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THE LOST CONSTITUTION (CHAPTER ONE)August 1786
“WHERE’S YOUR MUSKET, WILL?“
“In the house.”
“It should be in your hand.”
“But it’s the sheriff and his men comin’ out of those woods.”
“It’s an unjust government comin’ to take your rights. Go get your musket.”
Will Pike stood his ground instead. He studied the woods. He glanced up at a hawk making perfect circles in a perfect blue sky.
And for a moment, he was a boy again, daydreaming that he could see what the hawk saw: the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont to the north; the flatlands of Connecticut and Rhode Island spreading south; the steeples of Boston, tiny on the eastern horizon; and beyond them, the sharp-etched green islands in the Gulf of Maine.
Then the hawk seemed to stop in midair. Then it swooped, pouncing in a burst of feathers and fur on some hapless field mouse working its way home.
Will wiped his palms on his leather jerkin. He was as rawboned as any seventeen-year-old, but his eyes were already set in the permanent squint of one who studied the world quietly, who thought hard before he spoke and even harder before he acted.
His brother, North, was six years older and, it seemed, twice as big, over six feet tall, over two hundred pounds, big face scarred from fights, big hands scarred from fishhooks, big shoulders callused from the harness he wore when he plowed his father’s fields.
North had marched with Washington’s army. He had fished on the Grand Banks. He had cut trees in the great woods. Will had not seen much more of the world than the circle of earth beneath the circle of sky drawn by that hawk.
They stood that morning on the sloping ground in front of their father’s little house. Rock walls ran everywhere, segmenting the small farm into smaller fields, each of which looked as if it had been sown with rocks in the hope of growing more rocks.
“Where’d Pa go?” North kept his eyes on the men riding up the road.
“Inside,” said Will.
“Went to get his musket, I hope.”
Will glanced toward the house. He could not believe that his father was leaving them to face this alone.
The sheriff reined his horse and looked down at North. “Well … the prodigal brother. When did you get back?”
“When I heard you was plannin’ to arrest my Pa.” North held his musket at his hip. “I’m loaded with ball and buck, Chauncey. I’ll take down the lot of you with one shot.”
Will wanted to slip into the house and coax his father out, but he feared that if he moved, North would start shooting. So he stayed put and hoped that no one would see his knees shaking.
“Now, boys …” Sheriff Chauncey Yates had a big belly and a broad face better suited to grins and good spirits than the scowl he wore. “The court says your father’s to spend six months in the Hampshire County House of Correction for nonpayment of debts to Mr. Nathan Liggett of Springfield.”
“Damn the courts,” said North. “And damn Nathan Liggett. Damn you, too, Sheriff. And while we’re doin’ our damnin’, damn the damn state for taxin’ us at thirty damn percent, so we don’t have the money to pay any other damn bills.”
“It’s happenin’ to farmers all over,” said the sheriff. “The state has to tax property to pay war debts. And farmers has more real property than most.”
“But farmers don’t have hard coin,” said Will, “and the state won’t take barter.”
“Nor merchants neither,” added North.
“Because merchants is squeezed by Boston creditors,” said the sheriff, “and they’re squeezed by European suppliers.”
“So men like our Pa get squeezed by lawyers,” said North.
“Yup.” The sheriff swung a leg and dismounted. “Makes you wonder why we fought the damn Revolution in the first place.”
North gave the sheriff a grin. “Time for another uprisin’, I’d say.”
“I have a court order”—the sheriff patted his pocket—”all fit and proper-like. It’s my job to execute it.”
“I’ll die first.” North raised his musket. “And you before me.”
With a sudden clattering of wood, leather, and metal, every deputy leveled a musket at the Pikes. And for a moment, there was quiet.
The breeze rustled in the trees. A horse snorted. Another pawed the ground.
Then North said, “Seems we has a stand-off.”
And from the house came a voice: “There’ll be no stand-off. You Pike boys stand down. Nobody’ll do any dyin’ on my account.”
Will Pike turned to see his father in the doorway, and after relief poured over him, he filled with a son’s pride.
George North Pike had chosen to dress that day not in the threadbare smallclothes of a bankrupt farmer but in the uniform of a captain in the Massachusetts Artillery. It did not fit him so well as it had when the war ended, for an ague of the stomach had taken twenty pounds off his frame. But the uniform had its effect. No deputy would point a weapon at the blue-and-buff.
