Shays’ Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion occurred in western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787 and considered in isolation it was not a particularly important event. It was, however, symptomatic of the ineffectiveness, fragility, and weakness of the Articles of Confederation. The time following the Revolutionary War was a period of chaos, extremely bitter politics, and foreign interference. It was not a time of sweetness and light, and it appeared certain that this attempt at democracy was destined to fail. 

Incidents like Shays’ Rebellion helped push our founders  to solve the problems and resulted in the ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1788. The Constitution did not solve all the problems, however, and the violence and bitter partisanship had to play out to find the right balance. The period 1783 to 1815 was critical to our national development and survival. I will do a posting on that later, but it will be challenging because it was very eventful and politically complicated. 

The economy during the Revolutionary War was mostly subsistence agriculture in rural New England, particularly in central and western Massachusetts. Taxes were high and most residents in those areas had few assets other than land. During hard times they relied on credit to obtain needed supplies. The debt would then be paid when conditions improved 

In the more developed coastal areas of Massachusetts and in the Connecticut River Valley there was a market economy based on wholesale merchants doing business with Europe and the West Indies. Of course, the state government was dominated by these merchants. When the war ended in 1783, the merchants were denied credit by their European trading partners who demanded payment in hard currency, so they demanded hard currency from local businesses who demanded cash from their customers. Most rural farmers could not pay their taxes nor meet the demands of their creditors even though Governor John Hancock was not prosecuting delinquent taxes. 

Many of the farmers were Revolutionary War veterans who had rarely if ever received pay for their military service, and now were beginning to lose their land and possessions. Appeals for the money owed them were largely ignored by the State and the Congress of the Confederation. This led to resentment against government in general, tax collectors and the courts where creditors obtained judgments against them. This resentment manifested itself in many very violent physical altercations with tax collectors and creditors. One farmer identified as “Plough Jogger” summarized his feelings at a protest meeting as follows: 

“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 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.” 

John Hancock
John Hancock

The rural areas of Massachusetts were simmering with rebellion against the unfair practices that were impoverishing them. There had been short-lived and generally ineffective protests in 1782 and 1783. The latter resulted in a mob seizing property that had been confiscated and returning it to the owners. Governor Hancock ordered the authorities to suppress these protests, which did not endear him to the farmers.

James Bowdoin
James Bowdoin-By Robert Feke, 1748

Most farmers tried to use legal methods to correct the abuses, but the merchant class who controlled the state government blocked their appeals. Governor Hancock resigned in 1785 for “health reasons”, but it was probably because he could see big trouble on the horizon. James Bowdoin replaced Hancock and at once made things worse. He stepped up tax collections and the legislature passed more taxes. Even John Adams commented that the taxes were “heavier than the people could bear.”

                                                                                             This is when Daniel Shays began to make his mark. He was a Massachusetts farmhand who joined the Continental Army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He saw action at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. He was wounded and in 1780 resigned from the army. He had not been paid and returned home where he ended up in court for non-payment of debts. He realized that many others were facing the same situation and began organizing for debt relief.

Protests in rural Massachusetts turned to direct action in 1786 after the state legislature adjourned without acting on the farmer’s grievances. The efforts were aimed at the hated courts and they prevented courts from sitting in Northampton, Worcester, Springfield, Great Barrington, Concord, and Taunton. Shays took part in the Northampton action, and rapidly developed into a leader in the movement. (Shays always denied he was a leader, but the facts say otherwise.) Initial government response by Governor Bowdoin was to call out the militia, but many militia members were sympathetic to the protesters and would not report. The State court then indicted 11 leaders of the protesters as “disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons”

Shays and others organized an action to shut down the court in Springfield but the local militia commander, William Shepard, anticipated the move and organized a force of about 300 men that supported the government. The protester force roughly equaled the militia, but they wisely chose to demonstrate and not engage the militia. Shepard’s force reached about 800 men and he withdrew to the federal armory, which was believed to be the real target of the protesters. 

To counter the protests Governor Bowdoin called for the legislature to “vindicate the insulted dignity of the government.” Sam Adams helped draw up a Riot Act and a resolution suspending habeas corpus. Adams also proposed that rebellion in a republic should be punished by execution. These measures were followed by acts prohibiting speech critical of the government and offers of a pardon for those willing to take an oath of allegiance. Some protest leaders were hunted down and arrested. 

