Daniel Shays had a strong following in Shrewsbury in numbers. The regulators, as the Shays' men were called, controlled the action of the town with irresistible majorities; but its two most eminent citizens, Gen. Artemas Ward and Col. Job Cushing, were conspicuous by pronounced opposition, and had entered on the town-records, where one may read it today, their protest against the insurrectionary proceedings of the town adopted at a town-meeting in 1786.
Wisdom may have been with the minority, but the men who took up arms with Shays were not unprincipled and abandoned wretches of the criminal class, and it was not for nothing that they took up arms. Shays himself, as well as Ward and Cushing, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and so also were every one of his captains. Captain Wheeler was born in Shrewsbury and was the great-great- grandson of the famous Captain Thomas Wheeler, of the Indian fight at Brookfield in 1675. The leader of the Shrewsbury regulators was a brother-in-law of Wheeler, having married his sister, and a veteran whom we first met as a boy serving his apprenticeship as a soldier in the French and Indian War, and who fought for the independence of his country from Lexington to Yorktown, Captain Aaron Smith, and the company which he raised for Shays in Shrewsbury were his former companions-in-arms.
Their purpose was not to overthrow the government, but merely to restrain the courts temporarily from entering up judgments and issuing executions. The people of Shrewsbury were very poor. They had spent their little all for country. Acting under the advice of Governor Bowdoin and influenced by speculating Boston lobbyists, the General Court had laid an enormous lax with a view to pay off the public debt. Most of the public creditors were holders of state securities or soldiers' certificates purchased at less than twelve percent of their face value. Claims against the bankrupt citizens of the town were in the hands of lawyers and deputy-sheriffs, who held them under contracts for large percentages if collected.
Forces Fleeing from Federal Troops (C. Hendrick)
The first demonstration of the insurgents at Worcester, in September, was successful in preventing the sitting of the courts. It was upon this occasion that General Artemas Ward, of Shrewsbury, then chief justice of both the Courts of Sessions and Common Pleas, performed the act which will go to posterity as the crowning act of his life. Wheeler's company, which had marched into Worcester on Monday afternoon, September 4, 1786, the day before the courts were to sit, took up quarters in the courthouse Monday night, so as to be sure to be in possession when the judges should arrive next morning.
Smith's company marched in from Shrewsbury early Tuesday morning, and was deployed and posted as sentries on Court Hill and around the court-house. There, upon the broad step at the south entrance, stood Captain Wheeler and Captain Smith with drawn swords in their hands, and five soldiers with fixed bayonets.
Right well did Artemas Ward know the men he had to deal with. Smith was his near neighbor, and lived on the opposite side to him of the Great Road through Shrewsbury. Wheeler, who was about Ward's age (nearly sixty years), had been his schoolmate in youth, and had formerly been a member of the same church. In his younger days, as a militia captain, Ward had drilled, in left foot and shoulder arms on Shrewsbury Common, the very men now in array against him.
As soon as he had looked his audience in the face there seems to have come over him a sort of inspiration, and, with great fluency, fervor and eloquence, he forthwith proceeded to reason with the people, whose grievances he did not deny upon their mistaken method of relief. But Captain Wheeler was as unshaken as his old commander, and continued firm in his determination that the judges should not enter the court- house, and they did not.
D. Hamilton Hurd, History of Worcester County Massachusetts with Historical Sketches of many of its Pioneers and Prominent Men (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1889), vol. I, pp. 780-810.