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Creating a Demagogue: The Political Origins of Daniel Shays’s Erroneous Legacy in American Political History


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What are the political consequences of negative political theory concepts such as demagoguery? What happens when they are deployed in a way that brands an innocent victim with a reputation he or she does not deserve? This article contends that Daniel Shays was just such a victim. Despite playing only a peripheral role in the erroneously named “Shays’s Rebellion” of 1786–87, Shays himself was singled out by elites looking for ways to deflect blame away from themselves and their oligarchic Massachusetts regime. Subsequently labeling the movement “Shays’s Rebellion,” these elites cemented the narrative that Shays had led protest movements in western Massachusetts. Shays thus entered American political vernacular as the paradigmatic demagogue—and “Shays’s Rebellion” became the example of demagogue-led state failure—through the successful weaponization of a political idea. More broadly, the Shays case functions as a window into the relationship between ideas and political development in American politics.
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Creating a Demagogue:
The Political Origins of Daniel
Shayss Erroneous Legacy
in American Political History
What are the political consequences of negative political theory concepts such as dema-
goguery? What happens when they are deployed in a way that brands an innocent victim
with a reputation he or she does not deserve? This article contends that Daniel Shays was
just such a victim. Despite playingonly a peripheral rolein the erroneously named Shayss
Rebellionof 178687, Shays himself was singled out by eliteslooking for ways to deect
blame away from themselves and their oligarchic Massachusetts regime. Subsequently la-
beling the movement Shayss Rebellion,these elites cemented the narrative that Shays
had led protest movements in western Massachusetts. Shays thus entered American polit-
ical vernacular as the paradigmatic demagogueand ShayssRebellionbecame the ex-
ample of demagogue-led state failurethrough the successful weaponization of a political
idea. More broadly, the Shays case functions as a window into the relationship between
ideas and political development in American politics.
In high party times, a vanquished reformer is most likely to be branded by the victors
as an incendiary and a demagogue. (John Adams, 1787)
Charles U. Zug is assistant professor, Center for the Study of Government and the Individual, University of
Colorado Colorado Springs, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918 (
I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers, as well as editors Susan McWilliams Barndt and
Jeremy Bailey, for their insightful feedback. I presented earlier versions of this article at the 2018 APSA Meet-
ing and at the graduate fellowship program at theClements Center for National Security; I am grateful for the
comments and suggestions I received at these events. I am alsograteful tothe members of Reviewer 2 Happy
Hour: Connor Ewing, ThomasBell, Brianne Wolf,Robinson Woodward-Burns,and Anthony Ives. Aboveall,
I would like to thank Jeffrey Tulis, for his advice on this project and for everything else.
American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, volume 10, number 4, fall 2021.
© 2021 The Jack Miller Center. All rights reserved. Published by The University of Chicago Press for the JMC and in
association with the American Political Th ought organized section of the American Politica l Science Association. https://
Like terms such as fascistand perhaps populist(Mudde and Kaltwasser
2017), the word demagogueis a Kampfbegriff or battle term,frequently
used as an effort to discredit ones political adversaries rather than to describe
them in analytically useful ways (Roberts-Miller 2019; Zug 2020a).
This is
not a new rhetorical development, of course. In recent years, some scholars
(e.g., Ceaser 2009; Tulis 2010) have sketched a more sophisticated approach
to the subject, according to which demagoguery is a distinctive form of rhetoric
that might be deployed for better and worse purposes. By and large, however,
most have followed a narrower, more conventional approach. Following the
classic essay by James Fenimore Cooper (1981), scholars have tended to charac-
terize demagogues as morally defective leaders who use oratory to manipulate
popular emotions for the sake of their own personal aggrandizement and
cruciallyat the expense of the public good (e.g., Luthin 1954; Nevins 1954;
Sindler 1956; Key 1968; Signer 2009; Ceaser 2011; Muller 2016; Galston 2018;
Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Wolfe 2018; Howell and Moe 2019; Knott 2019; Mer-
cieca 2020).
Coopers own account is rooted in the classical republican tradition
(Clark 2007), according to which demagogues can be distinguished from states-
menonthebasisoftheirmoral choice(proairēsis;Aristotle,Rhetoric 1355b14)
to use rhetoric for the sake of their own advantage, irrespective of what justice
for the community demands. Accordingly, for the demagogue, personal ambi-
tion provides no limiting principle on what rhetorical lengths he or she will
go to to satisfy his or her ambitions. Thus, Aristotle contends that democracies
revolt chiey on accountnot of political or economic inequality but of the li-
centiousness (aselgeian) of demagogues(Politics 1304b20), and that the de-
mocracy of Kos was overthrown when morally evil (ponēros) demagogues
came into being(1304b25).
What are the potential political consequences of negative political theory con-
cepts such as demagoguery? What happens when they are falsely yet successfully
deployed in a way that brands an innocent victim with a reputation he or she
does not deserve? This article contends that Daniel Shaysthe alleged leader
of the so-called Shayss Rebellionof 178687was just such a victim. Despite
playing only a peripheral role in the largely decentralized Massachusetts agrarian
protest movement of those years, Shays was singled out by state and national
1. The term Kampfbegriff is relatively unfamiliar in English-language scholarship (though
see Meyer 2019). Broadly, it refers to slogans and buzzwordsthat resonate intuitively despite
being widely regarded as lacking analytical rigor and depth. The puzzle, which I take up in this
case study, is why they continue to have rhetorical purchase even though many see them as lacking
conceptual purchase. Part of what distinguishes these terms from other American political tropes,
such as the jeremiad, is that they have a distinctly negative connotation that incentivizes those la-
beled to deny the accusation. See also, e.g., Murphy (2009) and Van Engen (2020).
2. For a very helpful discussion of the limits of this approach, see Roberts-Miller (2019,
introduction). See also Zug (2020a, 2020b).
602 American Political Thought Fall 2021
elites looking for ways to deect blame away from themselves and the oligarchic
Massachusetts regime, whose structure disenfranchised most farmers and played
a major part in gutting the state economy (Szatmary 1980; Richards 2002; Con-
don 2015). In the fall of 1786, the Confederation Congress commissioned Henry
Knox, a gure from the Revolutionary War, to investigate the events in Massa-
chusetts. Knox subsequently penned a wildly exaggeratedreport to other
elites, including George Washington and Henry Lee (Beeman 2010, 17). Though
these elites did not yet know of Shays, they speculated without evidence that cer-
tain malcontents”—as opposed to grim economic conditionswere responsi-
ble for the protests, and that the aim of these malcontents was not to reform the
polity but to obliterate it for the sake of their own gain (e.g., Beeman 2010, 17;
Condon 2015). Subsequently labeling the movement Shayss Rebellion,these
elites capitalized on a chance occurrenceShays happened to be at the head of
a small contingent of farmers when these were dispersed by Knox at the federal
arsenal at Springeld, Massachusettsby falsely alleging that Shays had been
the prime mover of the entire six-month protest movement. Shays subsequently
entered American political vernacular as the paradigmatic demagogueand
Shayss Rebellionbecame the example of demagogue-led state failureas a
consequence of the successful strategic deployment of a negative political concept.
