Shays’ Rebellion was an armed uprising that took place in central and western Massachusetts from 1786 to 1787. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War.
The rebellion started on August 21, 1786, over financial difficulties and by January 1787, over one thousand Shaysites had been arrested. 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, and five rebels were killed in the action. Scattered resistance continued, mainly in western Massachusetts, with the largest single action being an incident in Sheffield in which 30 rebels were killed.
In the aftermath, fear spread that the American Revolution’s democratic impulse had gotten out of hand. This fear, combined with the lack of institutional response to the uprising, energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation and gave strong impetus to the Philadelphia Convention which began on May 17, 1787, which created the United States Constitution.
Contemporary unflattering depiction of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, two of the main protest leaders
In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War (which largely died down in North America after the 1781 American victory at Yorktown), the individual United States all carried significant debts. In order to pay off these debts the state governments raised taxes, and often required payment in hard currency rather than depreciated state or Continental paper currency.
In the rural parts of New England, particularly in central and western Massachusetts, the economy even during the war had been one of little more than subsistence agriculture. Most of the residents in these areas had little in the way of assets beyond their land, and they often bartered with one another for goods or services. In lean times farmers might get goods on credit from suppliers in the local market towns, which would be repaid when times were better.
In the more economically developed coastal areas of Massachusetts Bay, the economy was more of a market economy, driven by the activities of wholesale merchants dealing with Europe, the West Indies, and elsewhere on the North American coast. The state government was dominated by this merchant class.
With the war at an end, the European business partners of Massachusetts merchants refused to extend lines of credit to them, and insisted that goods be paid for with hard currency. Despite the continent-wide shortage of such currency, the merchants began to demand the same from their local business partners, including the merchants operating in the market towns in the state’s interior. These merchants propagated the demand to their customers.
The rural farming population was generally unable to meet the demands being laid on them by the merchants or by the civil authorities, and individuals began to lose their land and other possessions when they were unable to fulfill their debt and tax obligations. This led to resentment against the tax collectors (who were responsible for collecting taxes owed) and the justice system (where creditors obtained and enforced judgments against them).
At a meeting convened by aggrieved commoners, a farmer, Plough Jogger, encapsulated the situation:
“I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war, been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates and hi people all rates…been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth…The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.”
Overlaid upon these financial issues was the fact that veterans of the war had not received much pay during the war, and were having difficulty collecting back pay owed them from the state or the Congress of the Confederation. Some of these soldiers, Daniel Shays among them, began to organize protests against the oppressive economic conditions. Shays was a poor farmhand from Massachusetts when the Revolution broke out. He joined the Continental Army, saw action at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, and was eventually wounded in action. In 1780, he resigned from the army unpaid and went home to find himself in court for the nonpayment of debts. He soon found that he was not alone in being unable to pay his debts, and began organizing for debt relief.
One opening salvo of protest took place in the central Massachusetts town of Uxbridge, in Worcester County, on Feb. 3, 1783, when a mob seized property that had been confiscated by a local constable and returned it to its owners. Governor John Hancock ordered the sheriff to suppress these actions. Another was Job Shattuck of Groton, who in 1782 organized residents there to physically prevent tax collectors from doing their work.
Most rural communities, however, attempted to use the legislative process to gain relief. Petitions and proposals were repeatedly submitted to the state legislature to issue paper currency. Such inflationary issues would depreciate the currency, making it possible to meet obligations made at high values with lower-valued paper. The merchants, especially James Bowdoin who succeeded Hancock as governor in 1785, were opposed, because they were generally lenders who stood to lose by such proposals. As a result these proposals were repeatedly rejected. The legislature in 1785 exacerbated the situation by levying an additional property tax to raise funds for the state’s portion of foreign debt payments, and passing legislation to step up collection of overdue taxes. Even comparatively conservative commentators like John Adams observed that these levies were “heavier than the People could bear.”
Protests in the rural Massachusetts turned into direct action in August 1786, after the state legislature adjourned without considering the many petitions that had been sent to Boston by rural communities. On August 29 a well-organized force of protestors from the surrounding rural communities formed in Northampton and successfully prevented the county court from sitting. The leaders of this and later forces proclaimed that they were seeking relief from the burdensome judicial processes that were depriving the people of their land and possessions. They called themselves Regulators, a reference to the Regulator movement of North Carolina that sought to reform corrupt practices in the late 1760s.
On September 2, Governor Bowdoin issued a proclamation denouncing such mob action, but took no military measures in response beyond planning militia response to future actions. When the court in Worcester was shut down by similar action on September 5, the county militia (composed mainly of men sympathetic to the protestors) refused to turn out, much to Bowdoin’s amazement. Governors of the neighboring states where similar protests took place acted decisively, calling out the militia to hunt down the ringleaders after the first such protests. In Rhode Island, matters were resolved without violence because the “country party” gained control of the legislature in 1786 and enacted measures forcing its merchant elites to trade debt instruments for devalued currency. The impact of this was not lost on Boston’s merchants, especially Bowdoin, who held more than £3,000 in Massachusetts notes.
