The Paper Money Craze of 1786 and the Shays Rebellion
THERE is no telling how long the wretched state of things which followed the Revolution might have continued, had not the crisis been precipitated by the wild attempts of the several States to remedy the distress of the people by legislation. That financial distress was wide-spread and deep-seated was not to be denied. At the beginning of the war the amount of accumulated capital in the country had been very small. The great majority of the people did little more than get from the annual yield of their farms or plantations enough to meet the current expenses of the year. Outside of agriculture the chief resources were the carrying trade, the exchange of commodities with England and the West Indies, and the Newfoundland whale fisheries ; and in these occupations many people had grown rich. The war had destroyed all these sources of revenue. Imports and exports had alike been stopped, so that there was a distressing scarcity of some of the commonest household articles. The enemy’s navy had kept us from the fisheries. Before the war, the dockyards of Nantucket were ringing with the busy sound of adze and hammer, rope-walks covered the island, and two hundred keels sailed yearly in quest of spermaceti. At the return of peace, the docks were silent and grass grew in the streets. The carrying-trade and the fisheries began soon to revive, but it was some years before the old prosperity was restored. The war had also wrought serious damage to agriculture, and in some parts of the country the direct destruction of property by the enemy’s troops had been very great. To all these causes of poverty there was added the hopeless confusion due to an inconvertible paper currency. The worst feature of this
financial device is that it not only impoverishes people, but bemuddles their brains by creating a false and fleeting show of prosperity. By violently disturbing apparent values, it always brings on an era of wild speculation and extravagance in living, followed by sudden collapse and protracted suffering. In such crises the poorest people, those who earn their bread by the sweat of their brows and have no margin of accumulated capita], always suffer the most. Above all men, it is the laboring man who needs sound money and steady values. We have seen all these points amply illustrated since the War of Secession. After the War of Independence. when the margin of accumulated capital was so much smaller, the misery was much greater. While the paper money lasted there was marked extravagance in living, and complaints were loud against the speculators, especially those who operated in bread-stuff’s. Washington said he would like to hang them all on a gallows higher than that of Haman ; but they were, after all, but the inevitable products of this abnormal state of things, and the more guilty criminals were the demagogues who went about preaching the doctrine that the poor man needs cheap money. After the collapse of this continental currency in 1780, it seemed as if there were no money in the country, and at the peace the renewal of trade with England seemed at first to make matters worse. The brisk importation of sorely needed manufactured goods, which then began, would naturally have been paid for in the South by indigo, rice, and tobacco, in the Middle States by exports of wheat and furs, and in New England by the profits of the fisheries, the shipping, and the West India trade. But in the Southera and Middle States the necessary revival of agriculture could not be effected in a moment, and British legislation against American shipping and the West India trade fell with crippling force upon New England. Consequently, we had little else but specie with which to pay for imports, and the country was soon drained of what little specie there was. In the absence of a circulating medium there was a reversion to the practice of barter, and the revival of business was thus further impeded. Whiskey in North Carolina, tobacco in Virginia, did duty as measures of value ; and Isaiah Thomas, editor of the Worcester Spy, announced that he would receive subscriptions for his paper in salt pork.
It is worth while, in this connection, to observe what this specie was, the scarcity of which created so much embarrassment. Until 1785 no national coinage was established, and none was issued until 1793. English, French, Spanish, and German coins, of various and uncertain value, passed from hand to hand. Beside the ninepences and fourpence-ha’-pennies, there were bits and half-bits, pistareens, picayunes, and fips. Of gold pieces there were the johannes, or joe, the doubloon, the moidore, and pistole, with English and French guineas, carolins, ducats, and chequius. Of coppers there were English pence and half-pence and French sous ; and pennies were issued at local mints in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The English shilling had everywhere degenerated in value, but differently in different localities ; and among silver pieces the Spanish dollar, from Louisiana and Cuba, had begun to supersede it as a measure of value. In New England the shilling had sunk from nearly one fourth to one sixth of a dollar ; in New York to one eighth; in North Carolina to one tenth. It was partly for this reason that in desiring a national coinage the more uniform dollar was adopted as the unit. At the same time the decimal system of division was adopted instead of the cumbrous English system, and the result was our present admirably simple currency, which we owe to Gouverneur Morris, aided as to some points by Thomas Jefferson. During the period of the confederation, the chaotic state of the currency was a serious obstacle to trade, and it afforded endless opportunities for fraud and extortion. Clipping and counterfeiting were carried to such lengths that every moderately cautious person, in taking payment in hard cash, felt it necessary to keep a small pair of scales beside him and carefully weigh each coin, after narrowly scrutinizing its stamp and deciphering its legend.
