Shays' Rebellion

Shays' Rebellion

Shays' Rebellion was an armed uprising in Central and Western Massachusetts from 1786 to 1787. The rebels, led by Daniel Shays and known as Shaysites (Regulators), were mostly poor farmers angered by crushing debt and taxes. Failure to repay such debts often resulted in imprisonment in debtor's prisons or the claiming of property by the state.

The rebellion started on August 29, 1786. A militia that had been raised as a private army defeated an attack on the federal Springfield Armory by the main Shaysite force on February 3, 1787. There was a lack of an institutional response to the uprising, which energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation and gave strong impetus to the Constitutional Convention which began in May 1787.

Mounting financial crisis

The financial situation boiled down to this: European war investors among others demanded payment in gold and silver; there was not enough gold and silver in the states, including Massachusetts, to pay the debts; and through the state, wealthy urban businessmen were trying to squeeze whatever assets they could get out of rural smallholders. Since after all the smallholders did not have the gold creditors demanded, everything they had was confiscated, including their homes.

At a meeting convened by aggrieved commoners, a farmer, Plough Jogger, encapsulated the situation:

Jogger's statement was so resonant, the convention chairman had to cut short the applause, and it was decided that the legislature (General Court) in Boston would be petitioned. [Zinn, Howard. 1995. "A People's History of the United States". New York: Harper. p. 91]

Veterans of the Continental army, also aggrieved because they had been conscripted, had to fight with no payment to help them pay for their living, and because they were treated poorly upon discharge, including being locked up in debtors' prison, began to organize into squads and companies their neighbors the besieged farmers, in order to halt the confiscations. [Zinn, 1995, 91] Veteran Luke Day of West Springfield, Massachusetts asked the judges holding the confiscatory hearings to adjourn until the Massachusetts legislature met. Throughout Massachusetts, newly organized farmers and veterans faced militia at courthouse thresholds. But sometimes the farmers and veterans were the militia, and often the majority of the militias sided with the veterans and farmers. [Zinn, 1995, 91-93]

Boston elites were mortified at this resistance. Governor James Bowdoin commanded the legislature to "vindicate the insulted dignity of government." Sam Adams disingenuously claimed that foreigners ("British emissaries") were instigating treason among the presumably childlike commoners, and he helped draw up a Riot Act, and a resolution suspending habeas corpus. Adams proposed a new legal distinction: that rebellion in a republic, unlike in a monarchy, should be punished by execution. [Zinn, 1995, 93-94]

The end of the rebellion

After several years of unauthorized popular conventions sending petitions to the Massachusetts General Court for tax and debt relief, and protesters shutting down local courts (to prevent judges from enforcing debt collection), action was taken. [Swift, 1969, pp. 37-41] Boston merchants raised money for an army, led by General Benjamin Lincoln. [Zinn, 1995, 93.] Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin ordered General Benjamin Lincoln's large Boston militia as well as General William Shepard's local militia of 600 men to protect the Springfield court so that it could process more property confiscations.

Daniel Shays of Pelham, Massachusetts sent a message to Luke Day proposing to get the weapons from the Springfield armory on January 25, 1787, before General Benjamin Lincoln's 4,000-man combined Boston and Springfield militia could arrive. Day's response that his forces would not be ready until January 26 was never received (thus providing a real-world example of the Two Generals' Problem). Shays approached the armory not knowing he would not have reinforcements.

General Shepard's forces were unpaid and without food or adequate arms. Shepard had requested permission to use the weaponry in the Springfield Armory, but Secretary of War Henry Knox had denied the request on the grounds that it required Congressional approval, and that Congress was out of session. Shepard reached the armory before Shays, and, ignoring Knox, Shepard's militia commandeered the weapons stored there.

When Shays and his forces neared the armory, they found Shepard's militia waiting for them. Shepard ordered a warning shot, and then his militia shot a single round into the rebel forces. Two or three of the Shaysites were killed, and the rest fled north. On the opposite side of the river, Day's forces also fled north. The militia captured many of the rebels on February 4 in Petersham, Massachusetts; by March there was no more armed resistance.

General Shepard reported to his superiors that he had made use of the armory without authorization, and returned the weapons in good condition after the armed conflict had ended.

Several of the rebels were fined, imprisoned, and sentenced to death, but in 1788 a general amnesty was granted. Although most of the condemned men were either pardoned or had their death sentences commuted, two of the condemned men, John Bly and Charles Rose were hanged on December 6, 1787. [Richards (2002) p. 41] Like many others, Daniel Shays died poor and obscure in Massachusetts. [Zinn 1995: 94.]


As an extension of process of working out problems between the states, James Madison and others decided to call for a gathering of the states in the fall of 1786. The Annapolis Convention held in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11 -14, 1786 did not accomplish much other than to endorse delegate Alexander Hamilton's call for a new convention in Philadelphia to "render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."Richards (2002) pp. 126–7.]