The elder Pike strode out of the house, as if determined to show his best face. He stopped beside his sons and said, “Sheriff, my boys think we’ve traded bad masters in Britain for worse masters in Boston.”
“Damn right,” said North, the only man still pointing a musket at anyone.
“But,” said George North Pike, “I’ll not rebel against the country I fought for.”
He lifted the musket from North’s hands, blew into the pan, and sent up a little cloud of priming powder. He tossed the gun back to his son.
Then he said, “My boys been raised right, Chauncey. They know that this is a government of laws, and laws are made by men, and men might not always be what God intended them to be, but men like you and me, we’re decent, just the same.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Captain,” said Chauncey Yates. “Now will you mount the horse we brought for you?”
George North Pike tugged at his waistcoat and looked at his sons. “Boys, the livestock been sold off, but we still have our land. So tend to it while I’m gone.”
“We’ll go with you,” said North.
“We’ll help you get settled,” added Will.
“No.” Their father mounted the horse. “I’ll not have you see me in stripes just yet. Let me try them on first.”
And the Pike brothers watched their father ride away at the head of that little group, as though he were their leader rather than their prisoner.
Then North spat and said, “Time for an uprisin’.”
THERE WAS NOT much to the town of Pelham. On the west were rocky farms, a tavern, a Congregational meetinghouse at the crossroads. Then the east-west road dipped down to a plank bridge that crossed the Swift River, a narrow stream that lived up to its name even in the driest summers. Just beyond, the road rose toward more rocky farms. But right at the bridge was Conkey’s Tavern.
That was where the Pike brothers headed come sundown.
“A man shouldn’t go to bed dry,” said North, “especially on a day like this. So let’s wet our throats and dream of wet quims, which be a bit scarce hereabouts.”
“Is that why you went wanderin’ after the war?” asked Will. “For the quims?”
“Once you’ve marched with the Continental Army, coaxin’ corn out of a rocky hillside don’t hold much attraction. And once you’ve sampled a few of the ladies who follow an army, coaxin’ a kiss from a neighbor girl ain’t quite enough to slake your thirst for somethin’… wet and juicy.”
Will thought every night about things wet and juicy, and he envied his brother’s knowledge. He had never yet inspired any of the neighbor girls to kiss him, not that there were many.
And for certain there were none at the tavern, which was full of loud voices and strong opinions and the strong smells of men who spent their days sweating hard under a hot sun. But when the Pikes entered, it was as if the stifling air were blown off by a wind, cold and ominous.
One by one, then group by group, men fell silent and turned. None had quarrel with the Pikes. But the Pikes reminded them of what they all faced—heavy taxes, a Boston government more responsive to the needs of merchants than of self-sufficient farmers, and financial ruin.
When the room was dead quiet and all eyes were on the Pikes, North announced, “Time for an uprisin’, boys.”
In an instant, they were crowding around, offering condolences and congratulations. Word of George North Pike’s pride, even in disgrace, had already spread.
Daniel Shays, who farmed a plot as bad as the Pikes’, swept two mugs of flip from the bar and gave one to each of them. “Your pa’s a good man.”
“A good man indeed,” said Doc Hines. He set the broken bones of Pelham and, as Town Moderator, set the political discussion as well.
North looked around and asked, “So who’s to lead the uprisin’? You, Dan’l?”
“Not me.” Shays shook his head.
“We’ve asked him,” said Doc Hines “He’s been to debtor’s court himself, so he knows how humiliatin’ it is. And he went from private to captain in Washington’s army, so he knows how to lead—”
“I’ll back no rebellion till the state answers our petition,” said Shays.
He had always reminded Will of a bull—big-headed, brawny through the chest, with eyes that bespoke more stubbornness than brains. But if Daniel Shays kept to his present line of talk, Will would have to raise his opinion.
Doc Hines said, “We’re just back from the convention in Hatfield.”
“Aye,” added Shays. “Farmers from across the county. Wrote a petition to Boston. Told ’em we need paper money, debt relief, tax relief, and the closin’ of the Courts of Common pleas, so we can get out from under the lawyers—”
“You sound like my brother,” said North. “He wants to be one of them lawyers.”