In view of all these complicated impediments to business on the morrow of a long and costly war, it was not strange that the whole country was in some measure pauperized. It is questionable if the war debt could have been paid even under a more efficient system of government. The cost of the war, estimated in cash, had been about $170,000,000; and probably not more than $30,000,000 of this ever got paid in any shape. The repudiation was wholesale because there was really no money to be had. The people were somewhat in the condition of Mr. Harold Skimpole. In many parts of the country, by the year 1786, the payment of taxes had come to be regarded as an amiable eccentricity. At one moment, early in 1782, there was not a single dollar in the treasury. That the government had in any way been able to finish the war, after the downfall of its paper money, was due to the gigantic efforts of one great man, — Robert Morris, of Pennsylvania. This statesman was born in England, but he had come to Philadelphia in his boyhood, and had amassed an enormous fortune, which he devoted without stint to the service of his adopted country. Though opposed to the Declaration of Independence as rash and premature, he had, nevertheless, signed his name to that document, and scarcely any one had contributed more to the success of the war. It was he who supplied the money which enabled Washington to complete the great campaign of Trenton and Princeton. In 1781 he was made superintendent of finance, and by dint of every imaginable device of hard-pressed ingenuity he contrived to support the brilliant work which began at the Cowpens and ended at Yorktown. He established the Bank of North America as an instrument by which government loans might be negotiated. Sometimes his methods were such as doctors call heroic, as when he made sudden drafts upon our ministers in Europe after the manner already described. In every dire emergency he was Washington’s chief reliance, and in his devotion to the common weal he drew upon his private resources until he became poor ; and in later years — for shame be it said — an ungrateful nation allowed one of its noblest and most disinterested champions to languish in a debtor’s prison. It was of ill omen for the fortunes of the weak and disorderly confederation that in 1784, after three years of herculean struggle with impossibilities, this stout heart and sagacious head could no longer weather the storm. The task of creating wealth out of nothing had become too arduous and too thankless to be endured. Robert Morris resigned his place, and it was taken by a congressional committee of finance, under whose management the disorders only hurried to a crisis.
By 1786, under the universal depression and want of confidence, all trade had well-nigh stopped, and political quackery, with its cheap and dirty remedies, had full control of the field. In the very face of miseries so plainly traceable to the deadly paper currency, it may seem strange that people should now have begun to clamor for a renewal of the experiment which had worked so much evil. Yet so it was. As starving men are said to dream of dainty banquets, so now a craze for fictitious wealth in the shape of paper money ran like an epidemic through the country. There was a Barmecide feast of economic vagaries ; only now it was the several States that sought to apply the remedy, each in its own way. And when we have threaded the maze of this rash legislation, we shall the better understand that clause in our federal constitution which forbids the making of laws impairing the obligation of contracts. The events of 1786 impressed upon men’s minds more forcibly than ever the wretched and disorderly condition of the country, and went far toward calling into existence the needful popular sentiment in favor of an overruling central government.
The disorders assumed very different forms in the different States, and brought out a great diversity of opinion as to the causes of the distress and the efficacy of the proposed remedies. Only two States out of the thirteen — Connecticut and Delaware — escaped the infection, but, on the other hand, it was only in seven States that the paper money party prevailed in the legislatures. North Carolina issued a large amount of paper, and, in order to get it into circulation as quickly as possible, the state government proceeded to buy tobacco with it, paying double the specie value of the tobacco. As a natural consequence, the paper dollar instantly fell to seventy cents, and went on declining. In South Carolina an issue was tried somewhat more cautiously, but the planters soon refused to take the paper at its face value. Coercive measures were then attempted. Planters and merchants were urged to sign a pledge not to discriminate between paper and gold, and if any one dared refuse the fanatics forthwith attempted to make it hot for him. A kind of “ Kuklux ” society was organized at Charleston, known as the “ Hint Club.” Its purpose was to hint to such people that they had better look out. If they did not mend their ways, it was unnecessary to inform them more explicitly what they might expect. Houses were combustible then as now, and the use of firearms was well understood. In Georgia the legislature itself attempted coercion. Paper money was made a legal tender in spite of strong opposition, and a law was passed prohibiting any planter or merchant from exporting any produce without taking affidavit that he had never refused to receive this scrip at its full face value. But somehow people found that the more it was sought to keep up the paper by dint of threats and forcing-acts, the faster its value fell. Virginia had issued bills of credit during the campaign of 1781, but it was enacted at the same time that they should not be a legal tender after the next January. The influence of Washington, Madison, and Mason was effectively brought to bear in favor of sound currency, and the people of Virginia were but slightly affected by the craze of 1786. In the autumn of that year a proposition from two counties for an issue of paper was defeated in the legislature by a vote of eighty-five to seventeen, and no more was heard of the matter. In Maryland, after a very obstinate fight, a rag money bill was carried in the House of Representatives, but the Senate threw it out; and the measure was thus postponed until the discussion over the federal constitution superseded it in popular interest. Pennsylvania had warily begun in May, 1785, to issue a million dollars in bills of credit, which were not made a legal tender for the payment of private debts. They were mainly loaned to farmers on mortgage, and were received by the State as an equivalent for specie in the payment of taxes, By August, 1786, even this carefully guarded paper had fallen some twelve cents below par, — not a bad showing for such a year as that. New York moved somewhat less cautiously. A million dollars were issued in bills of credit receivable for the custom-house duties, which were then paid into the state treasury; and these bills were made a legal tender for all money received in lawsuits. At the same time the New Jersey legislature passed a bill for issuing half a million paper dollars, to be a legal tender in all business transactions. The bill was vetoed by the governor in council. The aged Governor Livingston was greatly respected by the people; and so the mob at Elizabethtown, which had duly planted a stake and dragged his effigy up to it, refrained from inflicting the last indignities upon the image, and burned that of one of the members of the council instead. At the next session the governor yielded, and the rag money was issued. But an unforeseen difficulty arose. Most of the dealings of New Jersey people were in the cities of New York and Philadelphia, and in both cities the merchants refused their paper, so that it speedily became worthless.
The business of exchange was thus fast getting into hopeless confusion. It has been said of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, the indispensable companion of the traveler in England, that no man can study it for an hour without qualifying himself for an insane asylum. But Bradshaw is pellucid clearness compared with the American tables of exchange in 1786, with their medley of dollars and shillings, moidores and pistareens. The addition of half a dozen different kinds of paper created such a labyrinth as no human intellect could explore. No wonder that men were counted wise who preferred to take whiskey and pork instead. Nobody who had a yard of cloth to sell could tell how much it was worth. But even worse than all this was the swift and certain renewal of bankruptcy which so many States were preparing for themselves.
