Shays's Rebellion

views updated May 18 2018


The event that became known as Shays's Rebellion stemmed from the widespread belief in western Massachusetts that the new state government was no better than the government of King George III. Thousands of western Massachusetts men had fought in the Revolution. But what had been accomplished? Power, in the judgment of the chief justice of Berkshire County, had just been shifted from one set of "plunderers" to another. Even clergymen who denounced Shays's Rebellion blamed it on the "venality" and unrealistic demands of the legislature.

Since 1782 town leaders had pleaded with the state legislature to address their concerns. Their petitions had been polite, deferential, and at times groveling, but again and again they had raised embarrassing questions. How, for example, were farmers to pay debts and taxes with hard money when no hard money was available? What about the "poor soldiers" who had actually fought the war? Were they to be taxed at outrageous rates to pay off a handful of government favorites who did nothing during the war? And where was the tax money going? To pay off a handful of Boston speculators who had bought up the state's war debt for virtually nothing? Why did honest men have to cope with so many layers in the court system? Was it just so that well-connected lawyers and court officials could collect fees at every step of the way? Why was there was a state senate? Was it created to provide just another bastion of power for the privileged and well-born? And why was the government in Boston anyway? Was it to allow the mercantile elite to pass oppressive laws when distance and bad weather kept the people's representatives from getting to Boston?

Such thoughts had circulated in western Massachusetts for years, and each year the legislature ignored the complaints. So in the summer of 1786, roughly ten years after the Declaration of Independence, the selectmen of Pelham and a handful of other towns called for countywide protest meetings. The largest took place in Hatfield on 22 August 1786. The plan, according to one of the fifty delegates, was to list a set of grievances against the state government, call for a new state constitution, and then seize the county court, the one symbol of state authority, the following week. That they did. A week after the Hatfield meeting adjourned, hundreds of armed men converged on Northampton and stopped the judges from holding court. In the weeks that followed, other armed men prevented the courts from convening in other shire towns.

The participants in these court closings called themselves "Regulators," thus identifying themselves with the backcountry and the Revolutionary tradition that the people had a duty to rebel when their government got out of control. Needless to say, Governor James Bowdoin and the Massachusetts legislature rejected this idea. They deemed the rebellion "horrid and unnatural." At first the governor called on the militia to defend the courts. To his dismay, however, one militia unit after another refused to serve. Finally, in desperation, the governor and 153 Boston merchants hired a mercenary army under General Benjamin Lincoln to put down the uprising. As Lincoln's men marched west, the Regulators tried to seize the federal arsenal at Springfield on 25 January 1787. Had they succeeded, they would have been armed better than the state. But a militia unit under General William Shepard seized the arsenal first and turned its cannons on the insurgents, routing them and leaving four dead on the field. Ten days later General Lincoln caught up with the main rebel army at Petersham, surprised them at daybreak, and forced them to scatter, the leaders fleeing to Vermont, the rank and file returning home. Thus ended what state authorities came to call "Shays's Rebellion."

In calling the uprising Shays's Rebellion, Governor Bowdoin and his followers were clearly attempting to discredit the entire affair. As a rule, they blamed it on the down-and-out, and in many respects Captain Daniel Shays, a Continental Army officer from the small hill town of Pelham, fit the bill. His contingent was the largest, and he was a debtor. But he neither instigated the rebellion nor controlled it. He was just one of many veteran Revolutionary officers who led troops in battles of the uprising. Well over four thousand men later confessed to taking up arms against the state, and it is clear that most of them had been called to arms by someone other than Daniel Shays. Some were "hard-pressed debtors," like Shays, but others were clearly men of considerable wealth. Over half were veterans. Most marched alongside relatives and in-laws.