Many of the young Republic's leaders were already frustrated by the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Manufacturers desired a strong federal government capable of enforcing protective tariffs; moneylenders whose international financial transactions were conducted in gold wanted the federal government to put a stop to paper money (such an innovation as Rhode Island had introduced to allow gold-poor citizens to pay off debts); land speculators wanted military protection for invading Indian lands; slave owners wanted federal protection against slave revolts and to capture slaves attempting freedom; bondholders needed a federal government able to tax and so pay off bondholders with interest. [Beard, Charles. 1935. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan. Cited in Zinn, Howard. 1995. P. 90 in A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper.] Of the 55 white, property-owning men who drew up the Constitution in 1787, most were lawyers; most were men of wealth--in land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping; half of them had money loaned out at interest; and 40 owned government bonds. [Beard, Charles. 1935. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan. Cited in Zinn, Howard. 1995. Pp. 89-90 in A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper.] Some in Congress also worried that the government was too weak to repel invasions.

Yet until Shays' Rebellion, a general sentiment against standing armies kept the power of the government limited. In the aftermath of the Newburgh Conspiracy in 1783, and given the war debts and the high cost of a standing army, and the country's discomfort with a standing army, the Confederation Congress had nearly completely demobilized the army. In the face of the rebellion, through the fall of 1786, Secretary of War Knox ordered an expansion of the Continental Army; by mid-January he managed to recruit only 100 men.

However, the events of Shays' Rebellion would tip the scales of elite opinion in favor of those who wanted the Constitution to structure a stronger central government. Many who had been doubtful of the need for such a radical change were persuaded as to the benefit of a government capable of repressing the "mob". Argued Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, the new, stronger federal government would be able "to repress domestic faction and insurrection...The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative." [ Zinn, Howard. 1995. P. 97 in A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper. ] This view not only championed a strong central government, it also promoted territorial expansion. Concurred Madison, "an extensive republic" was needed to make it "more difficult for all (non-elites) who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other" as conflict arises from "the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society." [Zinn 1995: 96.]

This kind of argumentation was convincing to American leaders. Shays' Rebellion was closely watched by these leaders, who were alarmed at what they saw as an effort to "level" the inequalities the new nation was experiencing in the aftermath of the Revolution. Most alarming for early American elitists such as George Washington, Samuel Adams, and former general Henry Knox was the Confederation government's potential lack of power to decisively quash a rebellion.

Still, not every Founding Father thought rebellion constituted sufficient threat to the viability of the country to necessitate Federalist designs. On 13 November 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to New York senator William S. Smith,

Rebutting Jefferson, the future First Lady Abigail Adams applauded the military force that put down the rebellion, maintaining that the rebellion was irrational, and as such, a fundamental threat to the national order.

Alexander Hamilton extended Adams' argument, elaborating the Federalist view of how to constitute the new Republic,

One of the key leaders of the new country, George Washington, who had long been cool to the idea of strong centralized government, was frightened by the events in Massachusetts. Washington exchanged dozens of letters through the fall and early winter of 1786–87; and it can be argued that the alarm he felt at the rebellion in Massachusetts was a strong inducement to bring him from retirement to work for a stronger central government.Richards (2002) pp. 1–4, 129–30.] By January 1787, Washington was persuaded to come out of retirement and to attend the convention called for the coming May in Philadelphia. His presence secured the confidence of many other participants. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a new, stronger government would be created under the United States Constitution.

ee also

*John Fries's Rebellion



* cite book
title = The Story of Massachusetts
author = Hale, Edward Everett
year = 1891
location = Boston
publisher = D. Lothrop Company

* cite book
title = New England Conscience: With Typical Examples
author = Munroe, James Phinney
year = 1915
location = Boston
publisher = R.G. Badger

* cite book
title = Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle
author = Richards, Leonard L.
year = 2002
location = Philadelphia
publisher = U. of Pennsylvania Press

* cite book
title = West Springfield Massachusetts: A Town History
author = Swift, Esther M.
year = 1969
location = Springfield, MA
publisher = F.A. Bassette Company

Further reading

*Beard, Charles. 1935. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan.
*Churchill Films. 1986. A Little Rebellion Now and Then: Prologue to the Constitution.
*Collier, James Lincoln and Collier, Christopher. "The Winter Hero" (Four Winds Press, 1978). (The rebellion is the central story of this children's novel.)
*Degenhard, William. "The Regulators" (The Dial Press, 1943; Second Chance Press, 1981).
*Gross, Robert A., editor. "In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion", (Charlottesville: U. Press of Virginia, 1993).
*Kaufman, Martin, editor. "Shays's Rebellion: Selected Essays", (Westfield, Mass., 1987)
*Martin, William. "The Lost Constitution" (2007). (The rebellion plays a central role in this novel.)
*McCarthy, Timothy Patrick and John McMillan, eds. 2003. The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition. New York: New Press.
*Middleton, Lamar. 1938. Revolt, USA. New York: Stackpole Sons.
*Minot, George Richards. "History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts", 1788. (The earliest account of the rebellion. Although this account was deeply unsympathetic to the rural Regulators, it became the basis for most subsequent tellings, including the many mentions of the rebellion in Massachusetts town and state histories.)
*Richards, Leonard L. Shay's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
*Starkey, Marion Lena. 1955. A Little Rebellion. New York: Knopf.
*Szatmary, David. 1980. Shays's Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press.
*Zinn, Howard. 1995. "A Kind of Revolution." Pp. 76-101 in A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper Perennial.

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