments and, when incited to action, became the embodiment of "the body of the people."[35] Indeed, the latter idea was part of the common rhetoric of the day and even Baron von Steuben questioned if the Massachusetts government had turned into an oligarchy since it had stirred up both active and passive resistance from its own militiamen.[36]

But the Boston elite and government denounced both the Regulation and their use of the militia as rebellion and anarchy. Those who opposed the Regulation promoted the idea of a “commonwealth” government that placed public interests over private ones.[37] For example, the stabilization of the state economy and the reestablishment of good credit nationally and internationally outweighed the immediate needs of farmers who wanted to renege on their debts.[38] Political leaders were especially disturbed by the passive action of militia who, even if they did not participate in the rebellion, refused to muster to stop the "banditti" who threatened government.[39] The Militia Act aimed to correct this behavior by threatening a range of punishments from a court martial for militiamen who refused to muster to the death penalty for officers who actively participated in the rebellion.[40] But beyond the debates over the appropriate role of the militia, critics also questioned the validity of regulation. They argued shutting down the courts was extralegal and had no place in a government that offered political representation.[41] Once citizens had voted, they should trust their elected officials, obey their laws, and only express their dissent through the electoral process and the courts rather than through mob violence.[42]

"For though all power originates from the people, it does not remain with them; by our constitution, it is delegated to a Senate and House of Representatives, and it may not be reassumed, nor the constitutional exercise of it disturbed with impunity; and in some cases not without incurring the guilt of treason."

Another Citizen, Boston Independent Chronicle, August 31, 1786. [43]

The opposition refuted the concept of Regulation and relabeled the Regulators as insurgents and rebels. They used the press to rebrand the Regulation as a rebellion. In particular, opponents set up Daniel Shays not only as the leader of the rebellion but as a tyrant who would burn Boston to the ground and overthrow the government.[44] As noted above, the Regulation did not have one single leader and was instead a loose confederation between several groups with similar grievances.[45] In fact some Regulators recognized this lack of leadership and Luke Day and Eli Parsons met with Ethan Allen, a charismatic leader for the New Hampshire Grants, and asked him to lead their movement. Allen refused and publicly denounced the Regulation in the press to distance himself further.[46] Despite this evidence of disordered leadership, their opponents still set up Shays’s as the instigator of the backcountry. As historian J.M. Greene points out, Shays’s was set up as an example of the potential Caesar in their midst. Although the rebellion was not successful, Shays was used to illustrate that a more successful “backcountry demagogue” could undermine and destroy the fragile new republic.[47]

Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution

"God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty…And what country can preserve it's 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 and 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 and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets [sic]: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order."

Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, November 13, 1787. [48]

While some political leaders like Thomas Jefferson cautioned that too much was made of Shays’s Rebellion, many used the rebellion to promote a stronger national government. Some were already pushing for a stronger central government and used Shays’s to argue that the states could not protect their interests or stabilize their economies alone.[49] Unrest in response to taxes and economic reforms developed in other states as well and there was heightened concern that “the people” sometimes now called “the mob” would undermine any chance of stability.[50] Even the hero George Washington was so alarmed by the events in Massachusetts that he submitted to the requests of several of his colleagues to come out of retirement and rejoin the efforts to stabilize the country.[51] The stage was set to push for a stronger Articles of Confederation – which instead led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. Shays’s was not the only impetus behind this reform but it definitely expedited the discussion.[52]

Image 2: "Success to Shays!" Click image for a larger view.
The Looking GlassThe Looking Glass Close-up
"The looking glass for 1787. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Mat. chap. 13th verse 26," Amos Doolittle, 1787, Library of Congress, accessed October 20, 2014. Note that one of the Antifederalists on the right going into the storm says, "Success to Shays!"

There was a "paradox of founding" that challenged the Founders to legitimize the new government after the Revolution.[53] How could they argue that defending "natural rights" legitimized a revolution but deny the right for others to rise up when they felt their natural rights were threatened? Federalists responded that the new Constitution solved this problem by creating a representative state with checks and balances. Several of the same arguments that appeared in response to Shays’s Rebellion continued to be used by Federalists in support of the new Constitution. Riot and protest were obsolete under a representative government.[54] The use of representatives would protect citizens from a direct democracy which could cause sudden shifts in policy and destabilize government.[55] During the ratification debates over the Constitution, Federalists used Shays's Rebellion as an example of the dangers of insurrections threatening weak states and ultimately the nation. In Federalist 28 Alexander Hamilton directly responded to the question of revolution and argued that the option would always remain legitimate but only after all legal recourse and the electoral process failed.[56]