As for what happened to Shays and other participants who took part in the rebellion, for some, the immediate outcome was dire. The nominal leader, Daniel Shays, fled the state, lost his farm, and eventually settled in western New York. John Bly and Charles Rose, two minor rebels, were hanged, and sixteen others spent months anticipating a hangman's noose before being reprieved. Judge William Whiting, the chief justice of the Berkshire County court, had his judgeship taken away from him for blaming the rebellion on the state's leadership. Similiarly, State Representative Moses Harvey was kicked out of the legislature and forced to stand an hour at the Northampton gallows with a rope around his neck for blaming the rebellion on his fellow legislators. Hundreds of others had to cope with indictments filed by the state, or damage suits filed by neighbors, and some four thousand temporarily lost their right to vote, sit on juries, hold office, and work as teachers and tavernkeepers. Within a matter of months, however, most of these Regulators regained their former positions within their communities. Indeed, from their standpoint, they emerged victorious, as the new 1787 state legislature passed a moratorium on debts and cut direct taxes 'to a bone.'

The Massachusetts uprising had far-reaching effects. In Massachusetts, it ended the effort to pay off the state debt at the expense of backcountry farmers. For George Washington and other conservatives, it symbolized the unruliness of the backcountry in general. One of his key advisors blamed it on the "licentiousness spirit" prevailing among the people; another on the "leveling principle" that had captured the hearts of the poor and desperate. Were all men of property thus in danger? Was the Republic in peril? Nationalists seized upon such fears, pointed out the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, and convinced Washington to attend the Philadelphia convention in May 1787 that dispensed with the Articles and wrote the Constitution. They also used the specter of Daniel Shays to get the Constitution ratified by the states. Shays's Rebellion and the Constitution have been thus linked ever since.

See alsoFries's Rebellion; Gabriel's Rebellion; Massachusetts; Militias and Militia Service; Taxation, Public Finance, and Public Debt; Vesey Rebellion; Whiskey Rebellion .


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

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

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

Leonard L. Richards

Shays's Rebellion (1786)

views updated May 21 2018


The great debate among Americans before, during, and after the War for American Independence was whether a state based on liberty and freedom made unnecessary a central power, or whether liberty and freedom were inherent rights frequently trampled upon by others, hence demanding an orderly government to secure and protect them. In western Massachusetts, where the Berkshire Mountains and huge stands of virgin forest separated the few small towns of farmers, the feeling was, the less government the better. These people struggled to make ends meet, to provide the basic essentials for their families. Their desire for self-sufficiency led to a fierce independence. They had no love for government, and indeed feared that the natural tendency of government to order and secure the lives of the majority would take away their freedoms. These farmers, such as Daniel Gray and Thomas Grover, grew angry in the mid-1780s as the State of Massachusetts imposed more taxes to pay its debts, and allowed local law enforcement officials—sheriffs, constables, justices of the peace—the power to enforce the will of the government, to arrest those who refused to pay taxes and fomented rebellion, and to imprison those who were in debt and had no means to pay their creditors.

The exasperated farmers of western Massachusetts found their hero, as it were, in one Daniel Shays, who led them to desperate measures, intending to take the matters of self-government into their own hands. The result was Shays's Rebellion. Starting in Boston, this was an attempt to wrestle control from the State of Massachusetts. The rebellion was ruthlessly put down, and order secured in western Massachusetts. Yet Shays's Rebellion served as a reminder to conservative statesmen that the Articles of Confederation did not give enough authority to the central government, thus encouraging such anarchy.

Bacone College

See also Debt, Imprisonment for ; Shays's Rebellion .

An ADDRESS to the People of the several towns in the country of Hampshire, now at arms.


We have thought proper to inform you of some of the principal causes of the late risings of the people, and also of their present movement, viz.

