Newman on Condon, 'Shays's Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-revolutionary America'

Sean Condon. Shays's Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-revolutionary America. Witness to History Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. 176 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4214-1743-1; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-1742-4.

Reviewed by Paul D. Newman (University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown)
Published on H-SHEAR (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Robert P. Murray

One Historian's Rebel Is Another's Regulator

With Shays's Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-revolutionary America, Sean Condon presents Johns Hopkins University Press's twelfth installment of the Witness to History series. Launched nearly a decade ago, the series seeks to present "brief evocative accounts of signal events in American history ... emphasizing narrative ... in a format suitable for undergraduate course adoptions."[1] Condon succeeds by writing an engaging narrative in straightforward prose that builds excitement as it chronicles the revolutionary events in post-revolutionary Massachusetts.

Condon's narrative is free from historiographical discussion or argument, though a brief bibliographic essay ends the book. There are five chapters, bookended by a prologue that portrays the Worcester Court closing in September 1786 and an epilogue that considers the event's impact on the U.S. Constitutional Convention and Massachusetts's ratifying convention in 1787. The book uses primary and secondary sources familiar to any scholar of the event: petitions; the correspondence of Governor James Bowdoin, General Benjamin Lincoln, and General Wiliam Shepard; depositions and records of the trials; newspaper accounts; and the works of Robert J. Taylor, David P. Szatmary, Robert A. Freer, Leonard L. Richards, and other prominent scholars of early national Massachusetts history. In terms of the materials used and ground covered, there is nothing new here, but Condon's interpretation merits close attention. Among the book-length manuscripts (dissertations too) specific to Shays's Rebellion, this one is the most sympathetic to the Bowdoin administration in terms of its legislative agenda, its military suppression of the rebellion, and its prosecutions (and executions) for treason. Condon seems to be building on work performed in shorter essays by Richard Buel Jr. and William A. Pencak.[2] 

Condon recognizes the "rebels" as "regulators" and explains the depth of the tradition of "regulation movements" in England and the American colonies. He emphasizes that the resistance movement specifically, and continually, referred to itself as a "regulation," and the resistors referred to themselves as "regulators." The regulators demanded debt relief, paper currency, in-kind tender laws, a halt to the collection of the interest accruing to the state's debts owed to wealthy state creditors, a new state constitution with more equal representation, a central and accessible state capitol location, elimination of the Court of Common Pleas, lowering or elimination of court fees, and the suspension of the courts until all of these demands could be addressed by the State House in the spring of 1787. That their grievances held real merit, and that they were a political movement for state constitutional reform, has become so accepted that some scholars, including me, advocate for the renaming of this event as "Shays's Regulation." It was only rebellion in the eyes of the Bowdoin administration and its supporters. Condon adds his voice to this perspective, in spite of the title appearing on the cover.

But then again, Condon devotes considerable effort to put the reader in the shoes of the administration. While not absolving the governor and the "friends of government" for their political errors—refusing the governor's own pay reduction, refusing to consider a moratorium on collecting the interest owed to the state's debts, suspending the writ of habeus corpus, and waiting too long to respond to the regulators' grievances—Condon does effectively explain the administration's beliefs and actions. He thoroughly explains Bowdoin's and the creditors' beliefs in hard money policies and their desire to tamp down inflation; and he reveals the real spot they were in, with a combined state debt and monies owed to the confederation government of nearly one million dollars in 1786. By mid-autumn, the governor and legislature tried to meet the regulators' lesser demands with revised tender laws and some debt relief short of paper money, but by then the court closings were in full swing, and Bowdoin's administration met the challenge to authority by calling on the state militia and raising money to fund it through subscriptions because the state treasury had dried up with the regulation of tax collection by the "rebels." Condon regards General Shepard's decision to fire his howitzer into Shays's line, killing four, at Springfield on January 25 a mistake. The administration's early ideas of a three-year forfeiture of the rights of citizenship were quickly revised as pardons began to flow by the summer of 1787. Even sixteen of eighteen men found guilty of treason and sentenced to hang were pardoned. The two who faced the noose were more robbers than rebels who used operations in late spring for the purpose of plunder. But the people of Massachusetts returned a verdict against the administration later in 1787 when they gave more than 75 percent of the vote to Bowdoin's opponent John Hancock, returning him to the governor's chair. Hancock's administration expedited pardons and carried out some regulator-demanded reforms, but it would be the new federal government and its assumption of state debts that provided the most significant relief for Massachusetts regulators, and then its shift of the tax burden to whiskey distillers in western Pennsylvania with the federal excise tax in 1791.

This brief but powerful book will be an ideal addition to undergraduate courses on the Revolution and early national era, and could accompany a survey of early American history for first-year college students as well. The burden will be on the instructor to place this work within the existing historiography, but the narrative is so engaging and the explanation of complex economic and political subjects are so clear that this slim volume should hold the attention of today's students and introduce them to the most important problems and dilemmas of revolution, democracy, and republican governance. Scholars of eighteenth-century regulations and rebellions should also read this book to see how to hold elite powers responsible for their mismanagement, but at the same time to explain the pressures they faced, their challenges as they perceived them, and their method for choosing among the available options—for good or ill. Moreover, this is an excellent choice for the general reader who upon reading this, might wish for a similar volume on the Whiskey Rebellion.


[1]. Quotation is from a call for proposals for the series. See 

[2]. Richard Buel Jr., "The Public Creditor Interest in Massachusetts Politics, 1780-1786," in In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, ed. Robert A. Gross (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 47-56; and William A. Pencak, "'The Fine Theoretic Government of Massachusetts Is Prostrated to the Earth,'" in In Debt to Shays, 121-144.

Printable Version:

Citation: Paul D. Newman. Review of Condon, Sean, Shays's Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-revolutionary America. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. December, 2015.

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