Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Lincoln, Benjamin (1733-1810) to George Washington

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC01478 Author/Creator: Lincoln, Benjamin (1733-1810) Place Written: Hingham, Massachusetts Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 4 December 1786 Pagination: 8 p. : docket ; 23 x 19 cm.

Summary of Content: Refers to Washington's resignation as head of the Order of the Cincinnati. Describes a settlement he left after receiving a request to take command of the Massachusetts state militia, which was needed to suppress Shays' Rebellion. In response to a question from Washington, Lincoln discusses Shays' Rebellion in detail: the anger it is arousing, its causes, his expectation of bloodshed, the role of debt, and the rebellions current advantages. Writes that "In Short the want of industry economy & common honesty Seem to be the causes of the present commotions." Includes a post script note dated 21 January 1787, updating the outdated information. Indicates that he has been appointed to command a militia of four thousand and is currently marching towards the counties of Worcester, Hampshire, and Berkshire. Also reports that Daniel Shays is said to be assembling forces and is planning to prevent (debtor's) court from sitting on 23 January 1787.

Background Information: At the outbreak of Shays' Rebellion, Lincoln had already retired from public life. Due to Lincoln's popularity in Western Massachusetts, governor Bowdoin appointed him commander of the Massachusetts militia to ...fight the insurgents led by Daniel Shay. On January 20, 1787, Lincoln and his militia marched towards Springfield to defend the courts and federal arsenal. Once he arrived, he was successful in breaking up the insurgents but was not able to negotiate for a complete surrender with Shays. On the night of February 3, 1787, in Petersham, Lincoln struck the insurgents in a surprise attack. The insurgents scattered into neighboring towns and the rebellion was over. Most of the rebels surrendered and were granted amnesty. Daniel Shays was sentenced to death for treason but was pardoned by the newly elected Governor John Hancock.See More