  1. The present expensive mode of collecting debts, which by reason of the great scarcity of cash, will of necessity fill our gaols with unhappy debtors; and thereby a reputable body of people rendered incapable of being serviceable either to themselves or the community.
  2. The monies raised by impost and excise being appropriated to discharge the interest of govern-mental securities, and not the foreign debt, when these securities are not subject to taxation.
  3. A suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus, by which those persons who have stepped forth to assert and maintain the rights of the people, are liable to be taken and conveyed even to the most distant part of the Commonwealth, and thereby subjected to an unjust punishment.
  4. The unlimited power granted to Justices of the Peace and Sheriffs, Deputy Sheriffs, and Constables, by the Riot Act, indemnifying them to the prosecution thereof; when perhaps, wholly actuated from a principle of revenge, hatred, and envy.

Furthermore, Be assured, that this body, now at arms, despise the idea of being instigated by British emissaries, which is so strenuously propagated by the enemies of our liberties: And also wish the most proper and speedy measures may be taken, to discharge both our foreign and domestick debt.

Per Order,
Chairman of the Committee.

2. To the Printer of the Hampshire Herald. SIR,

It has some how or other fallen to my lot to be employed in a more conspicuous manner than some others of my fellow citizens, in stepping forth on defence of the rights and privileges of the people, more especially of the country of Hampshire.

Therefore, upon the desire of the people now at arms, I take this method to publish to the world of mankind in general, particularly the people of this Commonwealth, some of the principal grievances we complain of, …

In the first place, I must refer you to a draught of grievances drawn up by a committee of the people, now at arms, under the signature of Daniel Gray, chairman, which is heartily approved of; some others also are here added, viz.

  1. The General Court, for certain obvious reasons, must be removed out of the town of Boston.
  2. A revision of the constitution is absolutely necessary.
  3. All kinds of governmental securities, now on interest, that have been bought of the original owners for two shillings, and the highest for six shillings and eight pence on the pound, and have received more interest than the principal cost the speculator who purchased them—that if justice was done, we verily believe, nay positively know, it would save this Commonwealth thousands of pounds.
  4. Let the lands belonging to this Commonwealth, at the eastward, be sold at the best advantage to pay the remainder of our domestick debt.
  5. Let the monies arising from impost and excise be appropriated to discharge the foreign debt.
  6. Let that act, passed by the General Court last June by a small majority of only seven, called the Supplementary Act, for twenty-five years to come, be repealed.
  7. The total abolition of the Inferiour Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace.
  8. Deputy Sheriffs totally set aside, as a useless set of officers in the community; and Constables who are really necessary, be empowered to do the duty, by which means a large swarm of lawyers will be banished from their wonted haunts, who have been more damage to the people at large, especially the common farmers, than the savage beasts of prey.

To this I boldly sign my proper name, as a hearty wellwisher to the real rights of the people.

Worcester, December 7, 1786.

SOURCE: Minot, George R. The History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts in the Year 1786 and The Rebellion Consequent Thereon, second ed. Boston: James W. Burditt, 1810.

Shays's Rebellion

views updated May 23 2018

Shays's Rebellion

SHAYS'S REBELLION. 31 August 1786–4 February 1787. As the American states struggled with the problems of establishing a viable economy despite a postwar depression, the collapse of the currency, and an aversion to taxation rooted in their colonial past, an armed revolt against constituted authority arose in central and western Massachusetts. A grassroots insurgency movement with many local leaders, the so-called rebellion came to be known by the name of one of its leaders, Daniel Shays (1747–1825), who had returned to his farm in Pelham, Massachusetts, after retiring from the Continental army in 1781 as a captain in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment. Those who had so recently united in revolt against British authority were now divided in opinion as to whether the "right of revolution" could be exercised any time citizens objected to governmental authority. Many small farmers in towns across central and western Massachusetts objected to the General Assembly's decision that debts had to be paid in specie, a position supported by the mercantile elites in coastal towns but that posed a significant hardship in agricultural regions that lacked ready access to hard money. They also objected to the mounting number of farm and home foreclosures that threatened to strip them of the economic independence that was a central pillar of their political independence.