General Benjamin Lincoln
General Benjamin

The state’s actions only inflamed the situation and the protests turned to open rebellion with the intention of overthrowing the state government by force. The federal government was unable to raise an armed force to aid the state due to a lack of funds, so the state raised a force of 3,000 men commanded by former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln. 

 While the state organized, so did the insurgents. They organized into three major groups which planned a coordinated attack on the Springfield Armory. The armory was defended by Shepard’s force that had grown to 1,200 men. The rebel plan was to simultaneously attack from three directions. Shays was in command of one of these groups. Unfortunately, Shepard’s men intercepted a message from the west group commander stating that the attack had to be delayed by one day. This alerted Shepard to the overall rebel plans and that the other commanders would not know that the west group would not be supporting them. 

The rebels attacked as planned but found that Shepard’s troops were waiting for them, and that the west group was missing. Shepard initially ordered musket fire over the heads of the attackers, but then fired two cannons loaded with grape shot. Four attackers were killed and 20 wounded. The attack immediately collapsed, and the rebels retreated to the north. They eventually regrouped at Amherst. 

In response, General Lincoln immediately marched on Worcester with his 3,000 men, which caused the rebels to move farther north and east eventually encamping at Pelham on 2 February. Lincoln made a forced march through a bitter snowstorm and attacked the rebels early the next morning. He caught the rebels completely by surprise and routed them. He took many prisoners, but most of the leadership, including Shays, escaped into New Hampshire and Vermont. 

The Massachusetts legislature had authorized a state of emergency, which gave Governor Bowdoin broad powers and funding for Lincoln’s army. They also passed the Disqualification Act which silenced rebel sympathizers in the government and denied any rebels from ever holding elected and appointed offices. 

By late February 1787 Lincoln’s army had dwindled to about 30 men based at Pittsfield. In the meantime, about 120 rebels had regrouped in New York and moved against Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They resorted to looting the shops and homes of merchants and professionals. This caught the attention of Brigadier John Ashley who quickly raised a force of about 80 men who caught up with the rebels in Sheffield. This was the bloodiest encounter of the rebellion resulting in 30 rebels wounded (one mortally) at least one government soldier killed and many wounded. Ashley was reinforced after the battle, and he reported taking 150 prisoners, which would have been hard to do since the rebel force was reportedly about 120.

This essentially ended Shays’ Rebellion. Four thousand people signed confessions to get amnesty. Several hundred were indicted but most were pardoned under the amnesty which excluded the rebel leadership. Eighteen men were sentenced to death but only two were hanged. 

Shays who was hiding in Vermont was pardoned in 1788. He returned to Massachusetts but was vilified by the Boston press. He later moved to Conesus, New York where he died poor and obscure in 1825. 

Daniel Shays and his compatriots were simple, mostly uneducated men who were being victimized by a financial system that had backed them into a corner. That is usually when good men resist and fight for change despite the odds. Their situation changed when they moved from protest against the wrongs to outright insurrection and overthrow of the government. Once they turned that corner, they became traitors, and it became two groups fighting for survival. However, all the power was in the hands of the government.  

The harsh treatment of the western farmers by the legislature and Governor Bowdoin led to the landslide reelection of John Hancock to the governorship. His administration passed tax cuts and debt moratoriums. The new Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788, which established the powers of the states in relationship to the federal government and addressed fiscal and military responsibilities.  

As previously noted, the Constitution did not solve all the problems and it took until about 1815 to strike a balance. There had been small rebellions before Shays’, but the Whiskey Rebellion occurred  after adoption of the Constitution  during the Washington administration.  

Some historians say that Shay’s Rebellion had little or no effect on the Constitutional Convention, but I believe they are wrong. Too many important people were aware of the details of the rebellion and had commented on it. This list included at least Sam Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Henry Lee, and James Madison. These men already recognized that the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced, but Shays’ Rebellion certainly was a catalyst for finally seating the convention. It also undoubtedly influenced subjects such as freedom of assembly and speech and financial items such as congress taking responsibility for bankruptcy laws. Thank God for men of honor and action. 

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