3. One might reasonably ask whether the Massachusetts movement itself could still be
categorized as demagogic,even if Shays did not actually lead it and its organizational
structure was primarily decentralized. Of course, the answer to this question will hinge on
the theory of demagoguery that one happens to be using. On this score, a full exposition
of the theoretical debate over demagoguery is beyond the scope of this inquiry; my chief bur-
den is to demonstrate that those who alleged that Shays was the demagogue responsible for
Shayss Rebellion failed on their own terms, irrespective of the adequacy of their theory. Nev-
ertheless, it is worth noting that some scholars have dened demagoguery as a form of po-
litical leadership that necessarily concerns individual behavior (e.g., Ceaser 1979, 2009; Tulis
2010, 2017; Mercieca 2020), whereas others see it as a form of culture or discourse that does
not necessarily concern individual, or even political, acts (Roberts-Miller 2019). In the latter
view, it is possible for a whole organization or movement to be demagogic if, on the whole, its
discourse conforms to certain rhetorical patterns. For Roberts-Miller, these patterns include,
above all, scapegoating and dividing the world into in-groups and out-groups. Accordingly,
Roberts-Miller would say that to the extent that a movement or organization argues about
problems in terms of these distinctions, instead of confronting the evidence and logic that dif-
ferent interlocutors articulate, it is suffering from demagoguery. In light of this theory, both
sides of the Massachusetts movementinsurgents and elitescertainly trafcked in dema-
goguery, while also employing more deliberative forms of rhetoric. This fact should prompt
us to ask how useful it is to categorize groups and movements, as opposed to individual lead-
ers, as demagogicafter all, every group will contain both demagogic and deliberative ele-
ments. An alternative approach would be to ask whether some political and social move-
ments are demagogic by virtue of their substantive goals, not by virtue of the rhetoric and
discourse that is characteristic of them. But this approach, too, runs into difculties. What
would make a substantive goal meaningfully demagogic rather than, say, egalitarian, or dem-
ocratic, or populist? As these problems indicate, and as I will suggest in the conclusion, it is
better to think of demagoguery as a form of rhetoric (as opposed to the substance of speech)
Creating a Demagogue 603
Did elites label Shays as a demagogue because they earnestly believed him to be
one, or rather because it was in their own self- and class interest to discredit the
protest movement with which he was associated? In this regard, my argument is
less about the personal motives of elites such as Henry Knoxthough exploring
their motives would certainly be a worthwhile historical inquiryand more
about the way in which those leaders availed themselves of a preexisting idea-
tional trope about demagoguery that, in their judgment, happened to be politi-
cally expedient given their political and economic goals. Accordingly, as I will
suggest in the following pages, there is little or nothing to suggest that these elites
were purposefully committing a fraud on the public by blaming someone they
knew to be innocent, namely, Shays. Rather, they had decided beforehand that
the events they were learning about in western Massachusettslocal conven-
tions, protest marches, and court closurest neatly with the interpretation of
politics that legitimated their own status in the social and political hierarchy of
their time and place, an interpretation according to which the public should be
excluded from political participation because they are prone to being provoked
by mischievous demagogues.
Decisively for my argument, these elites showed
that individual leaders can use (as opposed to something that characterizes a whole group or
4. A lot of good work has been done on the way national elites involved in the federal
convention of 1787, as distinguished from local elites like those in Massachusetts, viewed
and were inuenced in their thinking by what we now call Shayss Rebellion. For a helpful
overview, see Gibson (2006), Klarman (2016), and Rakove (2020). On this specic point,
it is worth noting that national elites interpreted Shayss Rebellion in different ways. Sophis-
ticated nationalists like Hamilton, for example, viewed the Massachusetts protests less as a
result of stupid masses and mischievous demagogues and more as the consequence of a bad
political system: the Massachusetts Constitution and the Articles of Confederation. Consider
Hamilton in Federalist no. 6: If Shays had not been a DESPERATE DEBTOR, it is much to
be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war.Hamilton
evinces a similar view in a private letter to George Washington dated August 8, 1792: Mas-
sachusetts threw her Citizens into rebellion by heavier taxes than were paid in any other
State(2001, 796). Remarks like these suggest that while many elites, especially those in-
volved in the drafting of the Constitution, were antipopulist (e.g., Bouton 2007; Holton
2007; Klarman 2016), they were so for different reasons. Founders like Hamilton viewed so-
cial turmoil through a more systemic lens, whereas the elites who were primarily responsible
for creating the false Shays narrative (whom I focus on in this article) believed that the cause
of such turmoil was the agency of individual demagogues. There were certainly representa-
tives of the latter view at the Constitutional Convention as well. Consider Elbridge Gerry:
Demagogues are the great pests of our government, and have occasioned most of our dis-
tresses(Farrand 1911, 432). Holtons (2007) perspective on this point is especially helpful
because it emphasizes the extent to which state elites and governments during the founding
era failed to address the objectively egregious economic experiences of ordinary citizens. In
Holtons view, events such as the Massachusetts agrarian protest (which was one of numer-
ous similar rebellions) forced the Constitutional Convention to design a regime that was more
604 American Political Thought Fall 2021
little interest in conrming whether that interpretation squared with the empir-
ical reality of the 178687 protests. Committed to a classical republican concep-
tion of demagoguery,
they describedfor themselves and their posteritythose
protests in a way that conrmed their prior assumptions about the nature of re-
publican government.
Broadly, then, my approach builds on and extends scholarship in American
political thought that examines the ways in which ideas, even theoretical and
philosophical ones, incentivize and constrain the real-life political choices that
leaders make (e.g., Schmidt 2008; Thomas 2014). As Tulis (2017) shows, for
example, the analogies and rhetorical devices that American presidents use to
describe their legislative proposals can shape the content of the legislation those
proposals eventually become, because presidential rhetoric inuences the terms
through which legislators and executive branch ofcials understand and debate
the policies before them. Thus, the actual substance of Lyndon JohnsonsEco-
nomic Opportunity Actand that of Ronald ReagansStrategic Defense Initia-
tivewere decisively shaped by the rhetorical devices that Johnson and Reagan
used to advocate for those policies: The War on Povertyand Star Wars,re-
spectively. Along similar lines, Tulis and Mellow (2018) have delineated how
egalitarian than it might have otherwise been; however, as I suggest above, some particularly
insightful founders such as Hamilton and Madison did not need to be forced to grant such con-
cessions because they recognized why they were necessary in the rst place. Holtons interpre-
tation compliments my own, in that I argue that state elites laboring under a profoundly ine-
galitarian view of politics (and a mistaken understanding of demagoguery) bore signicant
responsibility for the economic conditions that precipitated events like Shayss Rebellion.
5. This, too, is a much-debated pointnamely, whether or the extent to which American
elites during this time held classical republican (as opposed to, say, modern liberal) ideas
about politics and government. My understanding is that both were true at the time, with
different gures holding different views (Tulis and Mellow 2018). Broadly, the gures I focus
on here embody the commitments and understandings that Wood (1998) describes when he
interprets the Constitution of 1787 as a conservative backlash on the part of classical repub-
lican elites against the egalitarian impulses of the Revolution (see also Bailyn 1992). The
Massachusetts elites I describe here t that mold perfectly. Per the above footnote, however,
I differ from Wood and Bailyn in suggesting that not all founders shared these classical re-
publican assumptions; as a consequence, there were different interpretations of Shayss Re-
bellion at the time.
6. A helpful way of thinking about what these elites were doing vis-à-vis Shays andthe agrar-
ian protests is to ask whether it is akin to Sewells (1996) concept of events,or whether it has
more in common with the process of strategic rhetorical distortion that Parkinson (2016) de-
scribes in his examination of the role of racialized rhetoric in the American Revolution. As I un-
derstand it, Shayss Rebellion has more in common with the former, insofar as the elites who
were responsible for assigning blame to Shays were using an archetype they were all familiar
with and believed in (the classical notion of the rabble-rousing demagogue) to endow a set of
disruptive events (the Massachusetts protests) with both a historical and a political signicance
it would not have had otherwise, thereby transforming it from what Sewell would call a mere
occurrence into an event, one that would continue to shape American political thought and de-
velopment. I thank Reviewer no. 1 for pointing me in this direction.
Creating a Demagogue 605
Anti-Federalist doctrines about statesrightshave shaped politics at two crucial
junctures in American political development: Reconstruction and the New Deal.
Relatedly, drawing on Rogers Smiths(2014)spiral of politicsframework,
Sparacino (2018, 480) has shown how ideational developmentof the four
constitutive elements of conservative thought contributed to coalition building
within the Republican Party and was translated into a limited but meaningful
policy legacy that outlasted the George W. Bush presidency.Perhaps the most
self-conscious reection on this topic is Ceasers (2008) discussion of the politi-
cally formative role of ideasspecically, ideas about nature and historyin
American politics. My argument advances this literature with reference to the
idea of demagoguery, and specically how its application in a speciccaseserved
both to perpetuate a false narrative about Shays the individual and to bolster a
particular understanding of demagoguery.
