Shays' Rebellion (1786-87) and the Constitution

For the farmers, no way out.


When we read about the troubles of the indebted farmers in Massachusetts, sometimes the eighteenth-century language and the abstract words don’t help us. Below, a modern storyteller allows us to listen in on the thoughts and angry words of fictional characters caught up in the “chain of debt.”

In these passages from The Winter Soldier, a novel of Shays’ Rebellion by the Collier brothers, the narrator is a teen-aged boy named Justin. His uncle Peter can’t pay 40 shillings to Major Mattoon, so the sheriff is taking away his pair of oxen.

    Peter reached out, grabbed the sheriff's forearm, and squeezed it. "Mattoon sent you."
    The sheriff looked back at Peter, pretty calm. "Never mind Mattoon," he said. "I have a legal order to take these oxen."
    "Signed by Mattoon."
    "He's a justice of the peace. It's legal."
    "It may be legal, but it's not right. How am I going to plow without oxen?" […]
    The sheriff stopped tying the rope and stared at Peter. "Look," he said, "I don't like this either. It's the law. You borrowed money from Mattoon and you didn't pay him. He's got a legal right to take the oxen."
    "As the law he signs the order; as my creditor he takes my oxen," Peter shouted.      "How can I pay anybody anything when every time I turn around Mattoon and his kind in the General Court have plastered on another tax?" […]
    "You're not the only one," Sheriff Porter said. "Yesterday I took a horse and a plow from James Bacon and the day before, a hundred weight of flax from Hezakiah White. And last week we had to foreclose on a farm down in Amherst. I didn't like any of it, either, Peter, but that's the law."
    "Mattoon's law," Peter shouted. "How come the high and mighty have got the laws on their side and the plain man hasn't got any on his? Who makes the laws?"
    "The General Court—"  [  the Massachusetts legislature. ]
    "The General Robbers. The General Lawyers. The General Liars and Cheaters." He spit. "No, sir, Porter, you're not taking my oxen. I'm warning you. Untie them and get off my farm." […]
    "Now, Peter," the sheriff said calmly, "you prevent me today, and they'll just send four of us up here tomorrow to pick up the oxen and maybe take you along as well for interfering with the law. There's no use in it."
                                           
The above passage is from:
James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. The Winter Hero. New York: Scholastic, 1978. Pages 2-4.

As we read on, we realize that the farmers had no way out of debt. It’s as if, today, you need to have your usual steady income to support yourself and pay your bills – but the government declares that your dollar bills are only worth pennies, and your credit cards are not recognized any more.

The following discussion between Justin and his aunt Molly is also from the opening chapter of The Winter Soldier. We learn how much the loss of a pair of oxen actually means.

    "Everybody owes money. Everybody through this whole part of the state owes money."
    It seemed like that was true. For the past few years, ever since the war stopped, all you ever heard about was debts and taxes and people going to court and paying huge lawyer fees. "Well, I don't understand it," I said.
    "It's hard to understand," she said. "It's hard to understand why we have to struggle so, and lose our oxen, and those like Mattoon have all the money and great houses and don't have to dirty their hands working from one year to the next."
    "With all he's got, why would he want to take Peter's oxen? What can it mean to him?"
    "That's the way those people think," she said. "They think they're lords and masters of everything. They think they're the high and mighty and we're nothing. They don't care about people at all, it seems ­ only about things. Having more and more things ­ getting richer and richer."
    I felt pretty sunk. It was hard enough running the farm as it was. Peter had only thirty acres. That was a pretty small farm, so we had to use every inch of it. That meant plowing some awfully stony fields. Without oxen there was no way to do it. Even if we could borrow a team of oxen from somebody for the plowing, that was only the beginning. What about hauling firewood up from the woodlot? We'd have to carry that on our backs, tons and tons of it.
    Or bringing our flax down to Amherst ­ we'd have to put that up in fifty-pound bundles and walk nine miles with it on our backs. And if we cut up some oak planking to sell, the way Peter did in the winters, we'd have to carry the planks to whoever bought them on our shoulders one at a time. Leastwise, I'd have to carry them one at a time. Peter could easily take two and maybe three. It looked to me like the end of the oxen was the end of the farm.
[…]
    "Peter," I said, "I don't see how we can run the farm without the oxen."
    "I know," he said. "We're going to get them back."
    "How?"
    "We're going over to see Daniel Shays," he said.

The above passage is from:
James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. The Winter Hero. New York: Scholastic, 1978. Pages 10-11.

Back to the narrative.

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about Shays' Rebellion -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows:

James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, The Winter Hero. 
New York: Scholastic, 1978. Pages (number). 
Quoted in Calliope Film Resources, "Shays' Rebellion." Copyright 2009 CFR. 
http://www.calliope.org/shays/shays3.html . 
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

Teachers! Shays' Rebellion highlights important themes about the period between the Revolution and the Constitution. Use the half-hour DVD from Calliope and accompanying teacher's guide to enhance your curriculum. Back to Top

More about the DVD
CURRICULUM BUILDER Shays' Rebellion and the Constitution -- Teacher's Guide
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Updated Sept 1 2009