I CANNOT . . . be surprised to hear your Excellency inquire, "Are your people getting mad? Are we to have the goodly fabric, that eight years were spent in raising, pulled over our heads? What is the cause of all these commotions? When and how will they end?" Although I cannot pretend to give a full and complete answer to them, yet I will make some observations which shall involve in them the best answers to the several questions in my power to give.
"Are your people getting mad?" Many of them appear to be absolutely so, if an attempt to annihilate our present Constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidences of insanity.
"Are we to have the goodly fabric, that eight years were spent in rearing, pulled over our heads?" There is great danger that it will be so, I think, unless the tottering system shall be supported by arms, and even then a government which has no other basis than the point of the bayonet, should one be suspended thereon, is totally different from the one established, at least in idea, by the different States that if we must have recourse to the sad experiment of arms it can hardly be said that we have supported "the goodly fabric." In this view of the matter, it may be "pulled over our heads." This probably will be the case, for there does not appear to be virtue enough among the people to preserve a perfect republican government.
"What is the cause of all these commotions?" The causes are too many and too various for me to pretend to trace and point them out. I shall therefore only mention some of those which appear to be the principal ones. Among those I may rank the ease with which property was acquired, with which credit was obtained, and debts were discharged in the time of the war. Hence people were diverted from their usual industry and economy. A luxuriant mode of living crept into vogue, and soon that income, by which the expenses of all should as much as possible be limited, was no longer considered as having anything to do with the question at what expense families ought to live, or rather which they ought not to have exceeded. The moment the day arrived when all discovered that things were fast returning back into their original channels, that the industrious were to reap the fruits of their industry, and that the indolent and improvident would soon experience the evils of their idleness and sloth, very many were startled by the idea, and instead of attempting to subject themselves to such a line of conduct, which duty to the public and a regard to their own happiness evidently pointed out, they contemplated how they should evade the necessity of reforming their system and of changing their present mode of life, they first complained of commutation, of the weight of public taxes, of the insupportable debt of the Union, of the scarcity of money, and of the cruelty of suffering the private creditors to call for their just dues. This catalogue of complaints was listened to by many. County conventions were formed, and the cry for paper money, subject to depreciation, as was declared by some of their public resolves, was the clamor of the day. But notwithstanding instructions to members of the General Court and petitions from different quarters, the majority of that body were opposed to the measures. Failing of their point, the disaffected in the first place attempted, and in many instances succeeded, to stop the courts of law, and to suspend the operations of government. This they hoped to do until they could by force sap the foundations of our Constitution, and bring into the legislature creatures of their own by which they could mold a government at pleasure, and make it subservient to all their purposes, and when an end should thereby be put to public and private debts, the agrarian law might follow with ease. In short, the want of industry, economy, and common honesty seem to be the causes of the present commotions.
It is impossible for me to determine "when and how they will end"; as I see little probability that they will be brought to a period, and the dignity of government supported, without bloodshed. When a single drop is drawn, the most prophetic spirit will not, in my opinion, be able to determine when it will cease flowing. The proportion of debtors run high in this State. Too many of them are against the government. The men of property and the holders of the public securities are generally supporters of our present Constitution. Few of these have been in the field, and it remains quite problematical whether they will in time so fully discover their own interests as they shall be induced thereby to lend for a season part of their property for the security of the remainder. If these classes of men should not turn out on the broad scale with spirit, and the insurgents should take the field and keep it, our Constitution will be overturned, and the Federal government broken in upon by lopping off one branch essential to the well being of the whole. This cannot be submitted to by the United States with impunity. They must send force to our aid: when this shall be collected, they will be equal to all purposes. . .
[February 22, 1787.] I had constant applications from committees, and selectmen of the several towns in the counties of Worcester and Hampshire, praying that the effusion of blood might be avoided; while the real design, as was supposed, of these applications was to stay our operations until a new court should be elected. They had no doubt if they could keep up their influence until another choice of the legislature and the executive that matters might be molded in General Court to their wishes. This to avoid was the duty of government. As all these applications breathed the same spirit, the same answer was given to them….
In this position I remained refreshing the troops who had suffered very severe fatigue. This also gave time for the several towns to use their influence with their own people to return, if they thought proper to urge it, and to circulate among Shays' men that they would be recommended for a pardon if they would come in, and lay down their arms. The second of February I was induced to reconnoiter Shays' post on his right, left, and rear. I had received information by General Putnam before, that we could not approach him in front. I intended to have approached him on the third inst. This reconnoitering gave him an alarm. At 3 o'clock in the morning of the third, I received an application from Wheeler, that he wished to confer with General Putnam. His request was granted. He seemed to have no object but his personal safety. No encouragement being given him on this head, he returned a little after noon. In the evening of the same day, I was informed that Shayshad left his ground, and had pointed his route towards Petersham in the county of Worcester, where he intended to make a stand as a number of towns in the vicinity had engaged to support him. Our troops were put in motion at 8 o'clock. The first part of the night was pleasant, and the weather clement, but between two and three o'clock in the morning, the wind shifting to the westward, it became very cold and squally, with considerable snow. The wind immediately arose very high, and with the light snow which fell the day before and was falling, the paths were soon filled up, the men became fatigued, and they were in a part of the country where they could not be covered in the distance of eight miles, and the cold was so increased, that they could not halt in the road to refresh themselves. Under these circumstances they were obliged to continue their march. We reached Petersham about 9 o'clock in the morning exceedingly fatigued with a march of thirty miles, part of it in a deep snow and in a most violent storm; when this abated, the cold increased and a great proportion of our men were frozen in some part or other, but none dangerously. We approached nearly the center of the town, where Shays had covered his men; and had we not been prevented from the steepness of a large hill at our entrance, and the depth of the snow, from throwing our men rapidly into it we should have arrested very probably one half this force; for they were so surprised as it was that they had not time to call in their out-parties, or even their guards. About 150 fell into our hands, and none escaped but by the most precipitate flight in different directions.
Thus that body of men who were a few days before offering the grossest insults to the best citizens of this commonwealth, and were menacing even government itself, were now nearly dispersed, without the shedding of blood but in an instance or two where the insurgents rushed on their own destruction. That so little has been shed is owing in a measure to the patience and obedience, the zeal and the fortitude in our troops, which would have done honor to veterans. A different line of conduct which Shays flattered his troops would have been followed, would have given them support, and led them to acts of violence, while it must have buoyed up the hopes of their abettors, and stimulated them to greater exertions. . .
. . . I at once threw detachments into different parts of the county, for the purpose of protecting the friends to government and apprehending those who had been in arms against it. This business is pretty fully accomplished, and there are no insurgents together in arms in the site.
General Benjamin Lincoln
December 4, 1786, February 22, 1787
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