Indeed, the story of Shayss Rebellion is a familiar one for anyone with a basic
grasp of American history, a fact that is corroborated by the number of scholarly
books and articles, as well as American government textbooks, alleging that
Daniel Shays actually led his namesake movement. As historian Ray Raphael
suggests, the story of Shayss Rebellionwhich tells us that the Constitution
was created to constrain acts of demagoguery such as Shayssis woven into
the very fabric of how Americans understand their own government and the ra-
tionale of its founding: All narratives of early United States history include ac-
counts of an uprising labeled ShaysRebellion(2004, 82). Hence, Jeffrey Tuliss
renowned treatment of demagoguery and the American founding, The Rhetor-
ical Presidency, states, The [American] founders were made more acutely aware
of the problem [of demagoguery] by the presence in their own midst of popular
leaders such as Daniel Shays, who led an insurrection in Massachusetts(2017,
Shayss role in the events of 178687 has even been recognized by the pres-
ident of the United States. On January 13, 1987the rebellions bicentennial
yearRonald Reagan announced Proclamation 5598: ShaysRebellion Week
and Day.
The purpose of the proclamation was to celebrate the bicentennial
of many events relating to the drafting of our Constitution. One of those events
was ShaysRebellion.According to the president, ShaysRebellion was to
have a profound and lasting effect on the framing of our Constitution and on
our subsequent history.President Reagans proclamation turns out to have
been only one of numerous similar efforts. A century before in 1897, writer
George R. R. Rivers had published Captain Shays: A Populist of 1786.Bydraw-
ing a parallel between contemporary politics and the historical crisis of178687,
7. For similar well-known claims about Shayss role, see, e.g., Warren (1905), White
(1948), Vidal (1972), Hartz (1991), and Signer (2009).
8. Reagan Library (1987),
606 American Political Thought Fall 2021
the novel drew on and extended the existing narrative about Daniel Shays
(Rivers 1897, vvi): The spirit of Daniel Shays still lives in the hearts of some
of those leaders who are showing the farmers the wrong path, and who have
nothing in view but their own selsh ends.
Though this article is not the rst to observe that historical evidence contra-
dicts the Shays narrative (see Taylor 1954, 157; Richards 2002, 26, 164; Bee-
man 2010, 16), it is the rst to attempt a sustained interrogation of that nar-
rative in light of the historical evidence that is available. More signicantly, it
is the rst article to seek an explanation of where the erroneous Shays narra-
tive originated and then to trace the political and discursive dynamics respon-
sible for that narratives construction. In this regard, my argument begins with
revisionist history, but it does not end there. Primary documents are analyzed
with a view to clarifying the role Shays played in the Massachusetts protest
movement that he is alleged to have led.
I then disentangle the dynamics
by which Shays was falsely branded. Elites explicated the protest in terms that
blamed the depraved rabble-rouser Shays for exploiting the ignorant masses
that is, in terms of the Kampfbegriff demagoguery.
That being said, the Shays case as I explicate it is not meant to furnish ev-
idence for a generalizable causal hypothesis about the circumstances under
which erroneous blame of this kind is likely to happen or be effectivemisat-
tribution is not a dependent variable in my reading. Rather, the case serves as
evidence supporting a broader interpretive argument about the way notions of
demagoguery can operate in American discourse. I want not merely to offer a
revisionist history of the misnamed Shayss Rebellionbut to explain where
the erroneous narrative came from through an examination of the political
purchase of battle terms. In this respect, the burden of my argument is a de-
scriptive one; I seek to offer a better report of Shayss Rebellion than those cur-
rently in existence. Further, in delineating the process by which Shays was
branded a demagogue,I try to uncover the deeper, unseen, though nonethe-
less powerful dynamics that made, and continue to make, the distortion of po-
litical reality through battle terms possible.
9. As quotes like this suggest, not all of the sources we survey explicitly use the term
demagogueor demagoguery(though many of them do). For our purposes, it is sufcient
that these sources allude to or describe a kind of rhetorical behavior that maps onto the mor-
alistic conception of demagoguery, according to which demagoguery is the voluntary choice
to use rhetoric to increase ones power heedless of the demands of justice.
10. Where possible, links to online sources are included in footnotes. Original newspaper
articles were accessed at Americas Historical Newspapers (
/apps/readex/?ppEANX), and a link to a PDF of each article is provided in footnotes where
appropriate. These PDFs have been compiled as a data set on my personal website.
Creating a Demagogue 607
In the years preceding the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Massachusetts,
like many states governed under the Articles of Confederation, was experiencing
dramatic economic problems rooted in a debt crisis not unlike the Great Reces-
sion of 2008 (Blake 2011). A sudden contraction in credit caused ordinary citi-
zens, many of them farmers, to lose property they had nanced during a period
when credit had been articially inated (Szatmary 1980; Condon 2015). For
these defaulting borrowers, the situation in Massachusetts was particularly egre-
gious because that states constitutiondesigned by John Adamsexcluded
lower-income citizens, many of whom had been affected by the economic down-
turn, from the political process entirely. The constitution also imposed steep prop-
erty requirements on those who would seek elected ofce.
American Revolution, the Massachusetts constitution created a thoroughgoing
As a consequence, during the summer of 1786in western Massachusetts,
conventions were the order of the day(Szatmary 1980, 39). Municipal leaders
began assembling in their respective towns for the purpose of drafting petitions
to the state government in Boston. As scholars have shown (Meier 1972; Brooke
1992; Gross 1993; Breen 2010), the process of organizing local conventions in
response toa social or political concern was a tradition with deep roots in Amer-
ican colonialand later statesociety. Small communities and their ordinary,
nonelite inhabitants maintained norms and procedures for organizing commit-
tees, as well as for coordinating these with committees in neighboring localities,
which would in turn materialize into public protests and sometimes outright in-
surgency. As Breen (2010) in particular has described, many of the events of the
Revolutionary War that we have come to associate with a small number of sin-
gular elites were in fact precipitated by a complex process of bottom-up social
organization that recruited individuals who, though they would later come to
play more prominent leadership roles, were not the original source of motiva-
tion, and who continued to depend onthe committee network that originally re-
cruited them. More broadly, these protest committees were established and
familiar institutions that enabled decentralized groups to mobilize in ways they
would not have been able to otherwise. Accordingly, as I will suggest in the
following pages, Shays is best understood not as he is commonly described
namely, as the instigator of his namesake rebellionbut as a somewhat (though
not particularly) prominent member of a small community who was gradually
drawn into a committee process.
11. See
12. Reviewer no. 1 helped me see the importance of these institutions.
608 American Political Thought Fall 2021
The petitions these committees drew up concerned state economic policy
(Szatmary 1980, 3842; Richards 2002, 7). In addition, the legitimacy of the
1780 state constitution [was being] questioned. So too [was] the legitimacy of
the states rulers(Richards 2002, 7). Though several petitions drafted at town
meetings were received by the state legislature or General Court,
the legisla-
ture voted on July 8 to adjourn until January 31, 1787roughly six months later.
It had taken no action with respect to the states economic vicissitudes or consti-
tutional concerns. Crucially, the state government was emphaticallyindeed, by
designan elite organization. To be eligible to run for state elected ofce, candi-
dates hadto meet high income andproperty thresholds, therebyguaranteeing that
most of the farmers in western Massachusetts who had been affected by the eco-
nomic crisis could not advocate for themselves at the level of state policy making.
In response to the courts adjournment, the town leaders or selectmenof
Pelhama small municipality in Hampshire Countyheld a meeting at Con-
keys Tavern (Richards 2002, 5). Pelham was the residence of Daniel and Abigail
Shays. Daniel was active on the Pelham Committee of Safety(6); he was also a
warden, a delegate at Hampshire County meetings, and a drill instructor of the
local militia (Starkey 1955, 9, 74). Yet he appears not to have been present at this
particularly urgent meeting, at which a letter was drafted urging 12 Hampshire
County towns to assemble a subsequent meeting of selectmen at Amherst, on
July 31. The latter meeting materialized as planned, and a countywide meeting
at Hampshire was planned for August 22. At this meeting, the largest and most
comprehensive so far, yeomen in fty of the sixty towns of Hampshire County
attended(Szatmary 1980, 39).
Starkey (1955, 73) contends that Shays had
taken no partin the Pelham selectmen meetings, and Richards (2002, 48)
makes no mention of any role played by Shays at these initial meetings, focusing
instead on the gure of Dr. Nehemiah Hines, a leading man at Pelham.
On August 22, 50 Hampshire towns were represented at the home of Col-
onel Seth Murray (Richards 2002, 8), where a petition of 25 articles was
drawn up.
