Shays's and Whiskey Rebellions

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Two short-lived armed uprisings, Shays's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, took place just before and shortly after the creation of the federal Constitution. The first, named after its nominal leader, Daniel Shays, erupted in western Massachusetts in the winter of 1786 and continued into the early months of 1787. The Whiskey Rebellion occurred in western Pennsylvania in 1794 and ended that same year. Neither uprising presented a serious military threat, but they both raised troubling questions throughout the new United States concerning the stability of republican governments.

shays's rebellion: causes

The causes of Shays's Rebellion were rooted in the economic and social dislocations accompanying the end of the Revolution. An economic depression followed the war, as the new United States was now excluded from its former markets in the British empire. A bewildering tangle of debts, public and private, added to America's economic woes, complicated by a scarcity of hard currency that tended to be drained off to pay for European imports.

Some states, notably Rhode Island, issued large amounts of paper currency to stimulate the local economy, earning that state the dubious nickname of "Rogues Island" by merchant creditors who viewed paper money as immoral. That did not happen in Massachusetts where conservative eastern merchant-politicians dominated the state's new government. Despite the hard times, the Massachusetts legislature sought to meet its financial obligations with ever more oppressive taxes, payable only in hard currency. Unable to pay their state taxes and private debts in so depressed an economy, many farmers were hauled into court to face not only exorbitant court costs, but the all too real threat of losing their property at public auction to pay their creditors. To the losers in this legal process, it seemed that there must exist a conspiracy among eastern politicians and merchants, many of whom were holders of the state debt that the farmers were suffering to pay off.

shays's rebellion: signs of unrest

Rumblings of discontent sounded early in the 1780s, even before the Revolution had officially ended. An itinerant evangelistic preacher, Samuel Ely, rallied disgruntled farmers in western Massachusetts to block the sitting of the civil courts. Ely eventually turned up in the eastern district of Massachusetts, now called Maine, where he joined backcountry squatters fighting against the great landed proprietors—a struggle similar to the one in the western parts of the state.

During 1785 and 1786, throughout the western counties of Berkshire, Hampshire, and Worcester, conventions met to draw up petitions to the state legislature in Boston. They voiced popular demands for lower taxes, paper money, lower court fees and lower government salaries, the relocation of the state capitol from Boston to Worcester, and even the abolition of the entire state senate as too aristocratic. The state legislature was not unresponsive, but its remedies were too limited and too late.

During the fall of 1786, armed crowds in the three western counties again shut down the civil courts. Violent unrest reached eastward and southward in Massachusetts and spread into the neighboring state of New Hampshire. So far, no blood had been shed; armed crowds had protested, intimidated, and then disbanded, having accomplished little more than their Revolutionary-era predecessors in pressing demands upon an unresponsive government. But Governor James Bowdoin and his eastern mercantile associates imagined something far more sinister: they envisioned open rebellion fomented by British sympathizers and spies against a legally constituted republican government.

protest becomes rebellion

Because the national government under the Articles of Confederation possessed neither an army nor the money to raise one, Massachusetts was left on its own to reassert its authority. Terrified eastern merchants contributed funds to raise a state army of 4,400 men under General Benjamin Lincoln, which set out in late January to crush the "rebels." In the western part of the state, supporters of the protest began organizing in bands under former army officers. The climax, or anti-climax, came on January 25, 1787. Insurgents led by Luke Day, Eli Parsons, and Daniel Shays surrounded the town of Springfield where General William Shepard guarded the arsenal with loyal militia and toward which General Lincoln was hurrying his merchant's army. Owing to confused communications, neither Parsons nor Day supported Shays when he initiated an attack. Shepard's militia responded by discharging cannon directly into the advancing "Shaysites," killing four and wounding twenty; the remaining insurgents turned and fled. State troops spent the next several weeks hunting down and arresting those fugitives who did not immediately surrender. Others sought anonymity in Vermont or, like Daniel Shays, in northern New York, where Shays died in 1825.

In the spring of 1787, a newly elected state legislature with John Hancock as the new governor, remedied the insurgents' most immediate grievances, and wisely pardoned the offenders, eventually even the leaders, including Daniel Shays himself. Shays's Rebellion produced no martyrs, but the insurrection left a legacy in both the shaping and adoption of the federal Constitution.

shays's rebellion and the federal constitution

The convention that met at Philadelphia in May 1787 evolved from several earlier such gatherings to consider revising the Articles of Confederation. The fact that all the states except Rhode Island sent delegates is evidence of a widespread sense of crisis as to whether republican government, state or national, could survive. News of Shays's Rebellion heightened this concern.

