The years after the American Revolution (1775–1783) were very hard for most Americans. The former colonies, many of them saddled with large war debts, were struggling to find ways to pay their creditors. Soldiers from the Continental Army returned to their family farms to find their lands neglected, in need of extensive clearing and reworking before they were ready to produce a crop. A great postwar depression also meant that prices for farm produce in general were low. In the five years after the end of the Revolutionary War farmers sunk deeper and deeper into debt. Many of them had their lands and other property seized when they were forced to default on their debts. Such a tense environment erupted in a rebellion led by Daniel Shays in 1786–1787 as a protest against the Massachusetts government's refusal to provide economic relief to the struggling farmers of the state.
Conditions were especially bad in Shay's state of Massachusetts. The merchants and traders of colonial Massachusetts' seaports relied on trade with the British Empire for most of their income—especially England itself and the West Indies. The American Revolution had closed these imperial ports to American shipping, forcing merchants to pay for foreign goods and service with hard money, or specie—coined gold or silver— which was in short supply in the United States. The Massachusetts government, which also had to pay many of its creditors in specie, was similarly short of cash. In addition, the federal government (itself chronically short of cash) was defaulting on promises to pay wages and pensions owed to Revolutionary War veterans. Massachusetts responded to the crisis by raising revenue from taxes on land and other sources. Land taxes alone increased by over 60 percent in the three years between 1783 and 1786. Farmers who could not pay had their property seized. In severe cases, they were even sent to debtors' prison.
At first, the farmers tried remedies similar to those colonial leaders had tried with the British government in the decade before the American Revolution. Farmers petitioned government officials (including Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin) and the state legislature (then known as the General Court) to close the debtors' court and to print paper money so the farmers could make purchases and pay their taxes. Both Bowdoin and the General Court rejected the farmers' petitions, insisting that the power of the courts be respected. They also condemned the push for a paper currency on the grounds that it promoted inflation, making the money owed creditors worth even less. The General Court's new taxes for 1786 amounted to more than 30 percent of the average citizen's income, and it was payable only in cash.
When the General Court announced in the spring of 1786 its intention to again raise taxes throughout Massachusetts, several Continental Army veterans decided to take action. Former brevet major Luke Day led the resistance in Springfield, while Captain Job Shattuck provided leadership in Groton. The third leader in the struggle was Daniel Shays of Pelham in the western part of the state. Shays was, by all accounts, a reluctant leader. Although he had obtained a captain's commission in the Continental Army, by 1784 he had returned to farming and grown seriously in debt. During the summer of 1786 Shays emerged as a leader of the protestors in the western half of Massachusetts. By late August, armed groups of men numbering up to 1,500 were closing courthouses around the state.
Throughout the fall of 1786, the protestors organized themselves into an army. Calling themselves the Regulators, they continued to intimidate and threaten local and state officials. In response the General Court of Massachusetts authorized the raising of a 4,400-man militia and placed it under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Secretary of War Henry Knox even offered Governor Bowdoin a federal army if the state's resources proved inadequate. Despite efforts by Shays and others to negotiate a resolution to the growing problem, the Regulators continued to grow in numbers. By late January 1787, they had made plans to occupy the town of Springfield, Massachusetts and seize weapons stored at the arsenal there.
At 4:00 on the afternoon of January 25, 1787, Daniel Shays and 1,500 Regulators marched into Spring-field headed for the arsenal. As they approached, they were fired upon by General William Shepard, who commanded the militia defense. When his warning shots were ignored, Shepard ordered his cannon to fire directly into the ranks of the Regulators. Four of the rebels were killed and another 20 were wounded. Shays' attack was driven off from such unexpected force. Over the next week and a half, General Lincoln drove the Regulators into the western half of the state. On the morning of February 4, he surprised Shays and the Regulators at Petersham, capturing a 10th of the force, and driving the others into the hills.
Lincoln's victory at Petersham ended the armed part of Shays' Rebellion. The General Court and local courts quickly took action to suppress the political aims of the rebels. Courts in Berkshire and Hampshire counties sentenced 14 men to die and fined or imprisoned hundreds more. The legislature met in mid-February to pass a special Disqualifying Act that pardoned former Regulators but disenfranchised them and barred them from jury duty and certain types of jobs for three years. A special commission led by General Lincoln offered pardons to many more of the former rebels. Shays himself sought refuge in Vermont until his pardon was granted, but he never returned to his Massachusetts farm and instead settled in New York, where he died in 1825.
The long-range effects of Shays' Rebellion were more positive for the poor farmers of rural Massachusetts. The state elections of April 1787 saw the defeat of Governor Bowdoin and better than half of the sitting legislators. The new General Court quickly began work to address the concerns of the rebels, eliminating the Disqualifying Act, distributing pardons, reducing taxes, and allowing persons to use property as well as specie to pay debts. Shays' Rebellion also helped convince thousands of Americans in Massachusetts and other states of the need for a strong national government, which could stabilize the currency, control and levy taxes, and maintain public order. The following year, Massachusetts ratified the U.S. Constitution.
See also: Massachusetts, Whiskey Rebellion
Feer, Robert A. Shay's Rebellion. New York: Garland, 1988.
Gross, Robert A., ed. In Debt to Shays: The Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1993.
Kulikoff, Allan. The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
McGinty, Brian. "Shays' Rebellion: A Black Cloud That Rose in the East." American Heritage, January 1987.
Szatmary, David. Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
for god's sake, have matters settled peaceably: it was against my inclinations i undertook this business; importunity was used which i could not withstand, but i heartily wish it was well over.
captain daniel shays, letter to a friend, december, 1786