Full Transcript:
Hingham Dec. 4th. 1786

My dear General

I was honored by the receipt of your favor of the 7th. Ulto. and your circular address by one of the last posts -
...I wish your Excellency had not in so decided a manner expressed your determination to retire from the head of the order of Cincinnati. I shall communicate your address to our delegates to the next general meeting and to our State Society.
I have made three trips into the eastern country this year, partly on public & partly on private business…. I have one son now there and another will probably go there next Spring. I think it a good country and that young men may Set down in it with flattering prospects. Since the last Spring we have erected two saw mills on a large Scale & have established a number of Settlers. We have frequent applications for lots and Shall Soon obtain the number of families we are obliged to Settle (viz. fifty in six year) From the Situation of the two townships which were bought by [2] Mr. Russell, Mr. Lowell & my Self the Settlement of them will be easy for the lands are so indicated by rivers and bay that we about lie Twenty miles on navigable waters and there are not one hundred acres in the fifty thousand which will be five miles from Such waters. Our people who have been bred near the Sea are fond of settling as near to it as possible. It is a country which abounds with fish of almost every kind and the waters are covered with fowls. The land, will be friendly to the growth of Wheat, Rye, barley, oats hemp & flax, but not much so to Indian corn. Indeed I am so pleased with the country that I frequently wish my self there where I might be free from the present noise and tumult, but I cannot leave this part of the State at present, for notwithstanding the resolutions I had formed ever to decline entering again into public life I was persuaded by my friends to take the command of the first division of militia in this State. I am now busily employed in organizing it &c. This business which would at all times be a duty especially so now, when the State is convulsed and the bands of government, in some parts of it, are cast off.
I cannot be surprised therefore to hear your Excellency inquire "are your people getting mad? Are we to have the goodly fabric that eight years were spent in raising pulled over our heads? What is the cause of all these commotions? When and how will they end?" Although I cannot pretend to give you a full and compleat answer to them yet I will make some observations which shall involve in them the best answers to the several questions in my power to give.
"Are your people getting mad?" Many of them appear to be absolutely so if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidence of insanity.
"Are we to have the goodly fabric that eight years were spent in raising pulled over our heads?" There is I think great danger that it will be so unless the tottering system shall be supported by arms and even then a government which has no other basis than the point of the bayonet, should one be suspended thereon, is so totally different from the one established, at least in idea, by the different States that if we must have recourse to the sad experiment of arms it can hardly be said that we have supported "the goodly fabric," in this view of the matter it may be "pulled over our heads" this probably will be the case for there doth not appear to be virtue enough among the people to preserve a perfect republican government.
"What is the cause of all these commotions?" The causes are too many and too various for me to pretend to trace & point them out. I therefore shall only mention some of those which appear to be the principal ones among those I may rank the case with which property was acquired, with which credit was obtained, and debts were discharged in the time of the war. Hence people were diverted from their usual industry and economy a luxurious mode of living crept into vogue and soon that income, by which the expenses of all should as much as possible be limited was no longer considered as having any thing to do with the question, at what expense families ought to live, or rather which they ought not to have exceeded. The moment the day arrived when they all discovered that things were fast returning back into their original channel, that the industrious were to reap the fruits of his own industry, and that the indolent and improvident would soon experience the evils of their own idleness & sloth, very many startled at the idea and instead of attempting to subject themselves to such a line of conduct, which duty to the public, and a regard to their own happiness evidently pointed out they contemplated how they should evade the necessity of reforming their System and of changing their present mode of life. They first complained of commutation, of the weight of the public taxes, of the insupportable debt of the union, of the scarcity of money, and of the cruelty of suffering the private creditors to call for their just dues. This catalogue of complaints was listened to by many. County conventions were formed and the cry for paper money, subject to a depreciation as was declared by some of their public resolves, was the clamour of the day. But notwithstanding instructions to members of the General Court and petitions from different quarters the majority of that body were opposed to the measures. Failing of their point the disaffected in the first place attempted, and in many instances succeeded to stop the courts of law and to suspend the operation of government: This they hoped to do untill they could, by force, sap the foundations of our constitution and bring into the legislature creatures of their own by which they could mould a government at pleasure and make it subservient to all their purposes and when an end should be put thereby to public & private debts, the agrarian law might follow with ease. In short the want of industry economy & common honesty seem to be the causes of the present commotions. It is impossible for me to determine "when and how they will end" as I see little probability that they will be brought to a period and the dignity of government supported without blood shed. When a single drop is drawn the most prophetic spirit will not, in my opinion, be able to determine when it will cease flowing.
The proportion of debtors run high in this State too many of them are against the government. The men of property and the holders of the Public Securities are generally abettors of our present constitution but few of these have been in the field, and it remains quite problematical whether they will in time so fully discover their own interests as they shall be induced thereby to lend for a season part of their property for the security of the remainder. If these classes of men should not turn out on the broad scale with spirit and the insurgents should take the field & keep it our constitution will be over turned and the federal government broken in upon by loping off one branch essential to the well being of the whole. They cannot be submitted to by the United States with impunity they must send force to our aid, when this shall be collected they will be equal to all purposes.
The insurgents have now every advantage if we move in force against them we move under the direction of the civil authority and we cannot act but by the direction of it, after the riot act has been read & one hour has elapsed they may disperse it they think proper, the next day they assemble again in another place and so they may conduct themselves with perfect security from day to day untill a favorable moment shall offer, after those well affected to government are worn out, for the insurgents to commence their attack. Had the last general court declared the disaffected counties in a State of rebellion they would have placed the contest upon a different footing and the rebels might have been soon crushed. They did not do it, what they will do at their next session which will be in Febry next, is quite uncertain, And must remain at present, "with the time when & manner how these commotions are to end," concealed from me in the unturned pages of [ ] futurity.
I have the honor of being
My Dear General
with the highest esteem
Your affectionate
humble Servant
B. Lincoln
His Excellency
General Washington
Marlboro - Janry 21 1787
The above observations were made some time since as will appear by the date of them and would have been forwarded at the time had there not then appeared some disposition in the executive to call into example the power delegated for the support of the authority of the government. They have just determined upon the measure and have ordered out four thousand militia and have appointed me to command them and have given me powers to call for such further aid as I may think necessary to effect the objects of my commission. I am thus far on my march toward the disaffected counties, viz. Worcester, Hampshire & Berkshire. It has been given out that Shays would stop the court to be holden at Worcester on the 23rd. I think he will not be there tho it is said that he is assembling his troops at different places. If he should not be at Worcester I expect to march the troops to the County of Berkshire to take up the insurgents to give confidence to the well affected and to convince those of an other character how much they have been imposed on when they have been made to believe that no troops would turn out in favor of government.
The gentlemen of property & men of influence have come forth fully on this occasion and have loaned a considerable sum of money to government. I cannot but hope that we shall be able to crush the opposition & that the people will be disposed to submit to government and enjoy undisturbed in fulure the blessings of it. When ever I mention military matters I feel a responsibility to your Excellency & shall when any thing turns up of importance do my self the pleasure to communicate it.
Y. T. B. Lincoln
[in another hand: G W]
[docket]: Decr. 4th 1786
See More

People: Lincoln, Benjamin, 1733-1810
Washington, George, 1732-1799
Shays, Daniel, 1747-1825

Historical Era: The New Nation, 1783-1815

Subjects: PresidentFraternal OrganizationSociety of the CincinnatiRevolutionary WarContinental ArmyMilitiaShays' RebellionRebellionFinanceMobs and RiotsEconomicsMorality and EthicsJudiciaryMilitary History

Sub Era: Creating a New Government

Order a Copy Citation Guidelines for Online Resources