The convention's solution was to construct an entirely new, more highly centralized frame of government which included the powers to raise direct taxes, maintain a national army, call up the state militia in time of national emergency, and guarantee each state a republican form of government. These, along with other powers and procedures strengthening government, provoked heated debate when the new federal Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification. Supporters and opponents everywhere drew on the legacy of Shays's Rebellion to support their respective arguments concerning the new frame of government. In Massachusetts, opposition was so strong, especially in the western counties, that proponents narrowly won the vote for ratification only by promising to promote a series of amendments protecting individual rights. This process of "conditional ratification" provided a model for approval of the Constitution in other conflicted states, such as Virginia, and laid the basis for the first ten amendments, or the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791.

the whiskey rebellion: causes

The government under the new Constitution soon had an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to deal with the threat of insurrection, this time in western Pennsylvania. Beyond the Allegheny Mountains, backcountry farmers raised grain from which they distilled liquor for export and for use as a medium of exchange. They had long defied the state's efforts to collect an excise, or luxury tax, on their liquor, but starting in 1791, the new federal government took up the challenge with a national excise tax to help pay the national debt. An additional burden required those indicted under the act to be tried in federal court in far-off Philadelphia, rather than in the courts in their home districts as guaranteed by the new Bill of Rights. Congress soon redressed the act's judicial provisions, but not soon enough.

the whiskey protests

Western farmers responded with techniques perfected during the Revolution. They gathered in conventions, petitioned legislatures both national and state, terrorized federal collectors, burned their property, and in short nullified the federal tax, just as they had the state tax, and just as colonists had parliamentary taxes. The only blood shed occurred in July 1794, when those defending the home of Excise Inspector John Neville fired upon a menacing crowd. The protestors themselves did not seek to take lives, only to demonstrate against an unpopular law imposed by a distant government. The anti-excise movement reached its culmination on August 1, 1794 at Braddock's Field. There, a large crowd of rural protestors threatened to march upon the nearby town of Pittsburgh, the regional symbol of urban oppression. The townspeople, however, escaped their fate by voting to join the insurgents rather than resist them. Deprived of its physical objective and lacking any clearly defined organization, program, or leadership, the excise protest lost its momentum.

protests become rebellion

The federal government, however, could not ignore this challenge to its authority. To President George Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the threat did not come merely from insurgent farmers in backcountry Pennsylvania, or from the frontiers of Maryland and Virginia to which the unrest had spread. More insidiously, it appeared, once again, to be the results of a foreign conspiracy by agents working, not for the British, but on behalf of revolutionary France seeking to spread its radical revolutionary ideology. In the United States, numerous Democratic Clubs sympathetic to the French Revolution had sprung up. Several were in western Pennsylvania, where members had participated in the protests, yielding enough evidence of a plot.

On August 7, 1794, Washington issued a proclamation condemning "combinations" to prevent the execution of federal laws and accusing the insurgents of treason for levying war against the United States. The president then used his authority under the new constitution to call up 15,000 state militia that Washington himself briefly commanded before yielding to more youthful leadership. Confronted with such a military force, all opposition in western Pennsylvania simply evaporated. Two obscure individuals were eventually arrested and convicted of high treason, but President Washington pardoned both on the grounds that one was simple minded and the other insane. As in the case of Shays's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion created no martyrs.

It was now clear to almost everyone that armed violence against republican government, national or state, was an unacceptable means of protest. But what if republican government itself became oppressive? The overwhelming display of federal military power in western Pennsylvania alarmed those already concerned with such a possibility. Out of the sharpening debate over the proper exercise of national power evolved two political parties. The Democratic Republicans advocated states' rights and a narrow interpretation of the Constitution as essential to liberty, and the Federalists emphasized the importance of order and a strong, flexible central government. The vigorous but peaceful competition between these two national political parties, and their successors, replaced armed protest as a tool of political change—until the Civil War.


Baldwin, Leland D. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising (1939). Revised edition, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.

Boyd, Steven R., ed. The Whiskey Rebellion: Past and Present Perspectives. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Chambers, William Nisbet. Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776–1809. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Cunningham, Nobel E., ed. The Making of the American Party System, 1789–1809. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Gross, Robert A., ed. In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Richards, Leonard L. Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Szatmary, David P. Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Taylor, Robert J. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1954.

James S. Leamon

See also:Articles of Confederation; Constitution: Creating a Republic; Federalist Papers.

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Shays's and Whiskey Rebellions

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