The Contested Meanings of “Shays’ Rebellion Day”: Silvio Conte and Ronald Reagan in 1986

An extended version of this argument will be presented at the Springfield Armory on January 25, 2020. For more information: http://www.friendsofthearmory.org/ShaysRebellion

“Shays’ Rebellion represents more than a glimmer of our past,” said House Representative Silvio Conte (R-MA), “It represents the spirit of the American way and the struggle of a people to persevere and combat injustice.”[1] Representative Conte’s First Congressional District included Springfield, MA, the site of the armory toward which Daniel Shays marched with fellow indebted farmers and ex-soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Conte proposed House Resolution 10 to request that President Ronald Reagan recognize the week beginning January 19, 1987 as “Shays’ Rebellion Week,” and January 25, 1987 as “Shays’ Rebellion Day.” Conte commemorated Shays’ Rebellion through a language of justice that fit his support for civil rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War, during the 1960s. Reagan’s proclamation of the holiday then downplayed the Rebellion’s legitimacy and reduced it to a precursor of the Federalist model for the Constitution. This presentation argues that the historically proper way to memorialize Shays Rebellion lies with Conte’s words, not Reagan’s.

H.R. 10 passed in October 10, 1986, though Conte spoke about Shays’ Rebellion at earlier moments, including a House session in July 8, 1968. During the nineteen-sixties, Rep. Conte marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama in 1965. In 1968, a year of transnational protest and upheaval, Conte was the first Massachusetts representative to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam.[2] To commemorate the two-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of the settlement of Pelham, MA, Shays’ hometown, Conte moved beyond the conventional history that rebellion led the Federalists to propose a new Constitution. He said:

Shays’ Rebellion was more than a demonstration of the need for a strong central government; it was a call for justice by strong, honest people whose sacrifices in the Revolutionary War were leading them to debt and to subsequent loss of property under harsh local laws.[3]

The language of fairness was present in Conte’s floor speech on October 10, 1986, and the resolution that passed the same day. H.R. 10 said that Shays’ Rebellion was a response to a state that was “unresponsive,” by landowners who were “dissatisfied,” and ultimately “exposed” the problems of status quo government.[4] Conte’s belief in dissent against injustice, such as discrimination and inhumane wars, meant that he saw Shays’ Rebellion not as a crisis but rather an opportunity for progress.

Reagan’s Proclamation departed from Conte’s interpretation in a number of ways. The president cited Thomas Jefferson’s opinion that the rebels were motivated by “ignorance.” He also asserted that “the majority of the people of Massachusetts had sided with the government,” and that because of Shays we have the Constitution.[5] In a radio address from January 25, 1987, Reagan elaborated on Shays’ Rebellion Day by insisting that the Constitution made possible the “fight against injustice…without having to lead an armed revolution.”[6] Whether one believes today in armed revolution, Reagan’s rhetoric, unlike Conte’s, clearly disempowered radical protest. Activists prior to and following the farmers at Springfield understood, as Conte did, that disobedience was required when the ordinary paths to change were not possible.


[1] Silvio O. Conte, “Legislation to Commemorate Shays’ Rebellion,” Congressional Record–House, January 28, 1985, 1156.

[2] University of Massachusetts Amherst Special Collections, “Background on Silvio O. Conte,” No date, http://scua.library.umass.edu/ead/mums371

[3] Silvio O. Conte, “Pelham: 225th Anniversary of a Landmark of Democracy,” Congressional Record–House, July 8, 1968, 20235.

[4] Silvio O. Conte, “Shays’ Rebellion Week and Shays’ Rebellion Day,” Congressional Record–House, October 10, 1986, 30190.

[5] Ronald Reagan, “Proclamation 5598 — Shays’ Rebellion Week and Day, 1987,” January 13, 1987, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/research/speeches/011387b

[6] Ronald Reagan, “Radio Address to the Nation,” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Volume 22, Issues 1-15, January 25, 1986, 96.

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