An armed uprising which took place in the central and western portions of Massachusetts from 1786-1787, Shays’ Rebellion was named for Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays. Commencing on August 29, 1786, the rebellion resulted from the financial difficulties of the depressed economy during the post-revolutionary years. The events took place during the timeframe in which the political climate realized the need to reform the Articles of Confederation, the young country’s governing document. Occurring after the Philadelphia Convention was called, but prior to the convention’s opening days in May 1787, Shays’ Rebellion is said to have affected the debates which served to shape the new government.
In the western and central portion of Massachusetts during post-revolutionary America, incomes were obtained primarily through agriculture, with area residents possessing little in the form of assets other than their land. Barter was utilized as the typical means of exchange for acquiring goods and services. The coastal areas of Massachusetts Bay, by contrast, had a more highly developed economy due to the activities of numerous wholesale merchants who dealt with Europe, the West Indies and various ports along the North American coast.
Following the American Revolution, European companies closed lines of credit to the merchants in Massachusetts who had been their business partners prior to the war, and insisted hard currency now be tendered for purchase of their goods. This forced the domestic merchants to pass on the same requirement to businesses throughout the state; despite the fact availability of such currency was in short supply.
During 1785, harsh government policies were instituted by the merchant class to help resolve the post-war debt problems which Massachusetts now wrestled. Civil authorities began to seize farm land and possessions from those who could not meet the demands put upon them regarding payment of their tax and debt obligations.
Adding insult to injury, many of those who the government sought to extort back taxes from were veterans who had received almost no wages during the war years and experienced little success in an effort to collect the back pay which was rightly due them from the State or the Congress of Confederation. Plough Jogger, a local farmer, described the situation from an aggrieved commoner vantage point:
"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."
A poor farmhand from Massachusetts, Daniel Shays joined the Continental Army at the outbreak of the Revolution and saw action during the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker/Breed Hill and Saratoga. Wounded in action, he resigned from the army in 1780 and returned home with no wages; only to find himself in court soon afterwards due to nonpayment of his debts. It did not take long for him to learn his was not an isolated situation as he became aware of other veterans who also faced these same problems. Shays and other veterans now began to organize a number of protests in an effort to announce their aggravation towards the oppressive economic conditions imposed upon them.
In 1782, Job Shattuck of Groton led one of the early protests against the government when he organized local residents to physically thwart the tax collectors from accomplishing their assigned tasks.
On February 3, 1783, a larger-scaled protest occurred in Uxbridge, Worcester County, Massachusetts. Here a mob victoriously seized property confiscated by the local constable and returned it to the rightful owners. Following the protest, Governor Hancock sent orders to the local sheriff to suppress the actions.
The majority of Massachusetts’ rural communities sought help through the legislative process in an effort to gain relief from the financial burdens now imposed upon them. The citizens requested the issuance of paper money to make it possible for the citizens to meet their obligations. Merchants such as James Bowdoin, however, strongly opposed the idea since he and other lenders stood to lose from the issuance due to the depreciation of the currency.
In 1785, Governor Hancock resigned from office, citing health issues as his reason. Bowdoin, who previously lost every election he competed in against Hancock, now became governor and stepped up actions to collect back taxes. As he did, the legislature exacerbated the issue when it levied an additional amount of property tax in an effort to raise funds to pay the portion of foreign debt owed by Massachusetts.
The attitudes of area residents toward tax collectors and the courts soon flared and resulted in many war veterans joining together to shut down the county courts during the latter months of 1786, in an effort to halt the judicial hearings regarding tax and debt collections. Following the arrest of several rebellion leaders, protesters became radicalized against the government of Massachusetts and soon an armed force was organized.
In August 1786, the state legislature adjourned without considering many of the petitions sent to Boston by rural citizens. On August 29th, a well-organized group of protesters gathered in Northampton and successfully prevented the county court from convening. The reason given by the leaders for these actions was a determination to seek relief from the burdensome processes being used by the judiciary to deprive the citizens of their possessions and land. The group referred to themselves as the “Regulators”, in reference to the Regulator movement which took place during the late 1760s in North Carolina as the citizens there sought to reform corrupt practices in that state. Massachusetts Governor Bowdoin now issued a proclamation on September 2nd to denounce mob action; however, he took no military action. On September 5th, Worcester’s court was shut down by similar action, but much to Governor Bowdoin’s frustration, the county’s militia refused to act due to sympathies toward the protesters.
