Getting By & Getting Ahead - A Bloody Encounter

"The Most Distressing Situation"

image: Petition to the General Court from Athol, MA

According to this petition from the citizens of Athol to the Massachusetts Legislature, their economic problems were due to the "Extreme Scearsety of Cash in the interior parts of this Common welth." More info
Courtesy American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA

Determined to pay off the state's war debt, the Massachusetts General Court passed higher poll and real estate taxes and required that they be paid in gold and silver, rather than goods, produce, or paper currency. The slow economy and a shortage of gold and silver currency drove many taxpayers to the wall. They called in private debts in desperate attempts to remain solvent, setting off chain reactions of multiple lawsuits. A petition from the town of Athol to the Legislature in May, 1786, begged the Legislature to "Take our Situation into Consideration & Do Something for the Relief of your Petitioners by Passing An Act Makeing all Real & Personal Estate a Lawfull Tender." The town informed the General Court "That from the Extreme Scearsety of Cash in the interior parts of this Common welth we are Reduced to the Most Distressing Situation by Suits being Daly commenced against the Inhabitants of this as well as many other parts of this Commonwelth who have Sufficient property to Discharge their Depts Ware it to be Receid in payment for the same but as the Situation of our affairs are att Presant our property is torn from us."(1)

Thousands of Massachusetts residents went still farther. They forcibly closed the judicial courts and pledged to keep them from convening until the government granted relief and instituted the called-for reforms. The General Court did not respond favorably to these petitions and demands. Instead, it published a lengthy Address from the General Court to the People of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The authors of the Address condemned the debtor relief the people sought as "dishonorable" to the Commonwealth and "injurious" to the people themselves. It would destroy the credit of the state and deprive its creditors of the sums they had loaned in good faith. As for the scarcity of money, this was "owing to our own folly."(2) Unrestrained purchases of "gewgaws imported from Europe, and the more pernicious produce of the West Indies (i.e., sugar and rum)," had caused the problem. Frugality and sacrifice, not legislative action, would solve it. The court closings were evidence of a dangerous "wish to subvert all order or government." The Address complained that "artful" persons had introduced an artificial "distinction between the government and the people, as though their interests were different and even opposite."(3) By January, 1787, thousands of residents indeed had come to believe that the interests and agenda of the state government were irreconcilably opposed to their own.