Again, Shays appears not to have been present (Richards 2002,
89; Condon 2015, 4849).
This fact is of particular interest, as it was at this
13. Such as one from Bristol dated June 6 (Richards 2002).
14. Condon (2015, 48) says 50 of the 58.
15. Condon and Szatmary say nothing as to Shayss role in these initial events.
16. The petition summarized the farmerscriticisms of government economic policy and
regressive tax policy, as well as defectsin the undemocratic state constitution (Article 19,
in Minot 1810, 35). Oddly, Richards says there were 21 (2002, 8). The Essex Journal of Sep-
tember 13, 1786, listed 25. Additionally, Minot (1810, 3436) lists 25, as does Condon (2015,
17. Richards (2002, 8) notes that among the delegates present were John Hastings,
Hatelds representative to the state legislature; Benjamin Ely, West Springelds former state
representative; and William Pynchon, the eminent voice of Springelds most powerful fam-
ily.Shays is nowhere mentioned.
Creating a Demagogue 609
meeting that the town representatives decided to break up the [Northamp-
ton] Court(Richards 2002, 8)thereby initiating the series of court closures
that would come to characterize the whole insurgency. How this decision was
reached and whether it was achieved through the leadership of a particular
representative are not answered in the literature. At most, we can say that
Shays was either silent at or absent from the insurgencys formative meetings.
Since Shays had achieved the rank of captain in the Revolution and had subse-
quently become drill instructor in Pelham, it is unsurprising that members of Pel-
ham initially turned to him to lead their contingent to Northampton. The town
fathers of Pelham had wanted Daniel Shays to lead the Pelham men, but he had
refused and the task had fallen to Deacon John Thompson(Richards 2002,
9, 166n8; cf. Condon 2015, 4950). Thus, on August 29, a force of roughly
1,500 Hampshire insurgents prevented the court of common pleas at Northamp-
ton from sitting (Condon 2015, 49). Yet Shays assuredly had not gone with [the
insurgents], for the Pelham men arrived under the command of Captain Hinds of
Greenwich, and Sheriff Porter, taking careful note of names, could not have missed
Shays had he been present(Szatmary 1980, 74). Why might Shays have refused to
lead? Starkey quotes him answering this question: I told them it was inconsistent
after we had agreed to petition(1955, 74).
On the basis of this statement, she
infers that Shays in August 1786 felt that the soon-to-be insurgents were going
about it the wrong way(74).
Insurgents from other counties continued to close Massachusetts courthouses
in the weeks following the events at Northampton. Shays appears not to have
been present. Notably, the insurgents closed the Worcester courthouse on Sep-
tember 5. State authorities took personal offense, and on September 7 Massachu-
setts governor James Bowdoin began what would become several daysworth of
meetings with his advisors (Richards 2002, 1011). It was shortly after this meet-
ing that Bowdoin, in a proclamation published in the Hampshire Gazette on
September 13, 1786, struck the tone that the reactionary forces would take in
the months to come.
Though the governor did not know of Daniel Shays, as the latter had yet to
take any part in the insurgency, Bowdoin had already begun to articulate the
18. Parmenters quote actually says, I told them it was inconsistent after what we had
agreed to petition(1898, 397; italics mine).
19. A portion of the proclamation reads as follows: Whereas this high-handed offence is
fraught with the most fatal and pernicious consequences, must tend to subvert all law and
government; to dissolve our excellent Constitution, and introduce universal riots, anarchy
and confusion, which would probably terminate in absolute despotism, and consequently de-
stroy the fairest prospects of political happiness, that any people was ever favoured with, and
which this people will realize, if they do not suffer themselves to be misguided by the mach-
inations of internal real enemies, who treacherously assault the character of their best and
most zealous friends.See
610 American Political Thought Fall 2021
governments response, which was designed to frame the protests for other
state elites in terms of demagogic agitation, rather than the need for economic
and political reform. Shays would soon nd a place within this discourse. In
Bowdoins telling, the people of Massachusetts had been misguided by the
machinations of internal real enemies,whose ambitions had led them to cre-
ate anarchy and confusionultimately with a view to making themselves
absolutedespots. Accordingly, Bowdoin and his executive council had al-
ready decided that some demagogue was responsible for the events.
As Bow-
doin himself contended in his address to the emergency plenary session on Sep-
tember 28, Many of the good people of those Counties have been unhappily
and incautiously induced to support, or not oppose, the destructive measures,
which artful and wicked men have, for some time past, been pursuing; and
which, with indefatigable industry, they are still pursuing.
A demagogue
was needed to blame because Bowdoin and the state government generally
argued that no matter what the causes [of the rebellion] were, the distur-
bances themselves could not be justied(Condon 2015, 65). Even if the re-
bellion could be traced at least in part to systemic factorslike underrepresen-
tation of farmers and mismanagement of state debtleaders like Bowdoin
were likely to sideline these considerations because they believed that the pub-
lic was inclined to obey authority gures unless tempted into disobedience
by rabble rousers and provocateurs.
Bowdoin thus announced in his Sep-
tember 13 proclamation that the Attorney-General is hereby directed to pros-
ecute, and to bring to condign punishment the Ringleaders and Abettors of the
aforesaid atrocious violation of law and government; and also the Ringleaders
and Abettors of any similar violations in future.What was needed on Sep-
tember 13, 1786, was, as it were, a particular face to put the label of dema-
gogue to.
At rst, Governor Bowdoin had two contendersneither of whom was
Shays. On September 12, the day before Bowdoins proclamation, a town meet-
ing was held in Concord to discuss closing the court. County sheriff Loammi
Baldwin arrived that morning and noted Nathan Smith of Shirley, Job Shattuck
of Groton, and Captain Adam Wheeler of Hubbardston attempting to rouse the
20. As Condon (2015, 65) puts it, For Bowdoin, many of the current disturbances were
the result of wicked and artful menwho were convincing people either to oppose the gov-
ernment or to not get involved to actively protect it. If such men were allowed to operate, they
would continue to weaken and ultimately destroy all condence in Government.’”
21. See
22. As suggested above, I interpret Bowdoin as acting out of motivated reasoning as op-
posed to purposeful duplicity. Bowdoin and other elites believed that political events hap-
pened for a reason (Wood 1998) and that there must have been a single mastermind behind
the events that were unfolding in 1786even though they had no tangible evidence or direct
(or, for that matter, indirect) experience with such a mastermind.
Creating a Demagogue 611
assembly against the court. Baldwin wrote to Bowdoin that day, disclosing the
names of all three men (Starkey 1955, 5256; Condon 2015, 5455, 140n54).
In addition, members of the town meeting wrote to the governor condemning
the actions of those who attempted to close the court (Condon 2015, 55). Thus,
when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts met at Worcester ve days
later, on September 19, it indicated 11 men suspected of involvement in court
closings (Starkey 1955, 76; cf. Condon 2015, 59).
At this point, the Supreme Court was set to meet next at Springeld on Tues-
day, September 26, and it was suspected by many that the previous indictments
would go forward and additional indictments against insurgent leaders, includ-
ing Luke Day, would be brought (Starkey 1955, 7677; Condon 2015, 59). Dan-
iel Shays arrived at Springeld on the morning of Tuesday, September 26.
was determined at this meeting that Shays would be permitted to march the in-
surgents in front of the courthouse (Starkey 1955, 81; Condon 2015, 60). After-
ward, Shays was also on the committee of seven men charged with negotiating
with the Supreme Court judges. The petition was signed, the people collected
now in Springeld . . . for the purpose of moderating government(Condon
2015, 61). It drew no particular attention to Shays.
Why did Shays wait until this juncture to participate? And what did his par-
ticipation amount to? Rufus Putnam, in his January 8 interviewwith Daniel
Shays, reports that the latter claimed that the sole motive with me in taking
the command at Springeld [on September 2426], was to prevent the shedding
of blood, which would have absolutely been the case, if I had not(Parmenter
1898, 395). This suggests that Shays had in mind to resist popular sentiments,
which if unchecked might have precipitated acts of violence. Accordingly, at
the nonlocal level, Shays was basically unknown.