Bowdoin was not alone in dealing with this type of protest. Governors of neighboring states were dealing with their own and chose to act decisively to quell them. In many cases, the states’ militias were called upon to hunt down the ringleaders. Rhode Island managed to resolve their issues without violence due to the fact the “country party” took control of the legislature during the election of 1786 and soon measures were enacted which forced the state’s elite merchants to accept devalued currency for instruments of debt. The legislator’s impact was not lost on the merchants of Boston, especially the governor, who then held £3,000+ in Massachusetts notes.
On September 19, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts named eleven individuals they labeled as leaders of the rebellion and “disorderly, riotous and seditious persons.” Though Daniel Shays had participated in the Northampton action, he firmly denied the fact he was one of the leaders. When the Court later met on September 26 in Springfield, Shays partnered with Luke Day to organize an attempt to shut down the meeting. Militia commander William Shepard anticipated the action and gathered a government-supported militia on Saturday, prior to the court’s gathering. When court opened, 300 men under Shepard’s command were at the courthouse.
Shays and Day arrived with an equal number of individuals. Instead of seizing the building, they chose only to demonstrate and exercised their troops outside Shepard's lines. Inside, the judges postponed the hearings, and then adjourned on the 28th without any cases being heard. Shepard now withdrew his force of some 800 men (the Regulators now had 1,200), and moved them to the federal armory, in anticipation of it being the next target of seizure by the activists.
Shepard successfully defended the Springfield Armory against rebel action, with the resistance mortifying the elites of Boston. Governor Bowdoin now commanded the legislature to "vindicate the insulted dignity of government." Samuel Adams claimed British emissaries (foreigners) were the ones to instigate treason among the commoners. He now helped to create a Riot Act, in addition to a resolution to suspend habeas corpus, which was being used by the authorities to keep people in jail without trial.
In an effort to make some concessions to the upset farmers, the legislature stated they could now pay certain old taxes in goods rather than hard currency. Soon after, these actions were followed by others aimed at prohibiting any speech critical of the government. There was also the offer of pardons to any protester willing to take an oath of allegiance. These legislative actions, however, failed to quell the protests and many were alarmed by the suspension of habeas corpus.
The courts of Concord, Great Barrington, and Taunton suffered the same fate as Springfield, with protestors shutting down meetings in these communities during September and October. James Warren sent a letter to John Adams on October 22 in which he said, “We are now in a state of anarchy and confusion bordering on civil war.” Within the larger towns and cities, the court met successfully, but to do so required the protection of the state militia, which Governor Bowdoin made available.
Warrants were issued in late November for the arrest of several protest ringleaders. A posse of approximately 300 men rode to Groton on November 28th to arrest Job Shattuck and other rebel leaders in the area. On the 30th, Shattuck was chased down and arrested. During the scuffle, he was wounded by a sword slash.
Shattuck’s arrest, along with that of other protest leaders in eastern Massachusetts, served to radicalize those in the west, who now began to organize an effort to overthrow the state government. "The seeds of war are now sown", wrote one correspondent in Shrewsbury. By mid-January, many rebel leaders were speaking of demolishing the "tyrannical government of Massachusetts."
Due primarily to lack of funding, the federal government was unable to recruit soldiers for the army. As a result, the elites of Massachusetts decided to act independently and on January 4, 1787, Governor Bowdoin proposed the creation of a militia which would be privately funded. Benjamin Lincoln, a former general with the Continental Army, began to solicit funds and acquired in excess of £6,000 from approximately 125 merchants. The militia, composed of approximately 3,000 troops, was recruited from eastern counties in Massachusetts and marched to Worcester on January 19th.
While the government organized its forces, Shays, Day and various rebel leaders throughout the western part of the state, also came together to establish a regional regiment run by democratically elected committees. Springfield’s federal armory was their first target; however, their efforts were thwarted due to General Shepard taking possession of the armory under orders from Governor Bowdoin. Bowdoin, however, acted illegally due to the fact the armory was under the jurisdiction of the federal government, not that of Massachusetts, and he had not secured permission from Secretary of War Henry Knox to do so.
As Shays and his forces approached the armory, they discovered Shepard's militia in position. Upon their approach, Shepard fired warning shots over the heads of the approaching protestors. This was followed by two cannons firing grape shot at Shays' troops. This resulted in four of the protestors being killed and twenty wounded. No muskets were fired on either side, and the rebels’ advance soon collapsed. The majority of the rebels fled north and regrouped at Amherst. Day’s forces were on the opposite side of the river at this time and also fled north where they joined Shays’ troops upon arrival.