Mob actions started on 31 August 1786, when armed men prevented the Hampshire county court from sitting at Northampton. After similar events took place at Worcester, Concord, and Great Barrington, Governor James Bowdoin sent William Shepard (formerly colonel of the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment and now a militia major general) with six hundred militiamen to protect the state's Supreme Court, then sitting at Springfield. Five hundred insurgents confronted the militia on 26 September and obliged the court to adjourn. Because Springfield was the site of a federal arsenal, Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, on 20 October authorized the raising of 1,340 federal troops, mostly in Massachusetts and Connecticut, ostensibly for service against the Indians in the Ohio Valley but which could also be used against the insurgents. However, the slow process of raising this force meant that suppressing the insurgency depended on the willingness of Massachusetts state militiamen to act effectively against their fellow citizens.

Toward the end of 1786, as the insurgency collapsed in other parts of the state, Shays marched on Springfield the day after Christmas with some twelve hundred men to reinforce those already there under Luke Day (formerly a captain in the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment). While Shepard's small militia force continued to guard the arsenal and on 25 January 1787 repulsed a mismanaged attack by the insurgents, Governor Bowdoin called forty-four hundred militiamen into service (mainly from eastern counties) and placed at their head Major General Benjamin Lincoln, who, as Washington's second-in-command, had accepted the British surrender at Yorktown on 19 October 1781. When official funds were not rapidly forthcoming, Lincoln raised twenty thousand dollars from private sources to pay the troops. Lincoln's little army arrived at Springfield on 27 January, dispersed the force under Day, and pursued Shays toward Petersham through a blizzard. Early on 4 February, Lincoln completed a vigorous night march to surprise the insurgents, capturing 150 men and scattering the rest. By the end of February, the insurgency had been suppressed.

Acting quickly to calm public anger and quench any remaining embers of armed resistance, the Massachusetts government offered pardons to all but Shays, Day, and two others; it finally pardoned Shays, who had fled to upper New York State, on 13 June 1788, when it was clear that the violence was finished. While some looked on the insurgency as evidence that a republican form of government was too weak to be feasible, the majority interpreted the experience to mean that a stronger central government was necessary, in part to provide the means to suppress such uprisings but, better still, to prevent them by enacting measures that would improve economic conditions so that a state would not have to adopt policies that set one group of its citizens against another. Thus, Shays's Rebellion strengthened the arguments of those who sought to create a new national government and helped to speed the movement toward the creation and adoption of a new federal Constitution. The rebellion also had an immediate impact that brought relief to those who had undertaken armed resistance: the Massachusetts legislature postponed imposition of a direct tax and limited the liability of debtors, exempting tools and certain personal effects from sale to satisfy creditors. It was a small victory, but sufficient to tamp down resentment.

SEE ALSO Lincoln, Benjamin; Shays, Daniel; Shepard, William.


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

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, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1954.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

Shays's Rebellion

views updated May 14 2018

Shays's Rebellion

In the years after the American Revolution (1775–83), the newly formed states struggled to establish strong working economies. Many of the former colonies had large war debts and had to find ways to pay their creditors. Economic conditions were particularly challenging in Massachusetts , as farmers and merchants struggled to establish a livelihood under heavy state taxes. In 1786 frustration and anger at the government's refusal to provide relief for struggling citizens erupted into a rebellion led in part by Daniel Shays (1747–1825).


Economic hardship in Massachusetts stemmed largely from the demand of most creditors to be paid in hard money, meaning silver or gold coin. Such money was in short supply. Because the state needed it to pay its creditors as well, taxes could only be paid in hard money. These taxes were high, and most citizens were challenged to pay them at all.

In 1786 the Massachusetts General Court's taxes amounted to more than 30 percent of the average citizen's income. (General Court was the name for the legislature of Massachusetts.) The brunt of the taxes fell on struggling farmers and the poor, who were already in debt. Unable to pay their debts and taxes, many had their lands and other property seized, or faced imprisonment in debtors' prisons.

