Why Is Shays’ Rebellion Important?

In the aftermath of the American Revolution the new United States faced many challenges and difficulties. Of all the difficulties, Shays’ Rebellion was perhaps the most important.

The Articles of Confederation was the first form of organized federal government the United States employed following independence. The Articles made the federal government extremely weak and left most power to the states.

Nothing highlighted this weakness better than the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion and the powerlessness of the federal government to respond and react.

Shays’ Rebellion was an organized rebellion of western Massachusetts farmers and countrymen against the state of Massachusetts in 1786-1787. These farmers rebelled against the unjust collection of excessive taxes and seizure of property when taxes went uncollected.

Many of the rebels were disgruntled former Continental army soldiers who went unpaid during the revolution. These poor farmers were now being forced to give up their lands when they could not pay the high taxes imposed on them by the state governments.

After peaceful attempts to come to a resolution were ignored by state leaders primarily from the eastern coastal area, the protesters took more forceful means to protect their interests. Courthouses and state buildings were surrounded and government officials prevented from following through with evictions and arrests.

The federal government was aware of the rebellion and the possibility of an attempt to take weapons from the federal armory in Springfield, MA. It soon found itself powerless to take any action given that it could not raise an army of its own nor levy taxes.

Shays’ Rebellion was ultimately put down by a militia privately funded by wealthy Massachusetts citizens. Despite this, the rebellion highlighted just how weak the federal government was and convinced the founding fathers a new, stronger federal government was needed.

What was the Cause of Shays’ Rebellion?

There were many causes that ultimately led to Shays’ Rebellion. Chief among them was the massive amount of debt that the United States incurred in the American Revolution. A weak federal government also played a large role in the failure to address the causes of Shays’ Rebellion.

The Revolution left many states in deep debt with new taxes levied by states to help pay off this debt. Farmers and other small landholders unfortunately bore the brunt of these new taxes.

Shays' Rebellion Important causes debt chart

During the Revolution, interest-bearing bonds and loans were sold by states and the federal government, though eventually many states ended up printing their own paper currencies. This policy proved to be a disaster, as the currencies were not backed by anything and were seen as virtually worthless. Some rural communities bucked currency altogether and used a barter economy.

Many of the farmers and small landowners were veterans of the Continental army or various militias during the Revolution who had not been paid for their service. In order to make ends meet for their families and survive during the revolution, these men took on personal debts that also needed to be paid off.

Taxes were required to be paid in cash to help replenish the money supply that had dwindled during the war. With so little money in circulation, poor rural farmers were disproportionately affected.

The situation was so bad that in Worcester County nearly 4,000 lawsuits were filed in 1784-85 against debtors amongst a population of ~50,000.1

When Massachusetts state officials refused to provide any debt relief they seized the lands of those who could not pay as collateral and threw them in jail. It was only a matter of time before the disgruntled citizens rallied together to protest the injustice of the situation.

When Was Shays’ Rebellion?

Shays’ Rebellion began on August 29, 1786 when rural farmers massed together to prevent courthouse officials in Northampton, MA from sitting and issuing judgment on eviction cases.

This action emerged directly after the Massachusetts legislature adjourned earlier that month after refusing to consider the petitions for debt relief from rural communities.

With months of peaceful overtures routinely ignored, the rural farmers—many of them former Continental army members—felt they were left with no choice but to defend their rights from an unjust and tyrannical far away government. At the time, the Massachusetts state government was largely represented by members of the urban coastal cities that routinely ignored the plight of rural communities.

The farmers and disgruntled former soldiers did not see themselves as rebels or traitors. Instead, they utilized similar methods of protest and action that had been tried and tested in the pre-revolutionary period.2

An artist’s depiction of a scuffle between a protester and tax collector via Wikimedia Commons

The rural communities held peaceful conventions and made demands of the government to aid in debt relief. When these actions failed, more direct means ensued, including preventing courthouses and legislative bodies from assembling. Only as a last resort did Shays’ Rebellion turn to violence.

On September 5th when the rebels surrounded the courthouse in Worcester, the governor called the local militia in to disperse the crowds. The militia sympathized with the protesters, many of whom were their own neighbors and friends.

Later, many of these same militias meant to quell the rebellion would go on to join the rebels in their quest for justice.

The rebellion was disorganized at first, though eventually a man named Daniel Shays, whom the rebellion is named after, emerged as the leader.

