The Wider World - Punishment & Appeasement

Mercy or Retribution

image: Portrait of James Madison

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart, 1804.
Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA

In the days and weeks following the defeat of the Regulators at Petersham and Sheffield, leaders in and outside the state realized that the situation was still volatile. Not everyone agreed on what the government's next steps should be. Some concurred with Samuel Adams that, while in "monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished…the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death." Others, however, counseled the Bowdoin administration to take a more conciliatory approach that would offer clemency while neutralizing the Regulators politically.(1)

The government's Disqualification Act of February 16 offered only a conditional pardon; it disenfranchised for three years any rank-and-file Regulator who came forward and took the oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth. James Madison, while glad to hear that "the Rebellion is nearly extinct," expressed concerns about the potential consequences of denying the right to vote, even temporarily, to thousands of citizens. He worried that "If the measures…disfranchising those concerned in it should be carried into effect, a new crisis may be brought on."(2)

Madison's concerns about disenfranchising former Regulators proved groundless, in part because the government ended up steering a middle course between reprisal and conciliation. Barely three weeks after the Disqualification Act was passed, the legislature appointed a commission empowered to pardon unconditionally any Regulator the commissioners believed "duly penitent of his crime" and ready to "discharge the duty of a faithful Citizen." The commissioners reported in April that they had pardoned almost 800 people, most of them unconditionally.(3) Those the commission pardoned before April 1 could participate in the upcoming elections, although turnout was considerably lower in some towns where Regulators restricted by the harsher terms of the Disqualification Act remained ineligible to vote.

Massachusetts voters flocked to the polls in record numbers. Nathaniel Gorham, a former president of the Confederation Congress, wrote to Henry Knox that "the spirit of electioneering" went beyond "any before Known" and correctly predicted that the ever-popular John Hancock would easily defeat the incumbent governor, James Bowdoin.(4)

Alarm over Hancock's projected victory exceeded earlier concerns about possible unrest over the Disqualification Act. A Massachusetts delegate to Congress confessed on April 4 that his "fears relative to the administration of our dear Massachusetts exceed my hopes." Madison agreed, calling the spring election a "crisis." If former Regulators and their sympathizers could "muster sufficient numbers, their wicked measures are to be sheltered under the forms of the [Massachusetts] Constitution."(5)

As anticipated, the Hancock administration introduced more lenient policies. On June 15, the Governor issued a Proclamation pardoning and removing all previous disqualifications to "the penitent citizen." Only those condemned to death for high treason and specified leaders were denied clemency. However, Henry McCulloch, Jason Parmenter and others awaiting execution received reprieves. All but two convicted Regulators received full pardons before the end of the year.(6)

Meanwhile, the newly-elected General Court busied itself accomplishing through legislation what the Regulators had failed to bring about by force. The House proposed a bill creating a paper currency. The more conservative Senate killed the measure, but both houses voted to extend a tender law allowing debtors to pay creditors in goods and produce as well as cash. As a gesture of good faith and personal commitment to curbing government spending, the popular new governor voluntarily reduced his salary.(7)

To Madison and other observers, Hancock's election signaled that the crisis in Massachusetts government was entering a new and still more alarming phase. For Madison, the ineffectual response of the national government to the Massachusetts uprising had exposed the fatal weaknesses of the Confederation. Now, he saw the gains of former Regulators and their supporters in the legislative arena as dangerous incursions. "Paper money, instalments of debts, occlusion of Courts, making property a legal tender" were all "aggressions on the rights of other States."

Madison's desire to restructure what he saw as fundamental flaws in the Articles of Confederation bore fruit later that year as delegates from every state except Rhode Island gathered at Philadelphia. George Washington himself came out of retirement to attend, explaining to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette that he "could not resist the call to a convention of the States which is to determine whether we are to have a Government of respectability under which life, liberty, and property will be secured to us, or whether we are to submit to one… springing perhaps from anarchy and Confusion."(8)