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Shays' rebellion

03/02/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) At about this time in the winter of 1787, small groups of desperate men and their families fled to Vermont in search of political asylum. Commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us who they were and why they came here.

(HENNINGSEN) By the late 1780's, citizens of western Massachusetts had endured years of oppressive economic policies imposed by a tight-fisted state government dominated by eastern gentry. Unable to pay their taxes, facing imprisonment for debt and the loss of their farms to foreclosure, desperate men gathered in town meetings and county conventions to petition for relief. For almost a decade the legislature turned a deaf ear to their requests.

By fall 1786 outraged farmers had had enough. From Worcester west, armed bands prevented courts from sitting in order to stop further foreclosures. Calling themselves "Regulators," they repeatedly asserted that they didn't intend to overthrow the government, but merely wanted the legislature to act on their grievances.

Unwilling to negotiate, the state government recruited an army to crush what it termed a "rebellion." Desperate for arms and ammunition, Regulators under Daniel Shays attacked the federal arsenal at Springfield and were repulsed by artillery fire, leaving three dead. As the state army chased insurgents through the western hills, the so-called rebellion collapsed in the winter snows of 1787.

To George Washington, this apparent rebellion by citizens against their own government signaled the imminent collapse of the American experiment. It led him to participate in the Constitutional Convention and to urge others to do so. Thomas Jefferson took a brighter view, arguing that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing." The so-called rebels, he suggested, only wanted to send their government a message. He was right.

But Massachusetts wanted to shoot the messengers and many Regulators fled to the independent republic of Vermont to avoid arrest. Under pressure to extradite the fugitives, Governor Chittenden urged Vermonters not to aid them. But since everyone knew that Chittenden's Arlington neighbors were hiding Shays and others - and knew that he knew it too - no one paid much attention.

Vermont's willingness to harbor outlaws reinforced perceptions of the Green Mountain republic as New England's loose cannon. As an independent nation welcoming the discontented, and more than once flirting with the idea of joining Canada, it threatened the security of its neighbors. To settle the "Vermont Problem", Alexander Hamilton pressured New Yorkers to abandon long-standing land claims, paving the way for Vermont's admission to the union in 1791.

And the refugees? In the end, they got what they wanted: to be left alone.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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