The name of Shays appears
in only one correspondence at this time,
that of John Adams, to whom Samuel
23. Historians are unclear as to the circumstances of his arrival. Whereas Minot claims he
actually led the regulators to Springeld (1810, 47), Condon remarks that he was only seen
as one of the leaders of the regulators(2015, 60). On the basis of these facts, the only plau-
sible reason for asserting that Shays was perceived as a leader is that he took charge of a meet-
ing with General Shepherd, who had been sent to guard the courthouse. Oddly, Condon cites
Richards (2002), who says nothing about how Shays was perceived by his contemporaries at
Springeld. Specically, Condon cites Richards (2002, 57), but these pages only discuss the
July 18, 1786, meeting at Pelham.
24. An article in the September 30, 1786, issue of the Massachusetts Centinel contained
the following brief though pejorative report of Shayss role in the Springeld closing: The
insurgents were led on by one Shays, a deranged ofcer of the late army, a Captain Day,
and several others of the same stamp; the desperation of whose circumstances had ripened
them for scenes of pell mell havock [sic] and confusion.See https://f35bcb33-cab5-4e5a
25. Henry Knox, writing to George Washington a month later (October 23) regarding the
events in Massachusetts, makes no mention of Shays. See Washington (1992, 299300). See
also Beeman (2010, 1617).
612 American Political Thought Fall 2021
Osgood wrote a letter containing the following remark: The Leader of the Insur-
gents in Massachusetts is entitled to the Ribbon & EagleHe left the Army in
the Fall of 1780 being then a Captain of good Reputation; his name is Shays.
A Man without Educationbut not without abilities.He is privately involved
which may be the reason why he has adopted such violent MeasuresIt is generally
supposed that he cannot Retreat(Adams 2016, 18:509). It is crucial to note the
way in which Osgoods portrait of Shays differs from Putnams. The latter, a sol-
dier from the Revolutionary War, had actually interviewed Shays and had had
no motive to distort the interview to make Shays look blamelessas I will discuss
below, he was investigating the matter on Governor Bowdoins behalf. In con-
trast, Osgood was corresponding with Adams, the author of the very Constitu-
tion that the agrarian protestors were dissatised with. Osgood was an extremely
wealthy merchant from eastern Massachusetts who would go on to join the
Washington administration. He had an obvious incentive to promote Bowdoins
discourse to other Massachusetts elites, such as the immensely inuential John
As of October 1786, halfway throughShayss Rebellion,Shays himself was
still neither popular nor a leader in any meaningful sense. On September 28,
Governor Bowdoin addressed a special joint session of the General Court, stating
that artful and wicked men,the Ringleaders and Abettors of such attrocious
[sic] violations of law and Government,were responsible for the tumults and
disorders, which have lately taken place in several Counties within [Massachu-
setts].Though he was evidently sure they existed, the governor did not name
who these leaders were. While the special legislative session was taking place, in-
surgents continued to assemble in cities and to produce petitions to the govern-
ment. Shays appears not to have been present at any of these closings (Condon
2015, 6567). Starkey (1955, 83) claims that, after Springeld, Shays went
back to Pelham and husked his corn.Shays made one indirect appearance dur-
ing this time in the form of a circular letter in Hampshire County, instructing
households to prepare themselves for government suppression of insurgent activ-
ity. The letter is signed DANIEL SHAYS(Condon 2015, 70). But there is no
evidence Shays gave orations or was playing an active role in organizing resis-
tancea fact that is corroborated by Bowdoins speech on November 6 to a joint
session of the General Court,
in which he makes no mention of the fact that the
letter was signed by Daniel Shays. His omission suggests that in November
Shayss name still had no signicance for the government forces. At this stage
in the insurgency, he wasto them just another agitated yeoman, not yet an artful
and wickeddemagogue.
26. See
Creating a Demagogue 613
In the course of the next 10 days, the General Court suspended the writ of ha-
beas corpus (November 9) and passed an act of indemnity (November 15). The
latter promised the many deluded personswho had taken part in the insur-
gency between June and the date of the act that they would not be prosecuted
if they took an oath and ceased taking part in protests (Condon 2015, 7071).
In addition, the General Court on November 14issued an Addressto the peo-
ple clarifying and defending its position vis-à-vis the insurgency. Crucially, the
legislature reiterated the governors view, articulated in his address and procla-
mation, that certain demagogues must be responsible for deceiving the people:
We have no doubt, that endeavours [sic] are used by evil & designing men,
to alienate the affections of the people in general, from those who are concerned
in the administration of Government.However, the legislature went even fur-
ther than the governor had gone, positing that a great part of the uneasiness
in the State has arisen from misinformation(italics mine).
On November 28,
they succeeded. Oliver Prescott,a selectman from Groton, sent a letter to the gov-
ernor containing a list of the men he believed to be the insurgencys key dema-
gogues: Job Shattuck, Oliver Parker, Benjamin Page, Nathan Smith, and John
Kelseyhe reported—“have been active in the late rebellion & stirring up the
people to oppose government, are therefore dangerous persons & May a War-
rant be issued to restrain them of their personal Liberty.The letter made no
mention of Daniel Shays. Governor Bowdoin responded by dispatching a cav-
alry squadron, which succeeded in capturing Parker, Page, and Shattuck, with
Shattuck resisting arrest and being injured in the process (Condon 2015, 74).
Historians agree that it was in response to these arrests and acts of intimida-
tion by government that the insurgency greatly intensied (Richards 2002, 21;
see also Condon 2015, 7576). The insurgents retaliated by closing the Worces-
ter court on December 5. Additionally, the leaders of the insurgents drew up a
petition to the governor. Importantly, Shays led a contingent of men to the
Worcester closing, as well as participated in the petition drafting committee. His-
torians know little concerning the details of his participation, however. Minot
(1810, 81) claims that Shays arrived from the Revolutionary War barracks at
Rutland, a view conrmed by a contemporaneous reportin the December 7 issue
of Worcester Magazine:We learn [Shays] issued orders to many towns in
Hampshire and this county [Worcester], to turn out and join him at Rutland.
That Shays came to Worcester from Rutland, having begun to consolidate his
27. See
28. Worcester Magazine, December 7, 1786, https://f35bcb33-cab5-4e5a-b56e-eb23a5af08e7 Condon (2015, 78) states
that only after the closing did Shays and some of the insurgents encamp at Rutland. Richards
and Leonard mention the closing but say nothing about Shays.
614 American Political Thought Fall 2021
forces there, suggests that Shays had been preparing for further military action
since well before the Worcester closing.
The events after the Worcester closing conrm Shays as a leader in the in-
surgency. The degree to which Shays bore responsibility remained unclear to au-
thorities, however. The December 20 issue of the New Hampshire Mercury,
for example, published a copy of the petition that was drafted by petition com-
mittee at Worcester. According to the Mercury, the petition was sent in a letter by
mail from Worcester; the newspaper does not report the name of the sender.
The petition is preceded by the following prologue, which contains the only men-
tion of Shays in the petition: The petition of a committee from several towns in
the county of Worcester; together with a committee from a body ofmen from the
counties of Worcester, Hampshire, and Berkshire, all convened at Worcester,
under the command of capt. Shays and capt. Wheeler, who, on the 4th inst,
did obstruct the sitting of the Court of Common Pleas.Crucially, the letter to
the Mercury containing the petition states, I am told their leaders, and about
300 men, are now at Rutland. Of this intelligence respecting the number of men
at Rutland, I am not certain.According to Minot and Condon, the contingent
of men referred to here would have been led by Shays. Yet the author of the let-
ter, who was evidently present at the Worcester closing, appears to be ignorant
of the role played by Shays in leading the Rutland contingent. The author refers
to the leadersof the Rutland contingent, as if it were headed by a committee
and not by Shays himself. Shays would appear, then, not to have made himself
known as a leader, despite actually having led men at court closings, as well as
having signed his name to ofcial petitions. To this end, none of the accounts of
the court closings at this timecontemporaneous or historicalindicate that
Shays gave orations or in any way drew attention to himself in a public way.
Even the Worcester petition is ascribed to joint committees under the com-
mand of capt. Shays and capt. Wheeler,rather than to Shays himself.
Shayss understated role as insurgent leader continued in the days immediately
following the Worcester closing. On December 9, regulators in Hampshire
County organized themselves into six regiments led by a Committee of Seven-
teen. . . the fourth regiment was to be led by Captain Daniel Shays of Pelham,
together with two other Revolutionary War captains (Condon 2015, 79). Noth-
ing is known about Shayss role in this committee. The news that Shays had
become one of the leaders was only gradually becoming known to those well
informed as to matters of state. On December 14, General Lincoln sent Governor
Bowdoin intelligence regarding the Number of Rebels that would march under
the direction of Shays in the County of Hampshire, should the contest be in said
29. See
Creating a Demagogue 615
county, and the towns where they belong(Massachusetts Historical Society
1907, 116). Lincoln estimated 970 insurgents. On December 16, Artemas Ward,
a judge from Shrewsbury, wrote a letter to the governor advising him to send
troops to Worcester to ensure the opening of the court there on January 23
(118). The same day, later Massachusetts attorney general and governor James
Sullivan wrote to John Adams in London that some of the ring leaders [of the
insurgency] have been taken by Coup D main but the Government has neither
learning ability energy or honesty(Adams 2016, 18:524). Major General Wil-
liam Shepherd wrote a similar letter to the governor a day later, on December 17
(Massachusetts Historical Society 1907, 119). None of these letters mention
The Springeld Court was set to open on Monday, December 25. On Mon-
day morning, roughly 300 insurgents arrived before the judges.
In a letter
dated December 27, Samuel Lyman reported to Samuel Breck that Shays &
Luke Day & one Grover of Montague headed this party of mad menin
Springeld (Massachusetts Historical Society 1907, 12324). Though he lists
Day and Grover in addition to Shays, Lyman draws particular attention to the
latter, noting that a spirit of energy in [the Massachusetts] government . . .
has appeard [sic] in the capture of three of these rebels”—Parker, Page, and
Shattuck—“and I hope it will appear in the capture of three or four more of
them, at least of Shays(124; italics in the original). In response to reports like
those of Ward and Shepherd, Governor Bowdoin in late December and early
January assembled a militia force of 4,400 men to oppose the insurgents. After
the second Springeld closing, a contingent of insurgents re-encamped at the
Rutland barracks, remaining there for most of January. It was at Rutland that
Putnam had his famous conversation with Daniel Shays, dated January 9,
which he subsequently sent to Governor Bowdoin as intelligence concerning
the rebellion (Condon 2015, 8586).
On January 19, General William Shepherd occupied the federal arsenal at
Springeld with 1,000 troops. On the same day, General Lincoln arrived at
Worcesterwhere government forces anticipated another court closingwith
4,000 men. As the regulators became aware of the size of the force headed to
Worcester to defend the court, they eventually decided not to go to Worcester,
but rather to converge on Springeld.Eli Parsons arrived at Chicopee, just
north of Springeld, with 300 men from Berkshire. At the same time, 1,000 in-
surgents under Luke Day gathered at West Springeld. Daniel Shays gathered
1,000 insurgents at Palmer, to the east of Springeld. Correspondence between
the three does not indicate that one of the three was acknowledged by the others
30. Eleazar Porter to Bowdoin, December 26 (Massachusetts Historical Society 1907,
616 American Political Thought Fall 2021
as holding supreme command (Condon 2015, 8991). In fact, the initial plan
was for a three-pronged assault on January 25. But just before the scheduled at-
tack, Luke Day unilaterally changed the plan.Day actually sent Shepherd a 24-
hour ultimatum in which he claimed to represent the body of the people assem-
bled in arms(Richards 2002, 2829). In contrast with Daysultimatum,Shays
sent Shepherd a letter in which he promised to disband the insurgents if Gover-
nor Bowdoin would pardon those who had participated in previous court clos-
ings, release the two protestors who were currently in prison, and disband the
militia under Lincoln until the state election in the spring (Condon 2015, 91).
As Shepherd did not respond, Shays and Parsons decided to seize the arsenal
as planned (they had not received Days injunction to delay the attack, which
had been intercepted by Shepherds forces).
On January 26, Shays and Parsons marched with their united forces toward
the occupied arsenal. Shepherd red several warning shots from the arsenals
artillery pieces before spraying the insurgents with grapeshot. The insurgents
scattered without ring back. Shepherd did not give chase, though General
Lincoln, who had been marching from Worcester to Springeld, did. In the
days that followed, Lincoln pursued the insurgents to the town of Petersham,
where he captured 150 of them on February 4. Shays, Day, and other insurgent
leaders escaped to Vermont, and the insurgency ofcially concluded (Condon
2015, 9199).
Because Shayss role in the rebellion was so understated, he was not immedi-
ately raised to the status that he would subsequently attain. As late asJanuary 5,
1787a few weeks before the end of the insurgencya statesman as well
connected as future chief justice John Marshall admitted in a letter to James
Wilkinson that we have contradictory accounts of the motives and views of
the insurgents,and he made no mention of Shays (Marshall 2015, 200). Simi-
larly, an article in the January 12 edition of the American Recorder and Charles-
town Advertiser, a Boston newspaper,
reports that the insurgents at the second
Springeld closing were headed by the noted captain Shays, and Luke Day and
his brother”—evidently unable to settle on who the true leader was. While it was
not at all clear to government forces who or what group was primarily respon-
sible for the insurgency while it was still underway, gures like Bowdoin were
still condent that there were demagogues responsible. Hence, Governor Bow-
doins address as published in the January 17, 1787, Massachusetts Centinel
31. See
Creating a Demagogue 617
assures the public that success on the part of the insurgents . . . must be destruc-
tive of civil liberty, and ofthe important blessings derived from it; and as it would
be the result of force, undirected by any moral principle, it must nally terminate
in despotismdespotism in the worst of its forms.
The idea that a demagogue
seeking to annihilate republican government and to establish himself as tyrant
must have been responsible for the insurgency thus preceded the discovery
that Shays was the demagogue responsible for the insurgency. It created the po-
litical space with which elites lled Shays ex post.
According to Richards (2002, 117), ShayssRebellionresulted in only a
handful of court closings and skirmishes [and] failed as a revolution. [Yet] long
after the rebels ed the battleeld, the insurrection [nonetheless] reverberated
through American society. Much of the backlash was due to the Boston elite.
Had they treated DanielShays as simply a small-town rebel leader, the aftermath
might have been different. But they portrayed him instead as a major villain, a
threat to the entire nation, an archetype for anarchy. He thus became memora-
ble, hailed and damned long after they were forgotten.Such public fears and
sentiments created the political and rhetorical space in which to construct a dem-
agogue who had been responsiblefor the insurrection. As Abigail Adams ex-
plained in a letter to her son (and future president), John Adams had begun work
on his Defense of the Constitutions in part to demonstrate that those responsible
for the Massachusetts insurrection must have been the real Enemies of free-
domrather than legitimate reformers (Adams Family 2005, 7:443). Adams
had begun work on his anti-Shays tract even before it was discovered that Shays
was the man to blame. To speak metaphorically, the mold was made ready by
conservative leaders like Adams, and all that was needed was for a real-life insur-
gent to be poured into it. Adams and other elites were practicing what Tulis and
Mellow (2018, chap. 3) call the politics of preemption, which involves steering
ones audience toward a particular interpretation of an eventan interpretation
favorable to oneselfbefore ones adversaries have had the opportunity to pro-
mulgate an alternative interpretation.
Accordingly, in the months and years immediately following the insurgency,
elites in turn came tosettle onShays as the demagogue who was primarily respon-
sible. The authorities insisted that the entire rebellion was . . . under [Shayss]
direction, that he was the commander-in-chief, the generalissimo,as the attor-
ney general put it. Some saw him as a potential dictator . . . the authorities would
32. See
33. For Tulis and Mellow, during early Reconstruction President Andrew Johnson suc-
ceeded in preempting Radical Republicans by construing Reconstruction as a violation of
state sovereigntyand statesrights.Consequently, Republicans found themselves hav-
ing to prove the integrity of their constitutional understanding over and against Johnsons,
instead of the other way around.
618 American Political Thought Fall 2021
continueto depict him asthe man in charge and eventually label the entire upris-
ing ShaysRebellion’” (Richards 2002, 26). The narrative these elites developed
t squarely into the rhetorical mold of demagoguery that had been prepared for
it. In the weeks following the Worcester closing of December 3, alleged reports of
and interviews with Shays began appearing in Boston newspapers. Most of these
were editorials, or were penned by anonymous or pseudonymous authors. They
were part of a propaganda effort, on the part of Boston elites, to plant the idea in
the publicmind that it was Shays who had been responsible for the protest move-
ment. Rather than provide falsiable evidence to this effect, however, these writ-
ings begin with the assertion that Shays was responsible before proceeding to de-
velop a series of ad hominem moralistic attacks on Shayss character. An editorial
in the December 22 Salem Mercury entitled Anecdotes of Daniel Shays, leader
of the insurgentsamounts to little more than a slanderous, unsubstantiated di-
From his youth,asserts the author, Shays was remarkable for sub-
tility [sic] and duplicity, which, notwithstanding his want of education, wascon-
jectured would one day or other make him famous.Yet he probably would
have continued,speculates the editorial, in his original obscurity, had not
the tumult of the times given him anopportunity to display his activity, by joining
a mistaken multitude.The article ends by confessing its ignorance as to Shayss
goals, but it forecasts the worst: What his real designs are, time must bring to
lightthis much is certain, his ambition is unbounded.
Similarly, a pseudonymous article published in the January 17 edition of the
Massachusetts Centinel alleges to be reporting a conversation between the au-
thor and the authors friend, a New Yorker who was in the Continental Army
during the Revolution and who had recently had an encounter with Shays.
cer of Shaysthe mushroom Generaland infamous and ignorant leader of
the insurgents in the western counties.The article claims that the unnamed
friend and former ofcer had recently sought out Shays because the latter owed
the former money. On visiting Shayss house—“or rather, stye,ithavingmuch
more the appearance of a den of brutes, than a habitation for men”—the un-
named friend is told by Shays that 10,000 insurgents are ready to ght govern-
ment forces in a minutes notice. What is more, after closing the Worcester court,
he intended to march directly to Boston, plunder it, and then, in order as he
expressed, to destroy the nest of devils, who by their inuence, make the Court
enact what laws they please.. . . [Shays] swore he would take possession of the
heights round the town, and rered-hotshotintoit...healsosaid...thatitwas
34. See
35. See
Creating a Demagogue 619
in his powerto overthrow the present Constitution,and that hewould do it.Ac-
cording to the article, the unnamed friend then asked Shays how he anticipated
the Confederate government would respond and what government he planned to
replace the Massachusetts Constitution with. Shays replied, that as to the for-
mer his ideas never extended so far as to think of it, and touching the latter, he
knew no more what government to set up, than he knew of the dimensions of
eternity.Though it concludes with a statement that you may depend on the
above been authentick [sic], as the person from whom I received it is a gentleman
of the strictest veracity,the piece provides no evidence to this end and is clearly
part of a propaganda effort to place blame on Shays. Likely written by a pro-
Bowdoin editor at the Centinel, its hyperbole renders it almost satirical and
paints an incongruous picture of Shays that is at once frightening and laugh-
able, ambitious and improvident, depraved and subhuman. Indeed, it is calcu-
lated to appeal to an audience that wishes simultaneously to lambast Shays as an
ignorant plebeian and at the same time to vilify him as constituting a genuine
The change in elite attitudes toward Shays can also be glimpsed in a shift in the
language of the Massachusetts governmentsofcial records, the Acts and Re-
solves.The March 10, 1787, entry announces a general pardon, extended by
Governor Bowdoin to Massachusetts citizens involved in the insurgency. The
pardon contains the condition that the Commissionerswho have been as-
signed to carry out the pardon shall not be empowered to promise indemnity,
in any manner whatever, to Daniel Shays, Adam Wheeler, Eli Parsons, or Luke
Day.Roughly a month after the insurgency, the government has yet to settle on
a single leader, instead listing all four men it knew to have been involved in the
organization. In a letter from London dated January 27, John Adams echoes this
uncertainty, asking (rhetorically) Is not a Shattuck & a Chase [Shays] as great a
tyrant, when he would pluck up Law & Justice by the roots?(2016, 18:564).
Similarly, the entry for June 15, 1787three months after the rststates that
nothing in these resolutions shall extend to, or in any manner avail Daniel
Shays, of Pelham, in the County of Hampshire, Gentleman, Luke Day, of West
Springeld, in the same County, Gentleman . . . but they and each of them shall
be liable to be tried, convicted and punished for any of the offences aforesaid, in
the same manner as if theseresolutions had not been made.All those known to
have exercised some leadership role are mentioned. A year later, however, the
records simplify things. The March 31, 1788, entry makes no mention of the
other insurgent leaders, referring instead to Daniel Shays and others.
AND OTHERS . . . in Pursuance of the said Resolution, his Excellency has offered a Reward
for apprehending Daniel Shays and others. And whereas the Reasons which then operated,
for offering such reward, do not now exist.
620 American Political Thought Fall 2021
A notice in the Massachusetts Centinel of December 27 mentions a prose-
poetick [sic] parallel between Erostratus, Jack Cade, and Daniel Shays.
Erostratus(hērostratos) was a fourth-century BCE arsonist who sought fame
by burning down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus; the Ephesians passed a
decree condemning his name to oblivion(Smith 1870, 2:439). Jack Cade
was a demagogue who led a popular revolt against Henry VI of England in
1450. Cade was defeated,writes one historian, and his name lies buried be-
neath the rubbish of nations. But his example did not die(Conrad 1835, 15).
Similar writings continued to appear in newspapers in the months and years
following the insurgency. A satirical poem in the July 5, 1787, version of the
same paper, entitled Shays to Shattuck,uses clumsy couplets to depict Shays
as half-insane with guilt and regret:
Guilt clotted with blood, leads to Horror and Fear,
And rueful Repentance comes slow in the rear,
My conscience breaks out in the blaze of the sun,
Upbraids and exposes the crimes I have done,
With knavries and vices presents me so foul,
That I y from the face of the day like an owl.
Shays was depicted as repentant because, according to the narrative that was be-
ing developed about him, his ambitions were tyrannical and utterly devoid of
public spirit. Accordingly, the mercantile elite,writes Szatmary (1980, 74),
had predicted a short-term dictatorship for Daniel Shays.According to Wil-
liam Shepherd, general of the Massachusetts militia, Shays hoped to “‘erect a
military government for the coercion of the state, and by setting up his standard
in Massachusetts expected to be supported by great numbers from all the states,
and be able to declare himself dictator of the whole union.’”Similarly, William
Williams, wealthy Berkshire County creditor, also charged Shays with designs to
conquerMassachusetts and eventually become the tyrant of America(74).
We can see the Shays narrative migrating asa coordinating discourse to other
elites outside of Massachusetts in the years following the protests. In a speech at
the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 9, 1788, state delegate and renowned
orator Henry Lee states with remarkable condence that the course of the insur-
gency came down to the leadership exercised by Daniel Shays himself: The in-
surrection in Massachusetts . . . I was then in Congress, and hada proper oppor-
tunity to know the circumstances of this event. Had Shays been possessed of
37. See
38. See
Creating a Demagogue 621
abilities, he might have established . . . King, Lords, Commons. Nothing was
wanting to bring about a revolution, but a great man to head the insurgents;
(Elliot 1845/1996, 2:640; italics mine). As Lees assertions here suggest, ratica-
tion provided the ideal opportunity for proponents of the Constitution to brand
their opponents as aiders and abettors of the great demagogue, Daniel Shays. As
Richards (2002, 127) contends, ShaysRebellion gave the nationalists the edge
they needed. It provoked the spark on which to advance the nationalist cause and
play on the fears of others.A Federalist political cartoon, entitled The Looking
Glass for 1787and obviously intended to sway the Connecticut ratication de-
bate by all possible means, depicts a mob dragging an enchained state of Con-
necticut to a raging bonre, from above which a thunderstorm lowers and hurls
lightning bolts (see g. 1). One of the mob members shouts, Success to Shays.
The cartoonssubtitleconrms its hyperbolic message: A house divided against
itself cannot stand. Mat. chap. 13th verse 26.The biblical implication of this
piece of propaganda is that following demagogues like Shays is tantamount to
consigning oneself to perdition.
