Much has been written about Confederate symbolism recently. This is not a new debate. Anyone remember back to 2006 when a high school student wanted to wear a Confederate flag themed prom dress? (No? Look here.) Or the teen who faced similar issues in 2012? (No? Look here.) Union symbolism has not been immune to controversy either. Anyone remember the spat over the Lincoln statue in Richmond, VA? (No? Look here.)
There is no doubt that symbolism is important in American life. The recent controversy over the Confederate flag has brought an old argument back into the limelight. Articles remind us that “Heritage is not History“, that the “states rights” argument is myth, and that the Confederate flag flew in the North too.
All this discussion brought up the question about other failed instances of insurrections in American History.(And if you don’t think that South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter classifies as an “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government” I don’t know what will.) Do they have monuments too? Lots, one, two? Perhaps an obscure historical marker by the side of the road? Well, let’s take a look at one in particular: Shays’ Rebellion.
This armed uprising took place even before the Constitution was ratified. In Massachusetts in 1786-87 we have the event known as Shays’ Rebellion. which has traditionally framed as a struggle between poor farmers and the wealthy Boston elite. Farmers facing economic hardship and foreclosure took matters into their own hands by closing courts. In Springfield, 39 years old Daniel Shays led 1500 men, ex Continental soldiers, to seize the courthouse and headed for the armory. The frightened governor called up the militia, some 4400, and Shay’s force was quickly surprised and routed. An overall amnesty was issued though Shays and 13 followers were tried and convicted. They were pardoned.(1) Recent research on Shays’ Rebellion challenges the traditional view that it was mostly struggling farmers and sees the insurrection as more general.(2)
I did find a few markers dedicated to Shays and Shays’ Rebellion.
However the most interesting marker related story I discovered is this one.
Evidently, the interpretation of Shays’ Rebellion changed between 1927 which touts, “Obedience to law is true liberty” and one erected in 1987 which states that Shays, “fought for the common people against the established powers” and “tried to make real the vision of justice and equality embodied in our revolutionary declaration of independence”.(3)
Shays’ Rebellion never took on the scope and scale of the American Civil War nor did it include such painful issues as racism and slavery. Yet it is a reminder that there is perception and there is reality and when it comes to human action sometimes the two don’t reconcile neatly.
1 Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (New York: Mariner Books, 2003), 26-27.
2 Leonard L. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The AMerican Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).