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Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays (ca. 1747-1825), American Revolutionary War captain, is best known for leading a rebellion of western Massachusetts farmers in 1786-1787 seeking relief from oppressive economic conditions.

Daniel Shays was born in Middlesex County, Mass. His father had emigrated from Ireland as an indentured servant. Barely educated, Daniel began work as a farm laborer. At the start of the Revolution he joined the local militia. He rose to captain in the 5th Massachusetts Regiment of the Continental Army. Those who served with Shays recalled him as a brave soldier and a good officer.

In 1780 Shays returned to western Massachusetts, a region suffering economic dislocation from the war. The farmers were particularly hurt by the scarcity of money created by the decline of the state's shipping, fishing, whaling, and distilling industries and by the heavy taxes imposed to prosecute the Revolution. Shays suffered with his neighbors. Elected to local office, he was soon representing them in county conventions (between 1782 and 1786), at which petitions were drawn reciting the farmers' distress and demanding relief for debtors in the form of paper money, reduction in government expenditures, restraints on court and attorney fees, and suspension of debt executions. Though Shays managed to keep his farm, other farmers saw mortgage foreclosures take everything but the clothes off their backs. Debtors were imprisoned and even sold to work off their debts.

In 1786 farmers in western Massachusetts organized, took up arms, and forced the courts to suspend sessions. Though Shays headed one of these "regiments," he later denied being the "generalissimo" of the rebellion. Other leaders took no orders from him, but Shays did head the largest band of insurgents, some 1,200, which sought to seize the Federal arsenal at Springfield in January 1787. They were repulsed and scattered by militia. The remainder, pursued by an army of state troops, were surprised on Feb. 4, 1787, and captured in great numbers. Some, like Shays, fled the state. The rebellion was over by the end of February, although intermittent fighting occurred until the summer. Finally pardoned, as were all of the rebels, Shays lived in New York until his death on Sept. 29, 1825.

Perhaps the most significant impact of Shays' Rebellion was the impetus it gave the movement to replace the Articles of Confederation by a new constitution, creating a stronger national government.

Further Reading

There are no biographies of Shays. The fullest analysis of the rebellion is in Robert J. Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution (1954). Marion L. Starkey, A Little Rebellion (1955), is a human-interest reconstruction of the episode without much depth. Richard B. Morris provides an excellent capsule treatment of the insurrection in Daniel Aaron, America in Crisis: Fourteen Crucial Episodes in American History (1952). A brief account written for school children is Monroe Stearns, Shays' Rebellion, 1786-1787 (1968), which supplies more details about Shays himself than do many scholarly works. Edward Bellamy's novel The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion (1879; republished 1962, Joseph Schiffman, ed.) re-creates the country of the Shaysites. □

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Shays, Daniel

Daniel Shays (shāz), c.1747–1825, American soldier and insurrectionist, b. probably in Hopkinton, Mass. A farmer from W Massachusetts, he fought the British in the American Revolution and was made a captain of the 5th Massachusetts Regiment in 1777. After the war he settled at Pelham, Mass., and became a leader in the revolt of small farmers that resulted from postwar economic depression; the uprising became known as Shays's Rebellion. After the defeat of the insurgents in Feb., 1787, Shays fled to Vermont. He was finally pardoned in June, 1788, and later moved to New York state.

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Shays, Daniel

Daniel Shays

Born c. 1747 Hopkinton, Massachusetts
Died September 29, 1825
Sparta, New York

Farmer, soldier, political leader, insurrectionist

During the American Revolution (1775–83), Daniel Shays served with distinction in the American army, earning battlefield promotions for bravery. He later gained notoriety as the leader of the Shays Rebellion of 1786. Like those who began the war, Shays and his followers were protesting what they considered unfair taxation. The rebellion was suppressed, Shays and the other rebels were pardoned, and the event led political leaders to press for a strong federal government.

Not much is known about Daniel Shays's life before he enlisted as a soldier in the American army during the Revolutionary War. He was the second of six children born to Patrick Shays and Margaret Dempsey, who married in 1744 and lived in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. It is believed that, like his Irish immigrant parents, Shays was a farmer before the war.

In 1772, Shays and Abigail Gilbert declared their intention of marriage. Abigail was born in 1760, the daughter of Jonathan Gilbert and Abigail Olds. Whether Shays and Abigail actually married in 1772 or sometime later is not known. His torical records show that their first child was born in 1773. In 1772, Shays did purchase sixty-eight acres of farmland in Shutesbury, Massachusetts.

Minute Men respond at Lexington

By 1773, as a man of about twenty-six, Shays was active in the local town militia (a group of citizen soldiers). He drilled his neighbors in marching in formation, and attained the rank of sergeant in the Minute Men. The Minute Men were American militia members who were prepared to respond to a call to arms at a minute's notice.