Antifederalists countered that popular dissent must remain a part of the political process. One of the powerful aspects of the Constitution was that it was an evolving document meant to be changed and amended. But for Antifederalists this process could not be limited to "proper channels" controlled by elite lawyers. Indeed it was the duty of citizens to engage with government through their petitions and express dissent when necessary.[57] Much like John Locke, they argued that even minority dissent was legitimate because responsible citizens would only "agitate" for legitimate grievances.[58] But these ideas were turned against them and although most Antifederalists did not advocate for Shays’s Rebellion, the Federalist press quickly associated the two. Antifederalists were called Shaysites in papers from Maine to Georgia during the ratification debates.[59] In “The Looking Glass” satirical cartoon from 1787 the Antifederalists are shown to be pulling the country towards a stormy future as one of their members proudly states, "Success to Shays" (see Image 2). Although not promoting the legitimacy of the Massachusetts Regulation, the Antifederalists’ policies and ideas were identified with radicalized backcountry men who misunderstood their role in government and threatened to undermine its stability.


The Massachusetts Regulation or Shays’s Rebellion was a complex challenge for the newly independent nation. Competing ideas of the citizen’s role in government and their ability to express their dissent as "the body of the people" came to a head. The strong rhetoric and actions of the Revolution blended with popular ideas about regulation movements that encouraged the citizens of the western counties of Massachusetts to act. But political leaders were horrified by the insurrection and insisted that regulations had no place under a functioning representative government. They argued that the Revolution was over and the goals realized but citizens must now learn to accept their elected officials and work within the electoral process. These events also encouraged those in favor of a stronger federal government to pursue a new Constitution. They used Shays’s Rebellion to promote the need for ratification and malign their opponents. The country needed a strong government that proved that the Revolution was over and the new nation could function legitimately. But Shays’s Rebellion was not the last of the new nation’s troubles and this new federal government would be challenged with similar regulation movements in the 1790s. Again the question of who had the right to assemble "the body of the people" would be raised by the citizens themselves.

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Published November 2015


1 Leonard L. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

2 The first article in this series reviews the types of popular dissent in more detail, "The Body of the People: Regulation."

3 Pauline Maier, "Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America," The William and Mary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1970): 9 and Gilje, Paul A. "Liberty riot." In Gilje, Paul A., and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Revolution and New Nation, 1761 to 1812, Revised Edition (Volume III). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. (accessed October 16, 2014).

4 Robert W.T. Martin, Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic (New York: New York University Press, 2013) 28.

5 Wayne E. Lee, Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001) 44. For a further discussion on the militias’ effectiveness during the American Revolution, see our article, "Citizen-Soldiers, Part I: Creating a well-regulated Militia."

6 Robert H. Churchill, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2011) 33 and 41.

7 Steven Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and “Lower Sort” during the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987) 203, 213-216.

8 The yeoman farmer, a dutiful citizen, was militarized by his militia role and celebrated as the protector of freedom. Robert E. Shalhope, "The Ideological Origins of the Second Amendment," in Gun Control and the Constitution: Sources and Explorations on the Second Amendment, ed. Robert J. Cottrol (New York: Garland Pub., 1994) 263-264. Also see our earlier article on this subject, "Citizen-Soldiers, Part I: Creating a well-regulated Militia."

9 Rosswurm, Arms, Country, and Class, 11.

10 Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: "The People", the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 4 and 7.

11 It should be noted that although Mayhew ends his sermon with a plea to be obedient to a just monarch and humble citizens, this text was very popular in among American Revolutionaries. It provided religious if not legal justification for usurping the power of a corrupt monarch. Mayhew, Jonathan A.M., D.D. and Royster, Paul , Editor & Depositor, "A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: With some Reflections on the Resistance made to King Charles I. And on the Anniversary of his Death: In which the Mysterious Doctrine of that Prince's Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled (1750). An Online Electronic Text Edition." (1750). Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 44.

12 "The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription," The Charters of Freedom, accessed October 20, 2012.

13 Richard Buel, Jr., "The Public Creditor Interest in Massachusetts Politics, 1780-86," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 52-53.

14 Churchill, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face, 32.

15 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 63 and Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 32.

16 Gregory H. Nobles, "Shays's Neighbors: The Context of Rebellion in Pelham, Massachusetts," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 198.

17 This was a federal arsenal and not a state funded or supplied arsenal. It was a major arsenal for all of New England. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 19, 23-29.

18 Ibid., 31.

19 "Massachusetts Disqualification Act, February 16, 1787," Shays's Rebellion and the Making of a Nation, Springfield Technical Community College, last modified 2008, accessed October 20, 2014.

20 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 32-33.

21 Ibid., 39-40 and 119.

22 States such as New Hampshire, Connecticut, the Carolinas, and what would become Vermont also had high rural debt. Ibid., 58.

23 Stephen E. Patterson, "The Federalist Reaction to Shays's Rebellion," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 102-109.

24 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 58.

