Here in Springfield, the majority of people drive or walk by the site of an event that was a turning point for our nation and never realize it. In January, the anniversary of Shay's Rebellion was noted here. I wrote the following piece for the papers I edit.
I really believe we live in very dangerous times. We have a president bent on unjustified war. We have a Congress lacking the will to stop him. Corporations control more and more of our daily lives. The era of the American middle class appears to be almost over. More and more people are working poor with little real hope for economic advancement.
We need a rebellion. Not with guns, not with violence, but with a re-affirmation of what this country represents. We need to bring jobs back to this country. NAFTA should be repealed. We need to protect American manufacturing with tariffs. We need a tax code that is fair to everyone. We should realize that new jobs must come out of the effort to address the conditions that have caused global warming. We need to protect ourselves by actually attacking the root causes that create terrorist activities.
I don't think it's too late for this nation, but the clock is ticking.
It's hard to believe that a Burger King stands almost on the spot of one of the most significant events in American history, but the fast food restaurant at the corner of State and Federal Streets is about where a group of angry farmers and Revolutionary War veterans made history.
It was there that Daniel Shays and his group of rebels were marching to take over the arsenal at the Springfield Armory. Although they failed, Shays's action proved to be the catalyst for the call for a Constitutional Congress and the drafting of the American Constitution.
Shays's place in American history was recently examined by a two-day symposium on Jan. 27 and 28 sponsored by the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and Springfield Technical Community College (STCC).
Richard Colton, the historian for the Armory museum, recently took this writer on a tour around the STCC grounds and where Shays's army made history.
Colton began the tour in the archives of the Armory museum. There he used several books from the collection to explain why Shays and his followers took the step of armed rebellion.
In one almanac from 1780, Colton pointed out a chart showing the inflation of the paper currency from the time of the Revolution to that year what had been $100 just a few years before now was $4,000.
The severe decrease in the value of money was coupled with high taxes to pay off the cost of the war, he explained. Actions by the Massachusetts Legislature had disenfranchised many residents taking away from them the ability to vote and make legal changes.
Colton said the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest printed constitution, stipulated that one had to own property in order to vote and run for office.
"The true elite were unresponsive to the common people," Colton said.
With hard economic times, the state's courts were seizing farms and throwing people into debtor's prison.
"People thought the courts were out of control," Colton added.
The Articles of the Federation, Colton added, had not resulted in creating a nation, but instead "13 little countries" bound loosely together. Each state, for instance, produced its own currency.
Shays was one western Massachusetts resident who decided to take steps to correct matters. A Pelham farmer and landowner, Shays was a highly decorated Revolutionary War veteran who left the military with the rank of captain.
The deteriorating conditions of the early Commonwealth promoted Shays to band with others who felt the need for a new revolution and on Jan. 25, 1787, Shays led a makeshift army of about 1,200 to the federal arsenal in Springfield.
The arsenal, Colton said, had more guns, artillery and ammunition than anyplace in New England. Colton said if Shays had captured the arsenal he could have made Springfield his base camp for a longer challenge to Boston's power. He could have even established a new capitol here.
It is a numbingly cold day on the STCC campus and one wonders if it was as cold when Shays led his army down what was then called Boston Road, but what is now known as State Street. Shays had assembled his forces in the east and was marching from Wilbraham to the federal arsenal.
As Colton led me across the green in the center of the campus, he pointed out that this is not the complex Shays would have been approaching. Even though a number of the buildings are well over a century old the West Arsenal building built in 1808 is almost 200 years old none of them were standing when Shays and his men came.
Walking toward the entrance of the college, Colton said a militia force had been called to protect the arsenal from Shays. Although roughly the same size, the militia had the advantage of field pieces or cannons.
Colton said that Shays was hoping to rout the arsenal's defenders simply by intimidation of his forces, however, when Shays was fired upon by the cannon, the battle was over.
Old Boston Road had a curve to it and Shays had placed his most experienced men in the front of his formation. The cannon fire did not hit them but fired over them and struck the less seasoned fighters who were marching around the curve.
The green troops fled and Shays's army had to retreat. Shays had a price on his head and fled to Vermont. He eventually settled in New York where he received a pardon and died in 1825.
Colton said that contemporary historians did not treat Shays very well and wrote accounts of the rebellion with a pro-government slant. Even with that bias, Shays's actions pointed out the inequities that existed the need for a stronger federal government.
The symposium attracted historians from throughout New England to address the rebellions and its impact.
In a letter to James Madison on Jan. 30, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote about Shays's Rebellion: "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."
© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs