Rebellious America

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Our research often focuses on the larger and more well-known conflicts in our history: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, etc. There were, however, many smaller events – rebellions of one type or another – in which our ancestors took part. There were so many, in fact, that a Wikipedia article, entitled List of Incidents of Civil Unrest in the United States, includes 324 incidents of “civil unrest, rioting, violent labor disputes in addition to minor insurrections and revolts.”

Some of the more colorfully named events include the Boston Brothel Riot of 1737 (there was also a Brothel Riot in New York City in 1793); the 1855 Lager Beer Riot in Chicago, Illinois; the Portland Rum Riot in Portland, Maine, also in 1855; and the Dead Rabbits Riot in New York City in 1857. While some of the more well-known incidents include Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676; the War of the Regulation in North Carolina between 1764 and 1771; the Boston Massacre in 1770; Virginia’s Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 and Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831; John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859; the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania in 1892; the Kent State shootings in Ohio in 1970; and a long list of race riots in the 1960s and 1970s, it appears that Americans are particularly fractious about issues relating to taxes (not only early in our history, but currently as well).

One of the first tax-related outcries followed Britain’s passage of the Stamp Act of 1765, also known as the Duties in America Colonies Act (5 George III, c. 12). Following the Seven Years’ War (known in America as the French and Indian War), England found itself short of requisite funds to garrison 10,000 troops in the colonies. In order to raise the necessary revenues, Parliament imposed a direct tax on residents in its colonies in British America and the British West Indies. The act required that printed materials be printed on official British-produced paper bearing a revenue stamp. The scope of printed materials requiring such treatment was broad including legal documents, magazines, and newspapers. The regulations required that the tax be paid with British currency, not with American paper money. Needless to say, the did not take the imposition of this tax well, and opposition was both wide-spread and often violent with Sons of Liberty groups forcing stamp tax collectors to resign their commissions at the very least, and subjecting them to tar and feathering at the worst. When colonists, joined by British merchants, continued to voice their objections to the act, it was repealed in 1766.

The Stamp Act had followed earlier taxation legislation such as the Molasses Act (1733) and the Sugar Act (1764). When in 1773, Parliament passed yet another tax levy, the Tea Act, open rebellion in Boston prompted the December 16th dumping of three shiploads of tea into the harbor – the infamous Boston Tea Party. Taken as a whole, this string of tax acts was instrumental in making “taxation without representation” one of the paramount issues in the escalation toward the outbreak of war in 1775.

The end of the Revolutionary War, however, did not mark the end of unrest. Indeed, the period immediately following the conflict was one in which the leaders of the new nation argued about the appropriate role of central government, as well as how far-reaching the control of such an institution should extend into the authority of the several states and into the lives of citizens (even today, a familiar discussion). Inevitably, dissention arose over a variety of issues with governmental leaders divided as to the appropriateness of any such dissention itself. Samuel Adams stated that “Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” Thomas Jefferson, however, said that “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.”

One of the great debates of the time was whether the United States was destined to be an agrarian or mercantile nation. The New England states were characterized, for the most part, by an agrarian way of life that focused on the community. Following the war, however, the merchants in larger cities like Boston had a more cosmopolitan outlook and wanted to re-establish the trans-Atlantic trade. The latter had been greatly disrupted by such British legislation as the Coercive Acts, which had closed Boston’s ports to commerce. Massachusetts legislators, believing that revenues must be generated to reestablish mercantile trade while also reducing debts accumulated during the war, levied heavy land taxes on citizens of the commonwealth. Already reeling from a depressed economy, many of the farmers in central and western Massachusetts felt that these taxes were so high that they would be unable to pay them and would therefore be faced with debtors’ prison. Coupled with their twin frustrations over delayed or non-receipt of military pay and bounty lands and the slow response of the Massachusetts legislators to their grievances, the issue reached the boiling point during the fall of 1786.

Enter Daniel Shays, a thirty-nine-year old farmer and veteran of several major battles of the Revolutionary War. Shays and other western Massachusetts farmers of a similar mind began to organize with the intent of marching on the debtors’ courts to force them to postpone action against delinquent tax payers. Hearing of these mobilizations, the merchants of Boston and members of the legislature feared that a state of anarchy might soon exist in the commonwealth and appealed to the Congress of the Confederation for money with which to raise troops. When that body was unable to raise the necessary funds, an army was personally funded and fielded by Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin and various members of the merchant class. The rebellion came to a head when Shays and his forces marched to the government arsenal in Springfield in January 1787 in order to seize its stockpile. Once armed, they believed they could defend themselves against the troops marching toward them from the eastern areas of the state. Militia stationed at the arsenal fired on the rebels, killing and wounding several; the rest quickly retreated. Shays fled to Vermont, but about 200 of the rebels were indicted and prosecuted by a special court. Although five were charged with treason and condemned to hang, John Hancock was elected governor before the sentences could be carried out. His leadership helped ameliorate the situation and at the very last moment all were reprieved.

During a recent visit to the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I discovered that within the microfilmed William Williams Collection is a group of materials entitled “Shay’s Rebellion Papers.” These records include provision returns from western Massachusetts containing thirty-two provisioning requests (12 January – 23 September), seven letters to Major General Benjamin Lincoln (the leader of the forces sent to quell the rebellion), and two intelligence reports by selectmen of Richmond, Massachusetts, detailing rebel movements. In addition, the collection included a prisoner list, dated 12 February 1787, naming men from Pittsfield, Williamstown, New Ashford, Dalton, Worthington, Cummington, and Plainfield, as well as muster rolls of Capt. Azariah Ashley’s company in Col. Timothy Newell’s regiment, and Capt. Henry Porter’s company in Col. Ezra Badlam’s regiment. Researchers can also come by further information about Shay’s Rebellion through diligent searching. A subject search online at the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) allowed me to browse through several related entries. I located a cemetery record for Edmund Merriam whose gravestone in Union, Tolland County, Connecticut, noted that he had served in Shay’s Rebellion. A second entry quoted from a compiled genealogy, entitled Cooley Genealogy: the Descendants of Ensign Benjamin Cooley, relating a family legend in which Isaac Cooley (born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 30 May 1745) “saved his salted shad at the time of Shay’s Rebellion, when Shay’s men were taking all provisions they could find. Isaac partly emptied the barrels, filled them with ashes from the fireplaces, and denied having any shad on the place.” More information on Shay’s Rebellion and its impact on the history of this time period, including selected documents, can be found online at Shays’ Rebellion and the Making of a Nation.

Approximately four years later, in 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania became incensed when Congress imposed an excise tax on whiskey. With all possibility of realizing any profit extinguished, riots broke out and tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Hostilities reached a crescendo in July 1794 when a federal marshal was attacked in Allegheny County, where mobs also attacked the residence of a regional inspector, burning it to the ground. Other mob incidents occurred in Pittsburgh. When President George Washington’s plea for the rebels to disperse was ignored, he ordered governors of the surrounding states to summon their respective militias. General Lighthorse Harry Lee was put in command of 13,000 men charged with putting down the “Whiskey Rebellion.” This action represented one of the first tests of the power of the newly formed federal government.  By December, the insurrection had been suppressed. About 100 men were arrested, but only two were convicted of treason. They were eventually pardoned by Washington and released. The Papers of the War Department: 1784-1800 provides access to 309 digitized documents concerning the rebellion, including correspondence from Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, George Washington, Henry Knox and others. A search on the NEHGS web site referred me to a Footnote pension record (114 pages long!) for Martin Baldwin of New Jersey (R449; Bounty Land Warrant 79704-160-55), who served in the Revolutionary War, the Whiskey Rebellion and the War of 1812. In an affidavit, Baldwin stated that “he volunteered into the service of the United States at Hanover…and marched to Pittsburg [sic] Penn. And served for three Months as Second Sargeant [sic] in what was termed the ‘Whiskey Rebellion.’” In addition, a Google search provided several sites relating to the Whiskey Rebellion including a document offered at auction by Heritage Auctions in 2007. This original document, dated 4 March 1795 and entitled “List of Prisoners Committed for Crimes against the United States,” named thirty men arrested when federal troops arrived in western Pennsylvania. Eight individuals bid on the document which sold for an astounding $4,182.50. A digitized image of the document is available at the auction site along with a transcription of the names included, including three individuals who were committed for piracy.

Contemporary unrest in the United States over taxes is certainly not a new phenomenon. Our history is full of examples of unrest and outright rebellion engendered by negative reactions – spurred as much by emotions as logic. A detailed historical look at the issue can be found at the web site of the Tax History Museum.

Other titles for further reading include:

Clouse, Jerry A. The Whiskey Rebellion: Southwestern Pennsylvania Frontier People Test the American Constitution. (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995).

Gross, Robert A. In Debt to Shay’s: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion (Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1992).

Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: the American Revolution’s Final Battle (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1988).

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