25 Jonathan M. Chu, "Debt Litigation and Shays's Rebellion," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 82-98.

26 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 44-51.

27 Ibid., 2, 53-54.

28 Ibid., 73-74 and 4-5.

29 And many of them related to or closely associated with elected legislators! Ibid., 75-80.

30 Ibid., 22 and 88.

31 J.M. Greene, "Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays: Contrasting Models of Political Representation in the Early Republic," Early American Literature 48 (2013): 131.

32 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 8.

33 "Daniel Shays to General Lincoln, January 30, 1787," American Centuries, Memorial Hall Museum Online, accessed October 24, 2012.

34 William Pencak, "’The Fine Theoretic Government of Massachusetts is Prostrated to the Earth’: The Response to Shays's Rebellion Reconsidered," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 136 and Greene, "Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays," 145.

35 Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia, 34 and Michael Lienesch, "Reinterpreting Rebellion: The Influence of Shays's Rebellion on American Political Thought," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 166.

36 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 16.

37 Pencak, "’The Fine Theoretic Government of Massachusetts," 136.

38 Greene, "Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays," 131.

39 Lawrence Delbert Cress, Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982) 96.

40 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 18.

41 One of the harshest critics of the regulators was Samuel Adams who saw their actions as a threat to the new country and contrary to the Revolution. He even argued for the death penalty for any who would dare challenge the new republic. Ibid., 16. See also Maier, "Popular Uprisings," 29.

42 Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia, 34.

43 Quoted in Martin, Government by Dissent, 30.

44 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 30.

45 Greene, "Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays," 131.

46 Ibid., 125-126.

47 The example of Caesar was often used by the Founders who referred to his crossing the Rubicon and ending the Roman Republic in 49 BCE. This history served as a lesson to the new republic of the potential threat of a popular individual seizing power. Ibid., 141-143.

48 "Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, November 13, 1787," Thomas Jefferson Quotations, The Jefferson Monticello, accessed October 25, 2014.

49 Buel, "The Public Creditor Interest in Massachusetts Politics," 55.

50 Unrest over debt concerns was already noted. Unrest due to taxes also occurred in Maryland, South Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Martin, Government by Dissent, 27. Shays’s Rebellion was cast as a rebellion by simple farmers who acted against "reason." Lienesch, "Reinterpreting Rebellion," 167. Similar sentiments appeared in other regions such as the New Hampshire rebellion in 1786. Alan Taylor, "Regulators and White Indians: The Agrarian Resistance in Post-Revolutionary New England," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993) 149.

51 Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia, 36 and Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 129 and 132.

52 In Stephen Patterson’s evaluation of the influence of Shays’s Rebellion on Federalist rhetoric he concluded, "In short, if Shays’s Rebellion had not occurred, the Federalists would have had to invent it." Patterson, "The Federalist Reaction to Shays's Rebellion," 116-117.

53 Martin, Government by Dissent, 9.

54 Maier, "Popular Uprisings," 34.

55 Simon P. Newman, "The World Turned Upside down: Revolutionary Politics, Fries’ and Gabriel’s Rebellions, and the Fears of the Federalists," Pennsylvania History 67 (2000): 48.

56 Alexander Hamilton, "The Federalist Papers: No. 28," The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, accessed October 25, 2014.

57 Martin, Government by Dissent, 10 and 57.

58 Churchill, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face, 37.

59 Richards, Shays’s Rebellion, 139.

Sources and Further Reading

Bouton, Terry. Taming Democracy: "The People", the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Churchill, Robert H. To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2011.

Cornell, Saul. A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Cottrol, Robert J., ed. Gun Control and the Constitution: Sources and Explorations on the Second Amendment. Controversies in Constitutional Law. New York: Garland Pub., 1994.

Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Greene, J.M. "Ethan Allen and Daniel Shays: Contrasting Models of Political Representation in the Early Republic." Early American Literature 48 (2013): 125–51.

Gross, Robert A., ed. In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Maier, Pauline. "Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America." The William and Mary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1970): 3-35.

Martin, Robert W.T. Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

Newman, Simon P. "The World Turned Upside down: Revolutionary Politics, Fries’ and Gabriel’s Rebellions, and the Fears of the Federalists." Pennsylvania History 67 (2000):5-20.

Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Rosswurm, Steven Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and "Lower Sort" during the American Revolution, 1775-1783. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Shalhope, Robert E. Bennington and the Green Mountain Boys: The Emergence of Liberal Democracy in Vermont, 1760-1850. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

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© enlighten technologies™ and Heather Pundt 2015
Heather received her MA in History from Portland State University and has written online articles for enlighten technologies™ since 1996. This introduction is the first in a series of research articles on the Second Amendment and gun culture in the United States. To contact Heather, please use hpundt (at) or visit her Google+ Profile.

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