Upon learning of the Springfield incident, General Lincoln left Worcester with the 3,000 men he mustered. As he did, the rebels moved in a north and easterly direction to avoid him and established a camp at Petersham. Along the way, local merchants had their shops raided for supplies and some were taken hostage. Lincoln’s pursuit continued for another 30 miles on February 2nd. The next two nights, the militia marched through a bitter snowstorm and totally surprised the rebels when they arrived at their camp the next morning.
Though Lincoln’s militia managed to capture 150 of the rebels, none of them were the officers or leaders. Those individuals escaped and moved north into New Hampshire and Vermont where they were sheltered even though demands were repeatedly made for these individuals to be returned to Massachusetts to face trial. Lincoln’s march brought to a close the various occurrences of large-scale organized resistance.
In late February, enlistments began to expire and as a result, most of Lincoln's army disappeared. As the month ended, approximately 30 individuals remained under his command near Pittsfield.
The rebels, on the other hand, regrouped in New Lebanon, New York, with approximately 120 individuals. On February 27 they crossed the border and marched on Stockbridge, which was a major market town in the state’s southwestern corner. Shops and homes of local merchants and professions were again raided for supplies. Brigadier John Ashley now mustered a force of approximately 80 men and overtook the rebels in nearby Sheffield late in the day. The bloodiest encounter of the rebellion now ensued, with approximately 30 rebels wounded (one mortally). Many of Ashley’s soldiers were wounded and one killed. Following the encounter, Ashley reportedly captured 150 prisoners.
At the close of the rebellion, 4,000 people signed confessions in which they acknowledged their participation in the rebellion, and received amnesty in return. Several hundred of the participants were indicted on charges related to the rebelling, with most of them receiving pardons under general amnesty. Eighteen men were convicted and received a death sentence; however most of them saw their sentences overturned on appeal. Two, however, Charles Rose and John Bly, were hanged on December 6, 1787.
Shays was pardoned in 1788 and returned to Massachusetts from Vermont. The Boston press, however, vilified him, describing Shays an archetypal anarchist who opposed the government. He later moved to the Conesus, New York area. Shays died in poverty and obscurity in 1825.
Though Governor Bowdoin won the battle against the rebels, the conflict caused him to lose the war of the ballot box. The harsh terms of reconciliation which were imposed by the Disqualification Act brought him few rural votes during gubernatorial election of April 1787 where he again faced John Hancock and was strongly trounced. If that was not enough, the joy of the military victory was quickly tempered by the change in tax laws in subsequent years. In 1787, the Massachusetts legislature elected to cut taxes and placed a moratorium on debts. It also refocused the state’s spending from interest payments, resulting in a 30% decline in value of Massachusetts’ securities as those payments fell in arrears.
Vermont, on the other hand, received an unexpected benefit. An unrecognized independent republic at the time of the rebellion, it had sought independence from New York’s claim to the territory and statehood. By having sheltered rebel ringleaders, Alexander Hamilton opposed other New Yorkers and called for New York to not only recognize, but also support Vermont's bid for admission to the union. He pointed out to those in his hearing the reality of Vermont's de facto independence and the ability it had to provide support to the discontented from neighboring states as reason for statehood. He then introduced legislation which tore down the impasse between New York and Vermont. Vermonters were quick to respond favorably to Hamilton’s remarks and publicly pushed both Luke Day and Eli Parsons out of the state (though they quietly continued to support a number of others). Following negotiations with New York and the passage of their new constitution, Vermont became the fourteenth state.
At the time of Shays’ Rebellion, Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France. The rebellion in no way alarmed him and Jefferson even wrote to a friend stating a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. Washington, on the other hand, wrote to Henry Lee stating "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."
With respect to the rebellion’s affect on the Articles of Confederation and future Constitution, the federal government’s weakness was well recognized by many during the years in which the Articles were the law. As the states debated the need for a strong central government, the rebellion had an affect on many of the Anti-Federalists who now began to agree with the idea of a strong government. The September 1786 convention in Annapolis, Maryland was composed of delegates from five states and concluded with a call for reform of the federal government, though they disbanded because full representation was lacking. A call was then made for a convention with representatives from all the states to take place in Philadelphia during May 1787.
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“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”