J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

A Shays’ Rebellion Website

From the Massachusetts Humanities Council comes news of the Springfield Technical Community College’s multimedia website titled Shays’ Rebellion & the Making of a Nation.

The website explains:

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) is located on the 55-acre Springfield Armory National Historic Site. In 1789, George Washington selected this site for the nation’s first armory; Springfield Armory was established by Congress in 1794. This location is the actual historic site where the Shays’ Rebellion assault on the Springfield Arsenal occurred; consequently the College has a special commitment to the preservation and the communication of the significance of this historic site.
The pages are rich in pictures of documents and artifacts about the Regulators in western Massachusetts in the mid-1780s, including a starred flag said to have been used by Lt. Col. Hugh Maxwell during the Revolution (shown above). However, there are also many portraits and pictures that don’t come from the period, so be sure to check the dates.

I’m a little confused by this map of how towns voted on the U.S. Constitution, which was a reaction to this uprising. Different webpages identify that map as showing results from 1788 (the correct date) and from 1792. Ratification was decided by a convention in Boston, furthermore, so does this show how a town’s delegates to that convention voted or how a town instructed its delegates to vote? 

It might also be interesting to see maps of the town-by-town votes on the two draft Massachusetts constitutions that towns considered in the late 1770s. This page explains how the Massachusetts legislature drafted the first of those, and in 1778 town meetings voted it down. The state tried again by summoning a convention to draft a document and then showing the result to the towns for their approval.

As I recall, both times many town meetings expressed only conditional approval. For the earlier draft, such votes were interpreted as “no, unless...,” so the constitution failed. The second time, the state’s political leaders decided to count such votes as “yes, as long as...,” even if the conditions weren’t met. And that constitution passed. (We still use it today.) By the mid-1780s some citizens were demanding a new or amended state constitution; that was part of the “Shaysite” cause.

Caitlin G. D. Hopkins featured another artifact of the conflict last month: a grave marker for a man killed in the state’s campaign to subdue the uprising. Jacob Walker was, it seemed, a victim of “the impious hand of Treason & Rebellion.” Funny—that’s what Loyalists saw as the problem ten years before.

Of course, there is a crucial difference between resisting a government one has had a chance to vote on and a government one hasn’t. Which brings us back to those ratification debates.

On 12 September, Springfield Technical will host an exhibition of Bryant White’s paintings illustrating Shays’ Rebellion, featured on this website. The next day there will be a symposium exploring the event’s continuing relevance.


RJO said...

I understand there was a 30-minute documentary (?) made in 1975 called "The People vs. Job Shattuck" -- I haven't seen it but would very much like to. Perhaps STCC or someone else can find a way to put it on the web.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad to see this. As someone who grew up in Western Massachusetts and then lived in Boston for a decade, I clearly understand why Shay and others found the elitist attitude of Eastern Mass so annoying.

The 45th smallest state in the Union, but as far as Boston is concerned, nothing exists past Route 128.

I know live in a much bigger state and somehow they are so much better at recognizing their entire domain.

I find that Boston was and is to this day amazingly provincial for such a relatively big city.

Western Mass folks do talk about breaking away and becoming their own state rather than give money to a city that often ignores it. I hope some day that revolution comes and I will be more than happy to help them seceed.

Nice site, BTW.