Nowhere did the warning come so quickly or so sharply as in New England. Connecticut, indeed, as already observed, came off scot-free. She had issued a little paper money soon after the battle of Lexington, but had stopped it about the time of the surrender of Burgoyne. In 1780 she had wisely and summarily adjusted all relations between debtor and creditor, and the crisis of 1786 found her people poor enough, no doubt, but able to wait for better times and indisposed to adopt violent remedies. It was far otherwise in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. These were preëminently the maritime States of the Union, and upon them the blows aimed by England at American commerce had fallen most severely. It was these two maritime States that suffered most from the cutting down of the carrying trade and the restriction of intercourse with the West Indies. These things worked injury to ship-building, to the exports of lumber and oil and salted fish, even to the manufacture of Medford rum. Nowhere had the normal machinery of business been thrown out of gear so extensively as in these two States, and in Rhode Island there was the added disturbance due to a prolonged occupation by the enemy’s troops. Nowhere, perhaps, was there a larger proportion of the population in debt, and in these preëminently commercial communities private debts were a heavier burden and involved more personal suffering than in the somewhat patriarchal system of life in Virginia or South Carolina. In the time of which we are now treating, imprisonment for debt was common. High-minded but unfortunate men were carried to jail, and herded with thieves and ruffians in loathsome dungeons, for the crime of owing a hundred dollars which they could not promptly pay. Under such circumstances, a commercial disturbance, involving wide-spread debt, entailed an amount of personal suffering and humiliation of which, in these kinder days, we can form no adequate conception. It tended to make the debtor an outlaw, ready to entertain schemes for the subversion of society. In the crisis of 1786, the agitation in Rhode Island and Massachusetts reached white heat, and things were done which alarmed the whole country. But the course of events was different in the two States. In Rhode Island the agitators obtained control of the government, and the result was a paroxysm of tyranny. In Massachusetts the agitators failed to secure control of the government, and the result was a paroxysm of rebellion.
The debates over paper money in the Rhode Island legislature began in 1785, but the advocates of a sound currency were victorious. These men were roundly abused in the newspapers, and in the next spring election most of them lost their seats. The legislature of 1786 showed an overwhelming majority in favor of paper money. The farmers from the inland towns were unanimous in supporting the measure. They could not see the difference between the State making a dollar out of paper and a dollar out of silver. The idea that the value did not lie in the government stamp they dismissed as an idle crotchet, a wire-drawn theory, worthy only of “ literary fellows.” What they could see was the glaring fact that they had no money, hard or soft; and they wanted something that would satisfy their creditors and buy new gowns for their wives, whose raiment was unquestionably the worse for wear. On the other hand, the merchants from seaports like Providence, Newport, and Bristol understood the difference between real money and the promissory notes of a bankrupt government, but they were in a hopeless minority. Half a million dollars were issued in scrip, to be loaned to the farmers on a mortgage of their real estate. No one could obtain the scrip without giving a mortgage for twice the amount, and it was thought that this Security would make it as good as gold. But the depreciation began instantly. When the worthy farmers went to the store for dry goods or sugar, and found the prices rising with dreadful rapidity, they were at first astonished, and then enraged. The trouble, as they truly said, was with the wicked merchants, who would not take the paper dollars at their face value. These men were thus thwarting the government, and must be punished. An act was accordingly hurried through the legislature, commanding every one to take paper as an equivalent for gold, under penalty of five hundred dollars fine and loss of the right of suffrage. The merchants in the cities thereupon shut up their shops. During the summer of 1786 all business was at a standstill in Newport and Providence, except in the bar-rooms. There and about the market-places men spent their time angrily discussing politics, and scarcely a day passed without street-fights, which at times grew into riots. In the country, too, no less than in the cities, the goddess of discord reigned. The farmers determined to starve the city people into submission, and they entered into an agreement not to send any produce into the cities until the merchants should open their shops and begin selling their goods for paper at its face value. Not wishing to lose their pigs and butter and grain, they tried to dispose of them in Boston and New York, and in the coast towns of Connecticut. But in all these places their proceedings had awakened such lively disgust that placards were posted in the taverns warning purchasers against farm produce from Rhode Island. Disappointed in these quarters, the farmers threw away their milk, used their corn for fuel, and let their apples rot on the ground, rather than supply the detested merchants. Food grew scarce in Providence and Newport, and
in the latter city a mob of sailors attempted unsuccessfully to storm the provision stores. The farmers were threatened with armed violence. Town-meetings were held all over the State, to discuss the situation, and how long they might have talked to no purpose none can say, when all at once the matter was brought into court. A cabinet-maker in Newport named Trevett went into a meat-market kept by one John Weeden, and, selecting a joint of meat, offered paper in payment. Weeden refused to take the paper except at a heavy discount. Trevett went to bed supperless, and next morning informed against the obstinate butcher for disobedience to the forcing-act. Should the court find him guilty, it would be a good speculation for Trevett, for half of the five hundred dollars fine was to go to the informer. Hard-money men feared lest the court might prove subservient to the legislature, since that body possessed the power of removing the five judges. The case was tried in September amid furious excitement. Huge crowds gathered about the court-house and far down the street, screaming and cheering like a crowd on the night of a presidential election. The judges were clear-headed men, not to be browbeaten. They declared the forcing-act unconstitutional, and dismissed the complaint. Popular wrath then turned upon them. A special session of the legislature was convened, four of the judges were removed, and a new forcing-act was prepared. This act provided that no man could vote at elections or hold any office without taking a test oath promising to receive paper money at par. But this was going too far. Many soft-money men were not wild enough to support such a measure ; among the farmers there were some who had grown tired of seeing their produce spoiled on their hands; and many of the richest merchants had announced their intention of moving out of the State. The new forcing-act accordingly failed to pass, and presently the old one was repealed. The paper dollar bad been issued in May ; in November it passed for sixteen cents.
