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What Was Shays’ Rebellion?
Shays’ Rebellion was a series of protests and attacks, sometimes violent, on courthouses and other government buildings centered in western Massachusetts starting in 1786. The rebellion culminated in the next year in an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. The rebels were mainly ex-Revolutionary War soldiers who farmed in western Massachusetts and opposed high taxation and the harsh economic policies of the state government. The rebellion was named after one of the leaders of the bands of insurgents, Daniel Shays, who had fought in the Revolutionary War. Shays left the Continental Army wounded and without pay to return to farming. Shays’ Rebellion was important because it exposed the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation and provided impetus for the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to agree to a strong central government.
The United States After the Revolutionary War
After the American Revolutionary War, the fledgling United States suffered from an economic depression. Though the colonists had won the Revolutionary War with Britain, the high cost of the war had brought hardships to many Americans, including a shortage of currency, higher taxes, and an increase in foreclosures from bankruptcies. The Confederation Congress owed large debts to foreign governments, bankers, Revolutionary War soldiers, and citizens who had lent their money or who had their goods conscripted to support the war effort. The Congress of the Confederation, which operated under the Articles of Confederation starting in 1781, had no power to tax.
By mid-1786 many leaders feared that the Confederation was about to collapse and that a political crisis was imminent. Merchants and manufacturers who had previously sold their wares to British markets found themselves with bloated inventories due to the diminution of trade between the two countries. The merchants, who had debts to English creditors, needed hard money to pay their creditors; thus, merchants pressured their customers to pay their debts. As well as businesses being in financial trouble, the local and state governments were deeply in debt for expenses from the war. To generate more income the governments began to raise taxes.
Farmers and rural craftsman were especially hit hard by the demands of the merchants for payment of debts and the state government raising taxes. Since there was little “hard” money, i.e., gold and silver coins, in circulation, and the Continental paper money was virtually worthless due to rampant inflation, the farmers and artisans had few options. Most of the day-to-day commerce was transacted through the barter system due to the shortage of coins and paper money. Thus, the farmers owed money they didn’t have and couldn’t get; many were brought before debtors’ courts or thrown into debtors’ prison.
To remedy the worsening crisis, farmers and aggrieved others proposed through petitions and county conventions that states issue paper money or allow goods and services to be substituted for hard money. Only Rhode Island responded to their plea; the other New England states that were controlled by commercial interests refused to cooperate.
One Massachusetts farmer wrote of his distressed condition in 1786:
“We were told, during the continuance of the late war, that if we could support our independency, out lands would rise in value, and that a free trade would enhance the price of our produce…But what are the present state of facts as they respect the yeomanry of this Commonwealth? Our real estates, since the peace, have fallen in value two-thirds. Our taxes are so high, together with call of a private nature [i.e., debts], that our stock, in cattle are greatly diminished…The greater part then of those who gloriously supported our independence now find their moveables vanishing like empty shades, their lands sinking under their feet.”
Hard Money in Colonial America
Money—coins and bills—is something we take for granted today; however, it was not always the case in the United States that coins or “species” money was readily available. The lack of “hard” money that derived its value from the gold and silver content of the coins was one of the significant contributing factors that led to Shays’ Rebellion. Before the first coins were struck under the authority of the U.S. Mint in 1793, the term “money” had a variety of meanings to Americans. In their pockets or purses you might find: Spanish pesos or pieces of eight, Flemish ducatoons, Portuguese crusadoes, Dutch guilders or florins, German and Danish talers or dollars, English crowns, shillings, pence, and others. To make the problem of exchange even more burdensome, coins had variations in their gold and silver content depending on the country of origin.
During the period from 1785 to 1788, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Jersey granted the privilege to coin money to companies and individuals who produced a variety of small denomination copper coinage. Starting in 1787, Massachusetts also began to authorize the production of copper coinage. However, due to the ongoing shortage of coins and paper money, many of the financial transactions, especially in rural areas, were based on a barter system, where items such as wampum, corn, cattle, whiskey, and a variety of other items of value became mediums of exchange.