Several years later, on May 17, 1796, and well after ratication, elites were
still developing the notion of Shays as the archetypal demagogue. A writer
styled Lucius,writing in the Aurora General Advertiser,
asserted that
Shaysrebellion . . . struck at the existence of government.Similarly,
Mathew Carey in a letter to James Madison on June 26, 1821, wrote, A little
more talent and good fortune might have rendered Shays a Caesar, a Crom-
well, or a Bonaparte(Madison 2013, 345). Carey would seem to have been
drawing on Hamiltons formulation from Federalist 21, originally published
shortly after the insurgency, on December 12, 1787: A successful faction
may erect a tyranny on the ruins of order and law. . . . The tempestuous situ-
ation, from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged, evinces that dangers
of this kind are not merely speculative. Who can determine what might have
been the issue of her late convulsions, if the mal-contents had been headed by a
Caesar or by a Cromwell?According to the dominant narrative, the insur-
gencys goal was not legitimate democratic reform of the Massachusetts po-
litical systemreform in accordance with the aspirations of the Revolution
itself. Rather, Shays is saddled with the legacy of a depraved demagogue en-
deavoring to reestablish European-style ascriptivism and despotism.
Shayss reputation was truly cemented in the years and decades following the
Constitutional Convention, after the public writings and private correspondences
39. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC 20540, USA;
40. See
622 American Political Thought Fall 2021
of notable founders had begun to be absorbed in the public mind. The concep-
tion of demagoguery held by elites, many of whom were involved in framing
the Constitution, would seem to bear responsibility for Shayss subsequent rep-
utation. At the 1787 Convention, Elbridge Gerry averred that those who partic-
ipate in protests and insurgencies are merely dupes of demagogues(Elliot
1996, 5:136). As he proceeds to explain, Thepeopledonotwantvirtue....
In Massts. it has been fully conrmed by experience that they are daily misled
into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by
designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.Most of those who
participate in protests are, according to this view, not really aware of what they
are doing, having been misled by the truly knowing and vicious among them.
Only a people out of their wits, insists John Adams, could have been so taken
in by the leaders of the insurgency: If the good People of our State, are not dis-
posed to surrender their Liberties and Safety and the Rights of Posterity into the
hands of a few drunken Horse Jockeys, they will think it time to support a Gov-
ernment which is worthy of them(Adams 2016, 18:544n3). Arguments like
these are designed to discredit and delegitimize a protest movement that, like
ShayssRebellion,involvesasignicant portion of the communitys population.
Figure 1. A piece of Federalist propaganda, The Looking Glass for1787shows a group of
Anti-Federalists (top right) pulling the state of Connecticut (then debating whether to ratify the
proposed Constitution) toward re and brimstone. The Anti-Federalists are shouting Success
to Shays.Color version available as an online enhancement.
Creating a Demagogue 623
A large portion of the community in protest might well be interpreted as a sign
that the protestors have a legitimate complaint, and that the government should
listen to rather than suppressthem. If, however, it can be persuasively argued that
most of thoseinvolved in the protests are acting under false information diffused
by demagogues who knew better, and that they would not have joined the pro-
tests had they notbeen so deceived, then the protest in question can be discredited
and delegitimized. This was the view of most leaders who opposed the Massa-
chusetts insurgents. Governor Bowdoin insisted that the people of Massachusetts
had been misguided by the machinations of internal real enemies,
as well as
unhappily and incautiously induced to support . . . artful and wicked men.
James Iredell held that in the state of Massachusetts, where very lately there
were drawn into it by false artices. They at length saw their error, and were
willing to disband(Bailyn 1993, 876). According to George Minot, who wrote
the rst history of the insurgency, one principal cause of the disturbances
among the people, was the misrepresentation of designing men, by which they
had been led to believe the grossest falsehoods(1810, 55). An author with the
pseudonym Truth,writing for the Hampshire Federalist on March 22, 1810,
described how the unfortunate insurrection, commonly called ShaysRebel-
lion, was quelled, and the honest, though deceived and deluded, insurgents had
laid down their arms.
In the preface to an act of indemnication from June
15, 1787, John Hancock extended pardon to those unhappy offenders who
are the objects of [the pardon], and who have been deceived by wicked and de-
signing men.
The most complete summary of this view, however, would seem
to be the anonymous January 20, 1787, article in the Massachusetts Centinel:
That men, having no more principle or knowledge than Shays . . . both civill
and military, possess[es], should have inuence enough to lead from the duty
they owe to their God and country, large numbers of the yeomanry of this State,
is really astonishingit could not have been effected but by the circulation of
the blackest lies, and the obstruction of the rays of political knowledge from the
minds of adherents . . . when . . . coercive measures shall have been adopted . . .
we shall see their reignshall be short(italics mine).
The article closes with the
prediction that we shall see . . . the people who now follow them, their eyes
41. See
42. See
43. See
44. See
45. See
624 American Political Thought Fall 2021
having been opened by right information, execrate the authors of their infatu-
ation, and hand down to society with infamy, the detestable names of Shays,
Chapman, Wheeler, Day, and Willard, as enemies to the rights of mankind.
Beyond functioning as a political expedient for Massachusetts elites, the idea
of Shays as the paradigmatic demagogue in American history continues to
serve as evidence for a particular moralistic theory of demagoguery, according
to which demagogues are dened primarily by their corrupt internal motiva-
tions (e.g., Knott 2019), rather than by external attributes or signiers that
can be identied with relative objectivity (e.g., Ceaser 2009; Tulis 2010; Zug
2020a). Given that the case of Shays no longer supports the moralistic theory
(insofar as the individual Daniel Shays did not even lead the event that he is pur-
ported to have led), it is worth asking how useful that theory is in general and,
further, whether a superior theory might clarify rather than distort political re-
ality, as the moralistic theory did (see Zug 2020b).
To begin answering this question, which is of course beyond the scope of
this article, consider that what led to the mischaracterization of Shays in the
rst place was an implicitly shared opinion that the activity Shays was being
accused ofdemagoguerywas inherently bad, because demagoguery was de-
ned as an activity motived by evil intentions. Consequently, if the label of dem-
agogue could successfully be attached to Shays, people would assume that his
cause and motivations had been evil. But what if, instead of thinking about dem-
agoguery as an activity dened by the motives of those who engage in it, we con-
ceived of it as a set of morally neutral rhetorical tactics, ones that could be eval-
uated in light of the goodness or badness of the political goals they were being
used to pursue? If demagoguery were conceived as an outwardly identiable
form of rhetoric that has a neutral, rather than an inherently evil, core (Ceaser
2009), then we could ask whether certain political circumstances (such as gen-
uine emergencies) actually demanded the kinds of rhetorical forms we tradition-
ally associate with demagoguery, because they are precisely the forms that are
needed to enlist subrational sources of human motivation in times of urgency
and crisis. In this perspective, for example, the observation that Joseph McCar-
thy, Huey Long, and Franklin Roosevelt all employed demagoguery would not
imply that these gures were equivalent as political leaders insofar as they all
used popular leadership to pursue power simply for their own gain. Rather, it
would invite us to examine and weigh the political goals that they were pursu-
ing, as well as the arguments they deployed both in defense of those goals and in
defense of their own decision to use demagoguery as a means to pursue them.
Creating a Demagogue 625
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First published in 1842, this extensive reference work was edited and written in large part by the eminent lexicographer and classicist Sir William Smith (1813–93). Knighted in 1892, Smith was one of the major figures responsible for the revival of classical teaching and scholarship in Britain. He also made contributions to biblical study, editing a series of reference works on the subject. His three-volume Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology is also reissued in six parts in the Cambridge Library Collection. The present work is a massive achievement, running to well over a million words and copiously illustrated throughout with line drawings. It proved enduringly popular and was frequently reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. It is reissued now in two parts. The first part contains entries from abacus to lodix (a small shaggy blanket). The second part contains entries from logistai (Athenian officials) to zona (a girdle).
This article analyzes the case of compassionate conservatism with regard to the development of conservative thought and governance. Through the use of Rogers Smith’s “spiral of politics” framework, I argue that compassionate conservatism extended modern conservative thought by building on the principles of neoconservatism and the religious Right while maintaining appeals to traditionalism and small-government libertarianism. This ideational development contributed to coalition building within the Republican Party and was translated into a limited but meaningful policy legacy that outlasted the George W. Bush presidency. This variant of conservatism may yet prove meaningful in future developments of conservative politics.