These outrageous proceedings awakened disgust and alarm among sensible people in all the other States, and Rhode Island was everywhere reviled and made fun of. One clause of the forcing-act had provided that if a debtor should offer paper to his creditor and the creditor should refuse to take it at par, the debtor might carry his rag money to court and deposit it with the judge ; and the judge must thereupon issue a certificate discharging the debt. The form of certificate began with the words “ Know Ye,” and forthwith the unhappy little State was nicknamed Rogues’ Island, the home of Know Ye men and Know Ye measures.
While the scorn of the people was thus poured out upon Rhode Island, much sympathy was felt for the government of Massachusetts, which was called upon thus early to put down armed rebellion. The pressure of debt was keenly felt in the rural districts of Massachusetts. It is estimated that the private debts in the State amounted to some $7,000,000, and the State’s arrears to the federal government amounted to $7,000,000 more. Adding to these sums the arrears of bounties due to the soldiers, and the annual cost of the state, county, and town governments, there was reached an aggregate equivalent to a tax of more than $50 on every man, woman, and child in this population of 379,000 souls. Upon every head of a family the average burden was some $200 at a time when most farmers would have thought such a sum yearly a princely income. In those days of scarcity most of them did not set eyes on so much as $50 in the course of a year, and happy was he who had tucked away two or three golden guineas or moidores in an old stocking, and sewed up the treasure in his straw mattress
or hidden it behind the bricks of the chimney-piece. Under such circumstances the payment of debts and taxes was out of the question; and as the same state of things made creditors clamorous and ugly, the courts were crowded with lawsuits. The lawyers usually contrived to get their money by exacting retainers in advance, and the practice of champerty was common, whereby the lawyer did his work in consideration of a percentage on the sum which was at last forcibly collected. Homesteads were sold for the payment of foreclosed mortgages, Cattle were seized in distrainer, and the farmer himself was sent to jail. The smouldering fires of wrath thus kindled found expression in curses aimed at lawyers, judges, and merchants. The wicked merchants bought foreign goods and drained the State of specie to pay for them, while they drank Madeira wine and dressed their wives in fine velvets and laces. So said the farmers; and city ladies, far kinder than these railers deemed them, formed clubs, of which the members pledged themselves to wear homespun, — a poor palliative for the deep-seated ills of the time. In such mood were many of the villagers when in the summer of 1786 they were overtaken by the craze for paper money. At the meeting of the legislature in May, a petition came in from Bristol County, praying for an issue of paper. The petitioners admitted that such money was sure to deteriorate in value, and they doubted the wisdom of trying to keep it up by forcing-acts. Instead of this they would have the rate of its deterioration regulated by law, so that a dollar might be worth ninety cents to-day, and presently seventy cents, and by and by fifty cents, and so on till it should go down to zero and be thrown overboard. People would thus know what to expect, and it would be all right. The delicious naïveté of this argument did not prevail with the legislature of Massachusetts, and soft money was frowned down by a vote of ninety-nine to nineteen. Then a bill was brought in seeking to reëstablish in legislation the ancient practice of barter, and make horses and cows legal tender for debts; and this bill was crushed by eighty-nine votes against thirty-five. At the same time this legislature passed a bill to strengthen the federal government by a grant of supplementary funds to Congress, and thus laid a further burden of taxes upon the people.