Citizens voiced their concerns through petitions to government officials and state legislators. The people asked for a reduction in taxes, the printing of paper money, and reform of debtors' courts. The state legislature stubbornly refused to take such action.

The problem worsened when many people realized they did not possess the property qualifications to vote. In the spring of 1786, when the General Court announced its intention to raise taxes again, several Continental army veterans, those who fought for the American colonies in the American Revolution, decided to take action.


Daniel Shays, an army captain during the revolution, was one of three men to lead protests throughout Massachusetts. By late August armed mobs began to intimidate and close the debtors' courts to prevent action against debtors. The protestors organized themselves into an army they named the Regulators.

In September the Regulators marched to Springfield, Massachusetts, and forced the Massachusetts Supreme Court to adjourn despite the presence of six hundred militiamen. Because Springfield was also the site of a federal arsenal, Congress authorized federal troops to be raised. Under the pretense of needing them for fighting Native Americans on the frontier, 1,340 men were mustered for the federal government.

On January 25, 1787, Daniel Shays and fifteen hundred Regulators marched into Springfield again, this time headed for the arsenal. They ignored warning shots fired by a small state militia that was standing guard. As a result a cannon was fired directly into the ranks of the Regulators, killing four men and wounding twenty more.

Shays and his men fled but were pursued by 4,400 federal and state militiamen. When Shays and his men were taken by surprise on February 4, many rebels were captured. Shays managed to escape, and he fled to Vermont. By the end of the month the rebellion had collapsed.


The Massachusetts government acted quickly in response to the rebellion. Massachusetts courts sentenced fourteen of the rebels to die, and fined or imprisoned hundreds more. The legislature passed a special Disqualifying Act that pardoned other Regulators but barred them from jury duty, voting, and certain jobs for three years. The government still failed to resolve the political concerns that sparked the rebellion.

The citizens responded in the state elections of April 1787. The state governor and more than half of the legislators were defeated. As a result the new General Court quickly began to address the concerns of the rebels. It reduced taxes, lowered court fees, and allowed the use of property to pay debts. It also eliminated the Disqualifying Act and provided pardons to all but Shays and three other rebel leaders. Shays eventually received a pardon on June 13, 1788, but he never returned to Massachusetts.

Shays's Rebellion convinced many people that the United States needed a stronger federal government to regulate currency and suppress uprisings. In autumn 1787 the states began debating whether to ratify the Constitution of the United States, which was written in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , that summer. Supporters of the Constitution argued that a stronger federal government might have been able to crush Shays' Rebellion more easily. This contributed to Massachusetts' ratification, or approval, of the Constitution in February 1788.

Shays's Rebellion

views updated May 11 2018


A revolt by desperate Massachusetts farmers in 1786, Shays's Rebellion arose from the economic hardship that followed the war of independence. Named for its reluctant leader, Daniel Shays, the rebellion sought to win help from the state legislature for bankrupt and dispossessed farmers. More than a thousand rebels blocked courts, skirmished with state militia, and were ultimately defeated, and many of them were captured. But the rebellion bore fruit. Acknowledging widespread suffering, the state granted relief to debtors. More significantly, the rebellion had a strong influence on the future course of federal government. Because the federal government had been powerless under the articles of confederation to intervene, the Framers created a more powerful national government in the U.S. Constitution.

Three years after peace with Great Britain, the states were buffeted by inflation, devalued currency, and mounting debt. Among the hardest hit was Massachusetts. Stagnant trade and rampant unemployment had devastated farmers who, unable to sell their produce, had their property seized by courts in order to pay off debts and overdue taxes. Hundreds of farmers were dispossessed; dozens of them were jailed. The conditions for revolt were ripe, stoked by rumors that the state's wealthy merchants were plotting to seize farm lands for themselves and turn the farmers into peasants.