Daniel Shays, who had participated in the Northampton action, began to take a more active leadership role in the uprising in November. On September 19, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted eleven leaders of the rebellion as “disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons.” When the supreme judicial court was next scheduled to meet in Springfield on September 26, Shays in Hampshire County and Luke Day in what is now Hampden County (but was then part of Hampshire County) organized an attempt to shut it down. They were anticipated by William Shepard, the local militia commander, who began gathering government-supporting militia the Saturday before the court was to sit. By the time the court was ready to open, Shepard had 300 men protecting the Springfield courthouse. Shays and Day were able to recruit a similar number, but chose only to demonstrate, exercising his troops outside Shepard’s lines, rather than attempt to seize the building. The judges postponed the hearings, and adjourned on the 28th without hearing any cases. Shepard withdrew his force, which had grown to some 800 men (to the Regulators’ 1,200), to the federal armory, whose seizure was the subject of rumors.
Protests in Great Barrington, Concord, and Taunton were also successful in shutting courts down in those communities in September and October. James Warren wrote to John Adams on October 22, “We are now in a state of Anarchy and Confusion bordering on Civil War.” Courts in the larger towns and cities were able to meet, but required protection of the militia, which Bowdoin called out for the purpose.
The Boston elites were mortified at this resistance. Governor Bowdoin commanded the legislature to “vindicate the insulted dignity of government.” Samuel Adams claimed that foreigners (“British emissaries”) were instigating treason among the commoners, and he helped draw up a Riot Act, and a resolution suspending habeas corpus in order to permit the authorities to keep people in jail without trial. Adams proposed a new legal distinction: that rebellion in a republic, unlike in a monarchy, should be punished by execution. The legislature also moved to make some concessions to the upset farmers, saying certain old taxes could now be paid in goods instead of money. These measures were followed up by one prohibiting speech critical of the government, and offering pardons to protestors willing to take an oath of allegiance. These measures were unsuccessful in quelling the protests.
This monument marks the spot of the final battle of Shays’ Rebellion, in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
Since the federal government had been unable to recruit soldiers for the army (due primarily to a lack of funding), the Massachusetts elites determined to act independently. On January 4, 1787, Governor Bowdoin proposed creation of a privately funded militia army. Former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln solicited funds, and had by the end of January raised more than £6,000 from more than 125 merchants. The 3,000 militia that were recruited into this army were almost entirely from the eastern counties of Massachusetts, and marched to Worcester on January 19.
While the government forces organized, Shays, Day, and other rebel leaders organized their forces in the Connecticut River valley for a full-scale assault on the state government, establishing regional regimental organizations that were run by democratically elected committees. Their first major target was the federal armory in Springfield. General Shepard had however, pursuant to orders from Governor Bowdoin, taken possession of the armory and used its arsenal to arm a force of some 1,200 militia. He had done this despite the fact that the armory was federal, not state, property, and that he did not have permission from Secretary at War Henry Knox to do so.
The insurgents were organized into three major groups, and intended to surround and simultaneously attack the armory. Shays had one group east of Springfield near Palmer, Luke Day had a second force across the Connecticut River in West Springfield, and the third force, under Eli Parsons, was to the north at Chicopee. On January 25 Shays sent a message to Day proposing to assault the armory on January 25, 1787, before Lincoln’s militia army could arrive. Day’s response that his forces would not be ready until January 26 was intercepted by Shepard’s men, and did not reach Shays. Shays’ militia approached the armory not knowing they would have no reinforcements.
When Shays and his forces neared the armory, they found Shepard’s militia waiting for them. Shepard first ordered a warning shot, and then ordered the two cannon present to fire grape shot at Shays’ men. Four Shaysites were killed and twenty wounded. There was no musket fire from either side. Crying “Murder!”, for they never thought that their neighbors and fellow veterans would fire at them, the rebels 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. 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. Shays himself was pardoned in 1788 and he returned to Massachusetts from hiding in the Vermont woods. Sometime afterwards, he moved to the Conesus, New York, area where he lived until he died poor and obscure in 1825.
Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as ambassador to France at the time, refused to be alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion. In a letter to a friend, he argued that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” In contrast to Jefferson’s sentiments George Washington wrote in a letter to Henry Lee, “You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.” Washington was at the time was urging many to consider forming a better and more energetic national government.
The uprising was the climax of a series of events of the 1780s that convinced a powerful group of Americans that the national government needed to be stronger so that it could create uniform economic policies and protect property owners from infringements on their rights by local majorities. Men like Charles Harding helped to spread concepts created during Shays’ Rebellion. These ideas stemmed from the fear that a private liberty, such as the secure enjoyment of property rights, could be threatened by public liberty – unrestrained power in the hands of the people. James Madison addressed this concept by stating that “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”
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