Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

No Early Pardon for Traitors: Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1787

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

No Early Pardon for Traitors: Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1787

Article excerpt

The men of eighteenth century Massachusetts would probably have had substantial political experience. An adult male of 60 years could have lived through two colonial wars and witnessed some historical events: declaring independence of Britain, fighting a revolution, writing the state constitutions of 1778 and 1780 and forming the Articles of Confederation. He would have faced severe cold and snow during the winter of 1787 if he had taken part in the rebellion.

Despite the heavy snow, hundreds of yeoman farmers and laborers were marching around the state, shutting down courthouses to prevent being called to account for what they considered unfair taxation. ' The "Regulators," as they called themselves, were defeated as a military force by February, 1787. Many of them fled the state in search of freer lands and fewer taxes. Others remained politically active in the state legislature in an attempt to obtain tax relief, a pardon for their captured leaders and cheap western lands. Governor Bowdoin, meanwhile, directed efforts towards punishing the rebellious subjects in ways that would reassure merchants and lawyers that the judicial system was safe, and to reward the officers for suppressing the rebellion.2 Conservatives on the Council wished to hang the leaders and limit the role of the yeomen in politics.

Many families had been moving into New York since 1785 as a result of a great inflation of housing costs. In 1786, rents had increased from 50 pounds sterling to almost 150 pounds. Capitalists were investing in land development, since the British government had discouraged industrial development by the colonies. Accompanying independence was a loss of wartime commerce and a host of debts to foreign states. Credit languished and a chief resource for paying debts lay with the sale of the western territories. The Articles of Confederation gave wide powers to the national Congress over state borders and western lands. Many settlers ignored borders and eschewed taxes and military service, sometimes hoping to create entirely new places to live peacefully. Massachusetts had a border dispute with New York, but this was resolved in December of 1786 with the former state recognizing New York's sovereignty in return for rights to the soil of six million acres. This attracted the attention of both land speculators and of those Regulators who had fled as well as those left behind.3

As for those Regulators left behind, many felt that they had been unfairly prosecuted by the government, especially those charged with treason or sedition. The Commonwealth believed that as the constitution guaranteed trial by a jury of peers it appeared to the governor and the Council that Regulators called as jurors probably would free any rebellious leaders. The secretary of State suggested making the yeomen "think differently": a merchant would produce a "slavish fear," a lawyer wished an entire town to suffer "outlawry," and a general would totally disqualify some forever. Governor Bowdoin, a leading merchant, had been elected in 1785 in a bitter campaign. His military commander was General Benjamin Lincoln, the secretary of War in 1783. Both failed to discern the extent of support for the Regulators among the people.4 Conservatives now called for limiting the power of the Regulators by disqualifying them from voting. On February 16, 1787, the legislature enacted a Disqualification Act, which prevented any known rebel from serving in any military or civil capacity.5

While the effort of the Bowdoin administration to punish the rebels has been examined by David Szatmary in his Shays Rebellion and others, there has been no full examination of the efforts of the Hancock administration, which followed in May, 1787 and eventually pardoned all but two of the rebels. George Minot, Clerk to the House in 1787, believed there were two factions vying for control of the Senate, one representing rural and the other commercial interests.6 The former sought reforms and pardons; the latter to punish and to control the Regulators in politics. …

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