The rebellion that followed came in two stages. The first steps were taken in the summer and fall of 1786. In five counties, mobs of farmers stopped the courts from sitting. Their goal was to stop the trials of debtors until elections could be held. They hoped that a new legislature would follow the example of other states by providing legal relief for them. This action provoked the state's governor, James Bowdoin, into sending out the state militia. Reluctantly, Daniel Shays, a destitute 39-year-old former captain in the Continental Army, was pressed into leadership of the insurgents. Shays sought to prevent the court from sitting in Springfield, and on September 26, he defied the state militia with his own force of 500 men. The men prevailed at first, forcing the court to adjourn. But with the capture of another rebel leader in November, the rebellion collapsed.

By December the rebels had regrouped for another stand. Because they feared that this time the state was going to indict them on charges of treason, they marched on the federal arsenal in Springfield on January 25, 1784, planning to continue on to the courthouse. Shays had some 1,100 men under his command. But the militia there, under the command of Major General William Shepherd, easily held them off: four people died before a single cannon volley dispersed Shays's men, who were pursued and arrested. Despite scattered resistance, the rebellion was crushed by February 4.

However, by popularizing the plight of debtors, the defeated rebels succeeded in their goals. Massachusetts elected a new legislature that quickly acceded to several demands of Shays's followers, chiefly by enacting relief measures. Moreover, although 14 of the rebel leaders were convicted and sentenced to death, they all received pardons or short prison sentences. Within a year's time, the state was prosperous again and enmities had cooled.

The most lasting and significant impact came at the federal level. In light of the events in Massachusetts, it was clear to the congress of the Confederation that it lacked the legal power to send aid to the states in a time of crisis. Only six years earlier, the 13 original states had drawn up their governing document, the Articles of Confederation. Now the congress invited the states to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia in May 1787 to revise the Articles. This plan was quickly dropped in favor of much broader action—the drafting of a new constitution that would establish a more powerful national government. In part due to the weaknesses exposed by Shays's Rebellion, many delegates at the Constitutional Convention gave support to greater federal power, ultimately embodied in the Constitution.

further readings

Priest, Claire. 1999. "Colonial Courts and Secured Credit: Early American Commercial Litigation and Shays' Rebellion." Yale Law Journal 108 (June).

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

Thompson, Paul M. 1998. "The Reaction to Shays' Rebellion." Massachusetts Legal History 4 (annual).


Constitution of the United States.

Shays's Rebellion

views updated May 09 2018


SHAYS'S REBELLION, an agrarian rebellion centered in Massachusetts and committed to debt relief for small farmers and rural artisans, August 1786–June 1787. Though former Continental Army Captain Daniel Shays was its nominal leader, the rebellion was relatively loose and decentralized.

After the American Revolution, the new United States suffered from a severe cash-flow problem. Merchants no longer enjoyed access to British markets and were stuck with large inventories. Unable to repay English creditors, they demanded money from numerous customers carrying small debts. At the same time, the state and Confederation governments were raising taxes to fund their own war debts.

Thus farmers and rural artisans, who were accustomed to a barter economy, owed creditors and tax collectors cash they did not have. As the economy worsened, they increasingly found themselves hauled into debtors'

courts or prisons. (Shays himself was sued twice.) Beginning in 1784, members of an inchoate agrarian movement peacefully proposed through town petitions and county conventions that states issue paper money or pass tender laws, which would allow debt payment in goods and services as well as hard currency. But with the exception of Rhode Island, New England's legislatures were dominated by commercial interests and refused to enact reform.

In the late summer and fall of 1786, armed Shaysites, adopting the symbols and rhetoric of the Revolution, started raiding and closing down various courts, aiming to suspend debt collection until states addressed their grievances. An estimated 9,000 people throughout New England participated in these early stages of rebellion.

Legislators reacted aggressively, arresting a number of Shaysites, calling out militias, suspending habeas corpus, and passing harsh laws, including the Riot Act (limiting public assembly) and the Treason Act (penalizing anti-government violence by death). Unable to requisition money to raise a proposed federal militia, local merchants funded an army of local troops.

