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The Parties

The People

The families who organized resistance to the government's taxation and fiscal policy ran the gamut from laborers to small yeomen farmers to wealthy landowners, retired officers from the Revolutionary War, and even some members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

The Regulators were people who had strongly backed the Revolutionary cause, and went to fight in large numbers. They operated on a trade or barter economy, selling their produce to merchants in the towns to make money for imported goods such as glass and medicine, buttons and cloth.  They mostly made do from their land, making clothing from flax (less often from wool), taking dyes, teas, and medicines from their fields and forests, making sugar from maple syrup (as opposed to the refined cane sugar from the Indies), and making their furniture by hand.

The Scots-Irish farmers of Pelham, Colrain, and Montague spoke with a characteristic brogue, and their fierce self-reliance was mocked as ornery and uncouth by the more genteel people in the towns.

Nevertheless, for months, they submitted flowery and servile petitions, stating that they "sincerely deprecate the consequences of anarchy," as they reassured their government and the public that they were “induced by the ties of friendship, and by the stronger laws which religion inculcates, of doing as we would be done by.”

It was only when these petitions were totally ignored that they took direct action, although they declined to use violence, because they needed to show their countrymen that they were proud, patriotic veterans and farmers, not the "lawless, democratic hordes" who aroused people's fear of instability in the newly country.

Click here for more about Daniel Shays.

The Government

The British departure from Boston during the Revolution left a bureaucratic  vacuum that was filled by powerful, ambitious men who did not have experience administering the commonwealth's business.  From the influential shipping hub of Boston, wealthy merchants' orchestrated trade in ports throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bringing manufactured goods from England and spices and cotton from Asia.

The wealthy merchants maintained European fashions, and sponsored the creation of inland towns, paying for surveyors and road builders, then selling plots of land to settlers who maintained traditional agricultural cultures that seemed backward and coarse to the urban merchants.

When the British Navigation Acts closed the Indies ports to American shipping in 1784, this class stood to lose fortunes if creditors seized their assets or warehouses.  At the same time, they were deeply afraid of the regular people, and feared that "levelling impulses" would take hold of the "democratic hordes" unleashed by independence. In this atmosphere of paranoia and fear, the powerful men in Boston backed James Bowdoin in his fiscal policies and then in his heavy-handed response to the people's protests.

In newspapers throughout the state, government supporters and farmers competed for the people's support.  In the election of April 1787, voters in Massachusetts backed the people by 2:1, driving Bowdoin out of office, and bringing John Hancock back to defuse the crisis with less inflammatory policies.