Shays was a former Captain in the Continental Army who fought at major battles in the Revolution such as the Battle of Saratoga. He resigned from the army in 1780 and moved to Western Massachusetts to become a farmer. Shays was unpaid for his five years of service, and thus was one of those most affected by personal debt and the tax collections.

Rather than beginning and leading the rebellion, the protestors gravitated towards Shays due to his leadership qualities and experience in the revolution.

The Result and Impact of Shays’ Rebellion

As Shays’ Rebellion grew, the federal government first officially became aware of the rising storm in Massachusetts from a September 20th letter from Secretary of War Henry Knox.

Knox was concerned that the federal armory located in Springfield, MA would be threatened should the rebels seek to escalate the rebellion. The armory housed nearly four hundred and fifty tons of military stores and over seven thousand small-arms with bayonets4.

Famed General of the Revolution, George Washington, heard of these protests and urged a peaceful resolution. In a letter he wrote, “commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them.”5

The federal armory at Springfield as depicted in an 1850 drawing via Springfield Armory National Historic Site, US NPS, Springfield, MA

When the federal government attempted to defend the armory with federal troops, they found themselves powerless. Per the Articles of Confederation, the federal government could not raise an army of its own nor levy taxes to pay for federal troops.

Thus, any federal troops being sent to Springfield would need to be recruited, supplied, and paid for by the individual states. Given the federal government’s reputation of not paying troops, few willingly accepted a federal commission and efforts to fund the additional troops in state legislatures fell short.

The entire affair was an embarrassing episode into just how weak the federal government was under the Articles of Confederation.

Shays’ Rebellion did eventually attempt to raid the Springfield federal armory in January 1787. No federal troops were there to stop them.

Fortunately, Massachusetts was able to assemble a special militia that was privately funded by wealthy citizens of the coastal cities. The troops, led by Revolutionary war hero Benjamin Lincoln, routed Shays’ unorganized men after cannon fire killed four rebels and wounded nearly twenty.

Days later, Lincoln’s men caught up with the remnants of Shays’ rebels in Petersham. This final confrontation sent the leaders of Shays’ Rebellion fleeing into hiding among the woods of Vermont and New Hampshire to avoid punishment for their actions.

Shays’ Rebellion was virtually over, though not without leaving a large impact on American society.

Why is Shays’ Rebellion Important?

Shays’ Rebellion was extremely important for several reasons. Most importantly, it showed just how weak the federal government was under the Articles of Confederation.

Even before Shays’ Rebellion, influential leaders had begun to realize the limitations of the Articles. Individual states were not obliged to follow orders from the federal government which led to a weak central authority.

Foreign nations in many cases had to sign trade agreements with each state and Congress had difficulties even having representatives show up in person to govern and vote on key issues.

Shays’ Rebellion highlighted on a national stage that the federal government was powerless to protect its own land and buildings without cooperation from the states. Though this rebellion was thwarted, protection against future rebellions was not guaranteed.

In the direct aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion, influential leaders such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison called for a constitutional convention to discuss improvements to the Articles of Confederation.

With help from the Federalist Papers, the constitutional convention would directly lead to the new Constitution that greatly enhanced the powers of the federal government.

The signing of the new US Constitution via Wikimedia Commons

One other important aspect of Shays’ Rebellion is that it highlighted the continual class struggles and divisions within the early United States. Just because the United States had formally separated from Great Britain and formed its own nation, the nation was hardly unified on all issues.

Wealthy vs poor, strong federal government vs strong state governments, urban vs rural, and pro-British vs pro-French relations were all major dividing issues of the time, among others. Many of these divisions still remain in the modern United States and have their roots from the beginning of this nation.

Though Shays’ Rebellion highlighted the inherent weaknesses of the federal government at the time, its importance in the creation of the new Constitution cannot be understated.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Smith, Jonathan. “The Depression of 1785 and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1, 1948, pp. 77–94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1920948 

2) Brown, Richard D. “Shays’s Rebellion and Its Aftermath: A View from Springfield, Massachusetts, 1787.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, 1983, pp. 598–615. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1921810 

3) Parker, Rachel R. “Shays’ Rebellion: An Episode in American State-Making.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 34, no. 1, 1991, pp. 95–113. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1389145 

4) Warren, Joseph Parker. “The Confederation and the Shays Rebellion.” The American Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 1905, pp. 42–67. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1832364 

5) “George Washington to Henry Knox, 25 February 1787,” The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.

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