In January, the Shaysites abandoned their policy of raiding courthouses in favor of wider rebellion. Talking now about overthrowing state government and not simply reforming debtors' courts and the tax system, about 2,500 farmers and artisans attacked the Massachusetts state arsenal at Springfield. The Shaysites were easily defeated in battle, but over the next four months small bands raided market towns such as Stockbridge and Great Barrington, kidnapping and terrorizing lawyers, merchants, military leaders, and politicians.

By June, however, the hostilities had come to an end. A number of frustrated rebels, including Shays, moved farther West where they could continue subsistence farming. In addition, the new legislature and a new governor passed a one-year tender act, and the economy started to show signs of improvement.

The rebellion, which was winding down as the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May, helped the federalists gain control of the proceedings. Convinced that unchecked democracy and a weak national government would enable a tyranny of the majority, the delegates wrote a constitution that rolled back some of the most radical revolutionary reforms by providing for a strong, indirectly elected president, an indirectly elected senate, and appointed judges.


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

Taylor, Robert Joseph. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1954.


See alsoConstitution of the United States ; Insurrections, Domestic ; andvol. 9:Shays's Rebellion .

Shays's Rebellion

views updated May 21 2018

Shays's Rebellion (1786–87).After the Revolutionary War, soldiers of the Continental army were demobilized with little or no pay; whatever “Continental notes” they received could be exchanged only at an enormous discount, and the very states that had approved their issue did not accept them as payment of taxes. Officers eventually received compensation, including land in the Ohio Territory, but by 1786 the plight of the former soldiery was dire, especially in rural Massachusetts, where veterans and farmers suffered most from both the postwar depression and the radical deficit reduction plan of the conservative new governor, James Bowdoin. That year, in western Massachusetts, where many believed they had lost significant political representation under the state constitution of 1780, scores of rural towns petitioned for relief but received none.

In September 1786, a movement called “the Regulation” began across western Massachusetts: whenever the circuit courts were scheduled to meet, between 500 and 2,000 men gathered and marched in a military manner on each court, with the stated aim of postponing the seizure of properties until after the next gubernatorial election. Over the next five months, under an indeterminate, changing leadership, the “Regulators,” armed with clubs and muskets, converged upon Northampton, Springfield, Worcester, and other towns where the courts were scheduled to sit, surrounding the courthouses to keep them closed. Until the last of these protests, there were no casualties.

This widespread movement resembled traditional protests, but those who wanted to establish a national constitution depicted it as anarchy. Gen. Henry Knox, Massachusetts‐born secretary of war for the Continental Congress, traveled to Springfield after the first Regulation to consider the safety of the weapons stored there in the undefended Continental Arsenal. It was Knox, writing to Congress, who first declared that this “rebellion” was led by former Capt. Daniel Shays. Knox, like other nationalists, welcomed an opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of a federal government and a permanent standing army; he proclaimed to Congress and to his mentor, Gen. George Washington, that the “rebels”' goal was to share all private property as “the common property of all,” “to annihilate all debts, public and private,” and to foment a “civil war.” Since the treasuries of both Massachusetts and Congress were empty, Knox helped Bowdoin solicit wealthy Boston merchants to finance an expeditionary force of 4,400 volunteers led by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to quell the “rebellion.” At the Springfield Arsenal on 24–25 January 1787, Lincoln's forces overwhelmed some 1,500 Regulators, led by Captains Daniel Shays, Luke Day, and Eli Parsons. With the first cannon fired, three Regulators were killed and the rest fled. In pursuit, Lincoln captured a number of Regulators for trial; later, two were hanged.

These mostly peaceable protests provoked alarm that the movement could spread across the thirteen states. This concern helped persuade the states to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, and to create a central U.S. government better equipped to deal with similar economic and social problems.
[See also Revolutionary War: Postwar Impact.]


Robert Feer , Shays' Rebellion, 1958; repr. 1988.
David Szatmary , Shays's Rebellion, 1980.

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