Shays gave Will the once-over. “I’d say your brother’s a smart boy, then.”
“I’d say this”—North drained his mug and slammed it on the bar—”we tell the legislature we want no taxation without representation. Then we have an uprisin’.”
And that was what they did.
IN THE SMALL hours of August 29, the Pikes rose in the bedroom under the eaves in their father’s home, dressed, and headed down the hill.
At the meetinghouse, they joined with twenty or thirty more who had gathered under sputtering torches and lanterns.
“Fine day for an uprisin’,” North announced when he spied Daniel Shays.
“State rejects our petition,” said Shays, “we need to make ’em listen.”
With their torches and lanterns bobbing above them, they headed out the west road toward the Connecticut River. Some carried muskets, others had clubs or axes, and a few, like Daniel Shays and Will Pike, carried nothing at all.
Will had told his brother that he disapproved of mob action, but North had insisted he march, because a boy who dreamed of becoming a barrister should see what happened when lawyers and judges denied the people their rights.
By dawn, they had reached the Connecticut and joined other bands from other towns. A great coming together it was, of angry farmers crossing fields and forests to march with that column from Pelham and protest the injustices heaped upon them since the end of the Revolution.
At full daylight, they took formation behind fifes and drums and began to parade eight abreast, like a Continental regiment, with muskets in the van, clubs and shovels in support, unarmed men bringing up the rear.
Will admitted that there was something stirring in the sound of the fifes trilling out one marching tune after another—”Yankee Doodle,” “Banish Misfortune,” “The Road to Boston.” He could feel the drums beating in his belly, urging him on. And for a moment, he wished that he had brought his own musket after all.
The music must have moved Daniel Shays, too, because he snatched a post from a split-rail fence, shouldered it, and joined the men marching behind the muskets.
Will stayed at the rear and told himself that he was stronger than the momentary power of the music. A young man who hoped to become an officer of the Massachusetts court should not be seen laying siege to a Massachusetts courthouse.
The farmers had determined to close every courthouse in the state, so that no debt cases would be heard anywhere and no farmer could face foreclosure because he did not have the money to pay his taxes and his bills both.
When three justices arrived in Northampton to convene the Court of Common Pleas for Hampshire County, they were met by fifteen hundred men.
Will heard his brother say to Doc Hines, “Looks like the odds don’t favor the justices today, but I’d say they favor justice.”
And the justices agreed, at least in part, because they continued all cases and galloped back to Boston as fast as their mounts would carry them.
His brother’s uprising, thought Will, had begun
BUT WILL DID not march home with the Pelhamites. He might not have marched at all had they not been going to Northampton, because the House of Correction was there, too. It sat on a rise looking across the valley toward old Mount Tom.
Will took some comfort in that, for a well-sited jail might also be well-kept. But as he drew closer, the wind shifted, and the smell that rose off the roof and wafted from the windows was worse than a dungpile in July.
He should not have been surprised. The jails were packed in those days of foreclosure and debt crisis. So many farmers had been imprisoned at the behest of creditors who believed that they still could pay, or at the whim of a state that sought to make an example of them, that the practice of separating debtors from criminals had been suspended.
As for the man brought out to see his son, he looked as if he had aged a year in a fortnight. His hair hung around his face and snagged in the stubble on his chin. And his pallor was more than the prisoner’s shadow. Sickness and despair had turned him as gray as gravel.
“Don’t worry, lad.” George North Pike sat at a rough table, under the eye of the jailkeeper. “ ’Tis the thin gruel we get thrice a day that has me lookin’ like an old hag.”
“But Pa, you’ve lost another twenty pounds.”
“Don’t worry,” he said again, then asked, “Where’s your brother?”
“He said he couldn’t stand to see you like this.”
The old man nodded. “I can’t stand to see myself.”
Will reached into his sack and produced a loaf of bread, sausage, and three apples.
George Pike looked at the food. “Our apples?”
“Aye. One thing Nathan Liggett didn’t take.”
The prisoner ran his hand over the apples, as if to convince himself that they were real. Then he touched the bread, then the sausage. But he sampled nothing. “You should be sellin’ them apples. Not bringin’ them to me.”
Will ignored that and said, “Would you like a slice of sausage?”
The answer, from a man who looked like he was starving, was a shock to his son: “No, Willie. I … I reckon I’m not hungry.”