One solution the colonials came up with was the printing of paper money and tokens issued by the states or local merchants. Most of the notes were in denominations ranging from five shillings to 20 pounds and were more like bills of credit than modern currency. During the Revolutionary War, the Congress authorized the printing of massive quantities of Continental Currency to finance the war debt. As more currency was printed and put into circulation, inflation erupted and the value of the currency depreciated quickly.
After the war the colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation as a framework for the government. The Articles gave the Congress the sole right to regulate the alloy and value of coins by its own authority or by that of the respective states. The paper money and the copper coins did much to facilitate day-to-day transactions; however, these methods of payment were not accepted in international payments and seldom accepted for tax payments. It would be well into the 19th century before the U.S. Mint could produce enough coinage to alleviate the shortage of hard money.
Exchange of Letters Between John Jay and George Washington
In the summer of 1786 before the rebellion broke out, John Jay, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Confederation, and the retired Continental Army General George Washington exchanged letters fearful of the fate of the Union. Jay wrote to Washington, “Our affairs seem to lead to some crisis—some revolution.” Jay feared that the “better kind of people [the wealthy],” will be led by the “Insecurity of Property, the Loss of Confidence in their Rulers, & the Want of public Faith & Rectitude, to consider the Charms of Liberty as imaginary and delusive.”
Later that summer Washington responded to Jay with words of concern for the country: “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extends over the several states.”
In the letter, Washington stressed the importance of the national government’s ability to tax. Washington agreed with Jay of the danger that, “the better kind of people…will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever. We are apt to run from one extreme to another.” Both of these men realized that dark clouds lay on the horizon of the new republic, and that things would have to change if the nation was to survive.
Conditions in Massachusetts
In western Massachusetts, economic conditions were as bad as anywhere in the country. Prices for agricultural products were low, exports were severely depressed, and interest rates were higher than normal. To keep the state’s financial condition solvent, the legislature had raised taxes to the point where they were four or five times higher than they were before the war. The farmers and the laborers in western Massachusetts feared that they were about to lose everything they had fought for in the Revolutionary War. By the start of Shays’ Rebellion, the treasury of the state of Massachusetts was empty due to the high tax delinquency rate.
When an individual was brought into court for non-payment of debt, he or she found the scales of justice decidedly tipped on the side of the creditor. If the debtor lost the case, they were responsible for the debt as well as paying the creditors’ lawyer fees and high court costs. As a result of the tilted system, by 1786 there were several popular proposals for elimination of levels of the court system and some even proposed the outlawing of attorneys. In response to the pleas of the debt-ridden farmers, the governor called the legislature into special session at the end of September. They addressed the complaints of the insurgents but offered only minimal concessions. The insurgents’ most urgent demands were for paper money and large-scale debt relief, both of which were rejected.
The Rebellion Begins
In the late summer of 1786, bands of armed men who called themselves Regulators—a reference to the Regulator movement in North Carolina two decades before which sought to reform corrupt colonial officials—started raiding and closing courts to suspend debt collection until their grievances were addressed by the state. In late August, the insurgents began their campaign to prevent the sitting of the court of common pleas and general sessions in various towns in Massachusetts. Their intent was to prevent the court from ruling on debt cases before grievances were redressed.
The leaders of the revolt began to fear indictments would be brought against them and determined to prevent the sitting of the Supreme Court at Springfield on September 26. Major-General William Shepard of the Hampshire militia defended the court with about 800 militia. Daniel Shays and Luck Day were the leaders of about an equal number of insurgents intent on closing the court. The two sides came to a stalemate and then went their separate ways, while the court adjourned. Though Shays was but one of the leaders of the rebellion, his leadership at the more prominent encounters during the nearly two-year long revolt prompted his name to be associated with the rebellion, hence the term “Shays’ Rebellion.”