There was an outburst of popular wrath. A convention at Hatfield in August decided that the court of common pleas ought to be abolished, that no funds should be granted to Congress, and that paper money should be issued at once. Another convention at Lenox denounced such incendiary measures, approved of supporting the federal government, and declared that no good could come from the issue of paper money. But meanwhile the angry farmers had resorted to violence. The legislature, they said, had its sittings in Boston, under the influence of wicked lawyers and merchants, and thus could not be expected to do the will of the people. A cry went up that henceforth the law-makers must sit in some small inland town, where jealous eyes might watch their proceedings. Meanwhile the lawyers must be dealt with ; and at Northampton, Worcester, Great Barrington, and Concord, the courts were broken up by armed mobs. At Concord one Job Shattuck brought several hundred armed men into the town and surrounded the court-house, while in a fierce harangue he declared that the time had come for wiping out all debts. “ Yes,” squeaked a nasal voice from the crowd, — “yes, Job, we know all about them two farms you can’t never pay for ! ” But this repartee did not save the judges, who thought it best to flee from the town. At first the legislature deemed it wise to take a lenient view of
these proceedings, and it even went so far as to promise to hold its next session out of Boston. But the agitation had reached a point where it could not be stayed. In September the Supreme Court was to sit at Springfield, and Governor Bowdoin sent a force of 600 militia under General Shepard to protect it. They were confronted by some 600 insurgents, under the leadership of Daniel Shays. This man had been a captain in the continental army, and in his force were many of the penniless veterans whom Gates would fain have incited to rebellion at Newburgh. Shays seems to have done what he could to restrain his men from violence, but he was a poor creature, wanting alike in courage and good faith. The militia, too, were lacking in spirit. After a disorderly parley, with much cursing and swearing, they beat a retreat, and the court was prevented from sitting. Fresh riots followed at Worcester and Concord. A regiment of cavalry, sent out by the governor, scoured Middlesex County, and, after a short fight in the woods near Groton, captured Job Shattuck and dispersed his men. But this only exasperated the insurgents. They assembled in Worcester to the number of 1200 or more, where they lived for two months at free quarters, while Shays organized and drilled them. Meanwhile the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended for eight months, and Governor Bowdoin called out an army of 4400 men, who were placed under command of General Lincoln. As the state treasury was nearly empty, some wealthy gentlemen in Boston subscribed the money needed for equipping these troops, and about the middle of January, 1787, they were collected at Worcester. The rebels had behaved shamefully, burning barns and seizing all the plunder they could lay hands on. As their numbers increased they found their military stores inadequate, and accordingly they marched upon Springfield, with the intent to capture the federal arsenal there, and provide themselves with muskets and cannon. General Shepard held Springfield with 1200 men, and on the 25th of January Shays attacked him with a force of somewhat more than 2000, hoping to crush him and seize the arsenal before Lincoln could come to the rescue. But his plan of attack was faulty, and as soon as his men began falling under Shepard’s fire a panic seized them, and they retreated in disorder to Ludlow, and then to Amherst, setting fire to houses and robbing the inhabitants. On the approach of Lincoln’s army, three days later, Shays retreated to Pelham, and planted his forces on two steep hills protected at the bottom by huge snowdrifts. Lincoln advanced to Hadley and sought to open negotiations with the rebels. They were reminded that a contest with the state government was hopeless, and that they had already incurred the penalty of death ; but if they would now lay down their arms and go home, a free pardon could be obtained for them. Shays seemed willing to yield, and Saturday, the 3d of February, was appointed for a conference between some of the leading rebels and some of the officers. But this was only a stratagem. During the conference Shays decamped and marched his men through Prescott and North Dana to Petersham. Toward nightfall the trick was discovered, and Lincoln set his whole force in motion over the mountain ridges of Shutesbury and New Salem. The day had been mild, but during the night the thermometer dropped below zero and an icy, cutting snow began to fall. There was great suffering during the last ten miles, and indeed the whole march of thirty miles in thirteen hours over steep and snow-covered roads was a worthy exploit for these veterans of the Revolution. Shays and his men had not looked for such a display of energy, and as they were getting their breakfast on Sunday morning at Petersham they were taken by surprise. A few minutes sufficed to scatter them in flight. A hundred and fifty, including Shays himself, were taken prisoners. The rest fled in all directions, most of them to Athol and Northfield, whence they made their way into Vermont. General Lincoln then marched his troops into the mountains of Berkshire, where disturbances still continued. On the 26th of February one Captain Hamlin, with several hundred insurgents, plundered the town of Stockbridge and carried off the leading citizens as hostages. He was pursued as far as Springfield, defeated there in a sharp skirmish, with a loss of some thirty in killed and wounded, and his troops scattered. This put an end to the insurrection in Massachusetts.
