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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Grievances Which Led to “Shays’s Rebellion”

By George Richards Minot (1758–1802)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1758. Died there, 1802. The History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts in the Year MDCCLXXXVI.—1788.]

FROM the short view which we have taken of the affairs of the Commonwealth, sufficient causes appear, to account for the commotions which ensued. A heavy debt lying on the State, added to burdens of the same nature upon almost every incorporation within it; a decline, or rather an extinction, of public credit; a relaxation of manners, and a free use of foreign luxuries; a decay of trade and manufactures, with a prevailing scarcity of money; and, above all, individuals involved in debt to each other, are evils which leave us under no necessity of searching further for the reasons of the insurrections which took place. We ought not to be surprised to find the people, who but a few years before, upon the abolition of royal government among them, exhibited a most striking example of voluntary submission to a feeble authority, now driven into a confusion of affairs, common to all countries, but most so, perhaps, to those who have shown the strongest ardor in pursuit of freedom.

The long restraints, which the confusion of war had laid upon the administration of justice in private cases, occasioned a very rapid increase of civil actions, when those restraints were removed. This circumstance gave employment to the practitioners at the bar, and increased their numbers beyond what had been usual in the State. The profession naturally became a subject of observation; and, at length, was generally spoken of as an object of reform. Advantage was taken of the prevailing jealousy against lawyers; and unfortunately, a prelude to the insurrections was framed out of it. Inflammatory writings were inserted in the newspapers, to excite an idea, in the minds of the people, that the burdens which they labored under were occasioned by the abuses of this profession: and a doctrine was particularly insisted on in one of them, that this class of men ought to be abolished. The electors were therefore conjured to leave them out of public office, and to instruct their representatives, then about to be chosen for the year 1786, to annihilate them. This idea communicated itself from very natural causes. The lawyers were odious to debtors as the legal instruments of their distresses. They were also intimately connected with the courts of justice, and, in a great measure, under their control: a clamor against the one, therefore, was a kind of impeachment of the other. The transition from the servants of the courts, to the courts themselves, being easy and direct, the cry, of course, was received and spread with avidity, by those whose intentions were directed at the administration of justice in general. The flame pervaded the greatest part of the Commonwealth. The lawyers, in most instances, were excluded from the House of Representatives. Among other towns, the capital filled the seat which she had from ancient times reserved for one of this profession,—the seat where Pratt, Thacher, Otis, and Adams, had drawn admiration and love from the public eye,—with a gentleman of a less unpopular calling. When the assembly met, their zeal was kindled from the people. This was first evidenced by their elections in filling up the vacancies in Senate. Preference was given to some characters, which could not be accounted for on any other grounds, than that of their fellow candidates being practitioners of the law. As soon as business came forward, an emulation was shown to be foremost in correcting abuses which occupied so large a share of the public attention. Various instances were adduced, wherein the principles of the fee bill, from the local circumstances of the parties, operated to distress them; and much was said to convince the House that these distresses had been greatly increased by the exorbitant fees of attorneys. After many warm altercations upon this subject, the House, with a view of reducing the exactions and influence of the regular practitioners, at length passed a bill to admit all persons of a moral character into the practice of the law, before the Judicial Courts; to fix the fees of attorneys; to provide for their taking an oath previously to their pleading, in every cause, that they would not receive more than lawful fees of their employers; and to restrain the practice of champerty. But, when this bill was sent up, the Senate, desirous of a further consideration of the subject, took measures for examining it in the recess, and referred their decision to their next assembling.