The rebellion spread with some 9,000 people estimated to have participated in the actions against the courts. State legislators reacted to the armed protestors by arresting a number of the “Shaysites,” and enacted punitive laws, including the Riot Act which limited public assembly and the Treason Act which made treason punishable by death, and they suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
The Springfield Arsenal
The Confederation Congress was becoming increasingly worried about the riotous behavior of the farmers in rural Massachusetts and dispatched the secretary of war, Henry Knox, to investigate. In Knox’s October 16th report to Congress, he asserted that “great numbers of people in Massachusetts and the neighboring states avow the principle of annihilating all debts public and private.” Knox anticipated “dreadful consequences which may be expected from wicked and ambitious men, possessing the command of a force to overturn, not only the forms, but the principles of the present constitution…I conceive my Official duty obliges me to inform Congress…that unless the present commotions are checked with a strong hand, that an armed tyranny may be established on the ruins of the present constitutions.”
Based on Knox’s warning, Congress decided to take action to protect the Confederation arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. The members of Congress realized that if the weapons contained in the arsenal fell into the hands of the rebels it could mean civil war. The arsenal had been established about ten years earlier to supply the troops of the Continental Army and was rich with military equipment: 450 tons of military supplies, including 1,300 barrels of powder, a brass foundry, 7,000 small arms with bayonets, and a cannon. Congress authorized additional troops to protect the arsenal; however, the Confederation was insolvent and unable to pay the new troops. Congress began to seek out loans to pay for the expanded military using western lands as collateral. Congress was able to enlist a small contingency of soldiers under the command of the Revolutionary War veteran General William Shepard.
Actions of the Massachusetts State Legislature
By December 1786 it was clear to the Massachusetts legislature that the only way for the court system to function was if it was guarded by militia. Like the Confederation Congress, they had no money to fund a militia. To overcome this shortcoming, they borrowed from wealthy Boston and seaboard merchants, who feared the insurgency would spread. They were able to gather £5,000, which was enough to hire the troops and commence with training. The militia troops were placed under the command of Revolutionary War veteran General Benjamin Lincoln. In his mid-fifties, Lincoln had somewhat of a checkered military career during the war and had served as the first secretary of war under the Confederation Congress.
The Attack on the Springfield Arsenal
By January 1786, some 1,200 militia troops under General William Shepard were protecting the armory. The rebels, wanting control of the arsenal, were divided into three regiments, each under a seasoned Revolution officer. The rebels outnumbered Shepard’s men two to one. The men under Daniel Shays were in Palmer, Eli Parsons’ men were in Chicopee, and Luke Day’s were across the Connecticut River in West Springfield. The initial plan was for a three-pronged attack on January 25; however, Luke Day made a unilateral decision to give Shepard a 24-hour window to vacate the arsenal or he promised “to give nor take no quarter.” Day sent messages to Shays and Parsons; however, the messages were intercepted by Shepard’s men. Shays and Parson followed the original plan and attacked the arsenal on the 25ththrough a heavy cover of snow.
Shepard warned the rebels they would be fired upon if they continued to advance on the arsenal, but undeterred they continued to advance. After one warning shot over their heads, Shepard fired the second cannon shot and a howitzer loaded with grape shot into the body of oncoming insurgents. The volley killed four and wounded several; they quickly fled, being utterly routed by the cannon fire. Aside from the cannon blasts, not a single musket shot was fired by either side during the encounter.
General Lincoln and his troops arrived after the attack, pursued the rebels, and scattered their force. Shays and the remnants of his band retreated to Amherst, where they were joined by stragglers of the Day party. Lincoln perused Shays’ men as they retreated to Pelham (Shays’ hometown), then to Hadley and Hatfield.
General Lincoln Ends the Rebellion
In late January, Lincoln let it be known that he would recommend to the General Court for pardons for any insurgents that would lay down their arms and take an oath of allegiance. To this offer Shays replied that the rebellion was due to real grievances and that his people would disperse if given a general pardon, asking for an armistice until petitions could be presented to the legislature. Lincoln did not have the authority to delay and marched on Shays’ men on the snowy night of February 2 at Petersham, completely routing the band of insurgents.