During the autumn similar disturbances had occurred in the States to the northward. At Exeter in New Hampshire and at Windsor and Rutland in Vermont the courts had been broken up by armed mobs, and at Rutland there had been bloodshed. When the Shays rebellion was put down, Governor Bowdoin requested the neighboring States to lend their aid in bringing the insurgents to justice, and all complied with the request except Vermont and Rhode Island. The legislature of Rhode Island sympathized with the rebels, and refused to allow the governor to issue a warrant for their arrest. On the other hand, the governor of Vermont issued a proclamation out of courtesy toward Massachusetts, but he caused it to be understood that this was but an empty form, as the State of Vermont could not afford to discourage immigration. A feeling of compassion for the insurgents was widely spread in Massachusetts. In March the leaders were tried, and fourteen were convicted of treason and sentenced to death ; but Governor Bowdoin, whose term was about to expire, granted a reprieve for a few weeks. At the annual election in April the candidates for the governorship were Bowdoin and Hancock, and it was generally believed that the latter would be more likely than the former to pardon the convicted men. So strong was this feeling that, although much gratitude was felt toward Bowdoin, to whose energetic measures the prompt suppression of the rebellion was due, Hancock obtained a large majority. When the question of a pardon came up for discussion, Samuel Adams, who was then president of the Senate, was strongly opposed to it, and one of his arguments was very characteristic. “ In monarchies,” he said, “ the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or highly punished ; but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” This was Adams’s sensitive point. He wanted the whole world to realize that the rule of a republic is a rule of law and order, and that liberty does not mean license. But in spite of this view, for which there was much to be said, the clemency of the American temperament prevailed, and Governor Hancock pardoned all the prisoners.
Nothing in the history of these disturbances is more instructive than the light incidentally thrown upon the relations between Congress and the state government. Just before the news of the rout at Petersham, Samuel Adams had proposed in the Senate that the governor should be requested to write to Congress and inform that body of what was going on in Massachusetts, stating that “ although the legislature are firmly persuaded that . . . in all probability they will be able speedily and effectively to suppress the rebellion, yet, if any unforeseen event should take place which may frustrate the measures of government, they rely upon such support from the United States as is expressly and solemnly stipulated by the articles of confederation.” A resolution to this effect was carried in the Senate, but defeated in the House through the influence of western county members in sympathy with the insurgents; and incredible as it may seem, the argument was freely used that it was incompatible with the dignity of Massachusetts to allow United States troops to set foot upon her soil. When we reflect that the arsenal at Springfield, where the most considerable disturbance occurred, was itself federal property, the climax of absurdity seems to have been reached. It was left for Congress itself, however, to cap that climax. The progress of the insurrection in the autumn in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, as well as the troubles in Rhode Island, had alarmed the whole country. It was feared that the insurgents in these States might join forces, and in some way kindle a flame that would run through the land. Accordingly, Congress in October called upon the States for a continental force, but did not dare to declare openly what it was to be used for. It was thought necessary to say that the troops were wanted for an expedition against the Northwestern Indians ! National humiliation could go no further than such a confession, on the part of our central government, that it dared not use force in defense of those very articles of confederation to which it owed its existence. Things had come to such a pass that people of all shades of opinion were beginning to agree upon one thing, — that something must be done, and done quickly.