George North Pike laughed. “A place like this can kill a man’s appetite.” Or his spirit …
An hour later, Will stood to leave in the lowest spirits of his own life. But he would go with one promise. “We’ll get you out of this place, Pa.”
“I’ve labored hard all my days, son, because I believe that good things come to good men. And I give this country six years of service, but when I come home, I was loaded with class-rates and lawsuits, saw my livestock sold for half its value, had to pay when no one would pay me, got hauled off by the sheriff, and—” Whatever else he had to say, he could not go on. He simply stopped and buried his head in his hands.
Will Pike touched his father’s shoulder. “We’ll get you out.”
“I’ll serve my time. Then we’ll pay our bills. That’s how I’ll get out.”
THERE HAD TO be a better way, thought Will.
“There’s better ways,” said North that night at Conkey’s. “Ain’t that so, Dan’l?”
“Better ways. Aye.” Daniel Shays took a swallow of flip.
North elbowed his brother. “Dan’l’s agreed to lead us after all.”
“I’ve set my hand to the plow.” Shays sounded more resigned than committed. “Though it be hard ground. Neighbors don’t make the best soldiers.”
The uprising would soon be called Shays’s Rebellion, but there were many leaders in many towns. And while the rebels would be called “Shaysites” by their enemies, they called themselves Regulators, after farmers in England and the American South who had taken the law into their own hands in earlier days.
That fall, they put sprigs of evergreen in their hats, like the men of the Revolution. They marched behind old soldiers like Shays. And they struck fear into the elected officials in Boston.
The governor implored the legislature to take “vigorous measures to vindicate the insulted dignity of the government.” So they passed the Riot Act, calling for the Regulators to forfeit “their lands, tenements, goods, and chattels,” and to be whipped and imprisoned if convicted.
But in Pelham, men took an oath: “We do each one of us acknowledge ourselves to be enlisted in Shays’s Regiment of Regulators for the suppressing of tyrannical government in Massachusetts.” And men took oaths in the other towns, too.
They closed the courts in Worcester, then in Taunton and Concord. When the governor sent militia to protect the court in Great Barrington, the Regulators handed out evergreen sprigs and brought the militia to their side. In Springfield, hundreds of merchants surrounded the court to protect it from the Regulators, but no one answered the jury summons, so the court did not open.
While North marched, Will stayed at home, did chores, read what law books he could find, practiced the handwriting that a good legal apprentice needed, and continued to seek a better way to free his father. When he heard that Henry Knox, his father’s old commander and the Secretary of War, was visiting Springfield to investigate the uprising, Will saw his better way.
GOIN’ TO SPRINGFIELD are you?” said Shays.
“Goin’ to see Henry Knox,” said Will.
“You’ll be goin’ to the arsenal, then,” said North.
“I reckon.” In truth, Will did not know where in Springfield he would find Henry Knox. He supposed the arsenal would be as good a place as any.
It was early in the day, so the taproom at Conkey’s was mostly empty. Sunlight slanted through the front door and the windows. Old Man Conkey was sweeping up. His wife was stirring a pot on the fire. Mugs of tea sat on the table.
North scratched at the stubble on his chin and looked at Shays. “An honest lad, bringin’ a petition to Henry Knox at the Springfield arsenal …”
Shays looked at Will. “You could do us a service.”
“Service?” said Will.
“If you get onto the grounds of the arsenal, keep your eyes open, watch the guards, where they are, when they change, what—”
“I’m goin’ to help my father.”
Shays leaned closer. “The day may come when the government heeds nothin’ we say. Then we’ll need guns, new guns, guns to arm every farmer who marches. Nothin’ makes a politician concentrate better than the barrel of a gun.”
“And they keep the guns in the arsenal,” said North.
Will sipped his tea and said, “It’s my intention to obey the law.”
“Our intention, too,” said North, “till we’re forced to start shootin’.”
Will looked from one face to the other, from those wide-apart eyes of Daniel Shays to the rock-hard gaze of his brother. This was not something he wanted. His family was in trouble enough already, but he told them he would do what he could, because they had taken a stand on principle, and his father always told him that the principles made the man.
Then he left on the family’s swaybacked mare to meet Henry Knox.
THE LOST CONSTITUTION Copyright © 2007 by William Martin