The rebels disbanded and Shays fled to Vermont, where he believed the government was more sympathetic to his cause. Although the rebels had been broken up over the next few months, small groups of men raided the towns of Stockbridge and Great Barrington, kidnapping and terrorizing lawyers, merchants, military leaders, and politicians.
Though the militia had foiled the insurgents, little had changed. The Massachusetts treasury was still empty, a large portion of the population was discontent, and the rebels had lived to fight another day. The legislator wasted no time and authorized criminal charges against the leaders of the insurgency. About two dozen were tried and convicted of treason or lesser charges. All but two were eventually pardoned or received commuted sentences. The bulk of the rebels received legislative indemnity, were pardoned, or received a commuted sentence. Shays was condemned to death by the Supreme Court, but in mid-1788 he was granted a pardon
Rebellions in Other States
Though Massachusetts was the epicenter of protest over high taxes and harsh debt penalties, belligerent actions in other states occurred but were minor in comparison and limited to primarily the New England states. James Madison noted that there were no Shays’-like rebellions brewing in Connecticut. When there was a court blockage, the government of the state of Connecticut acted quickly to arrest the ringleaders. Connecticut taxes did not increase simply for the fact that they did not provide money to the Confederation Congress when requested.
In 1786, a revolt occurred in New Hampshire involving a few hundred men but was quickly suppressed by the state’s militia. In Vermont, a small-scale revolt occurred but was promptly squashed, and the legislature passed laws designed to prevent further insurrections. Rhode Island had few problems as it adopted paper money and debt relief.
Shays' Rebellion Explained
Impact of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts politics the rebellion had a significant impact, as those in power realized they had barely averted a bloody civil war. When the new state legislature met in 1787, the western towns were better represented with many new members. Statewide, one-fourth of the previous legislators were re-elected. Many of the demands of the Shaysites were addressed, effectively authorizing a tax holiday and adopting property-tender legislation. However, the printing of paper money was not approved. The unpopular Governor James Bowdoin was soundly defeated by the former governor John Hancock, who was more sympathetic to the plight of the constituents of the western counties.
Impact of Shays’ Rebellion on the Constitutional Convention
Historians credit Shays’ Rebellion with having a significant effect on the delegates that met in May through September of 1787 in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. Before the rebellion had reached its climax in early 1787, leaders in several states were hesitant about sending delegates to the May 1787 meeting in Philadelphia. The rebellion changed the hearts and minds of the political leaders, particularly in Massachusetts where the rebellion persuaded a sufficient number of staunch Federalists that the Confederation needed reform to enable it to protect the states against future popular uprisings. Massachusetts Federalists now saw the importance of having protection against what many realized was a distinct possibility that an angry mob would be able to forcibly dominate a state that had a weak or seriously divided government.
Shays’ Rebellion had permanently altered many of the politicians’ thoughts about the ideal balance between individual liberty and the needs of the republic. The uprising had solidified in the minds of the delegates to the meeting in Philadelphia the need for drastic reforms in the Articles of Confederation. As a result, Shays’ Rebellion and the United States Constitution have forever been linked in the minds of Americans. The crisis in the countryside illuminated the difficult passage of a new nation into a republican political order.
The Fate of Daniel Shays
After he was pardoned in 1788, Daniel Shays returned to Massachusetts to take up farming once again. Shays later moved to Schoharie County, New York, where he lived for a number of years and worked a small farm. He then moved to Sparta, New York, where he died in 1825. He was allowed an old age pension for his service in the American Revolutionary War. Historian J.T. Adams, in Dictionary of American Biography, sums up the impact of Daniel Shays as such: “He was a man of no cultural background, little education, and not much ability, but he was brave and honest, and convinced that in the rebellion of 1786-87 he was fighting the same battle of the people which he had fought in the Revolution.”
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- Malone, Dumas (Editor). Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.
- Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress 1774-1789. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950.
- Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
- Van Cleve, George W. We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
- West, Doug. Coinage of the United States: A Short History. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2015.
© 2022 Doug West