Shays, his father, and his brother, James, responded to such an alarm on April 19, 1775, when the British marched on Lexington, Massachusetts, to capture rebel leaders John Hancock (1737–1793) and Samuel Adams (1722–1803; see entries). The British planned to continue on to Concord to capture the rebel arsenal (stockpile of weapons). With other militia men, the Shayses faced the British soldiers at Lexington and then at Concord. These battles were the "shot heard 'round the world," and the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Shays served as a militia man for eleven days at this time, and then responded to the call to join the newly organized American army at Boston. The state militias made up this new army.

Shays served as an ensign (the lowest rank of officer) in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Shays was promoted to lieutenant (pronounced loo-TEN-ant) in 1776. He received his captain's commission on January 1, 1777, and served in the Fifth Massachusetts regiment of the Continental army.

Wounded and recognized for bravery

Shays also saw action in the campaign at Saratoga, New York, where British General John Burgoyne see entry and 5,000 British soldiers surrendered in October 1777. Many historians consider this battle a turning point in the Revolution because it proved that the American army could defeat the British. The British army at this time was considered the best in the world. However, their defeat at Saratoga convinced the French and then the Spanish to lend their support to the new American nation.

These bloody battles led to the need for more American soldiers, so Shays went on a recruiting mission. In 1778, he returned to the American army with twenty new recruits from the Shutesbury, Massachusetts, area. In 1778, while on leave from the army, Shays purchased 107 acres of land in Pelham, Massachusetts. At the same time, he sold his holdings in Shutesbury.

In July 1779, Shays served under General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Stony Point, New York. It was at this battle that Wayne earned his nickname of "Mad Anthony Wayne" for his fearless bayonet charge of this British stronghold. (A bayonet is a knife that is attached to the shooting end of a gun.)

By 1780, Shays was serving under the Marquis de Lafayette , the French nobleman who joined the American army because of his admiration for George Washington (see entries) and the cause of liberty. Lafayette, a beloved leader, presented each of his officers with a sword. Shays, who needed the money, sold his sword. Many historians call Shays a man without honor because of this sale. However, most Continental soldiers were not paid on a regular basis, so Shays most likely needed money at the time.

Shays was probably not well educated, because his family had been so poor. However, like Lafayette, Shays did have some gift for leading men. In general, Shays was regarded as a good officer, one who cared for the men serving under him. He was praised several times for his bravery during battles, and was wounded in action at least once.

Return to civilian life

Shays received an honorable discharge from the American army at Newark, New Jersey, in October 1780. He returned to Pelham to take up farming. Before long, his neighbors were urging Shays to run for public office. In colonial times, every town had several posts that were held by leading citizens. In 1781, Shays served the town of Pelham on the Committee of Safety and in 1782 as a member of a committee that tried to decide the amount of money that Pelham should contribute to the American war effort. He was also reappointed to the Committee of Safety in 1782.

Captain Shays, as he was known to his neighbors, was respected because of his military service during the war. Many people believed that he was a good town leader, and that he would take care of them in their dealings with the state and federal governments. Many colonists had learned to distrust government from the British mishandling of their complaints before the war. Now, the Americans transferred this distrust to their new American government, which they thought was run by rich men in faraway New York City (then the nation's capital).

Shays and neighbors unhappy with new American government

Shays's leadership ability was tested even before the war was officially over, when the citizens of Pelham and other western Massachusetts towns began to complain bitterly against the new U.S. government. For the most part, they were poor people who believed the government was letting them down. These people had high hopes after the Revolutionary War, and believed that a time of great prosperity was upon them. Instead, the war brought poverty and confusion as systems of the federal government were being established. Shays himself was charged several times with owing money (debts) and lost some land because of his inability to make payments on it.

Shays's neighbors began to lose their property because they could not pay their loans. Once they lost their property, they lost the right to vote and so could not choose who spoke for them in government decision making. They were taxed to pay for the war, but few had any money. Many joined mobs, which marched on the local town and state governments demanding relief from their economic problems.

By 1785, Shays had formed a town militia, which drilled in front of the town tavern in Pelham. Shays and his neighbors believed that they would once again have to fight an oppressive government (this time, the U.S. government) to gain the right to vote and to be taxed fairly. Other towns nearby also began to arm themselves. By August, Shays had been officially appointed to head this force of militia men. While Shays was the military leader, Luke Day of Springfield, Massachusetts, was making speeches to stir up popular support for what would soon become a full-scale rebellion.

Citizens take action against government

Shays's group of about 1,000 militia men marched on Springfield in September 1785 to prevent the court from meeting. The court was unpopular because it heard cases against debtors and sent some to prison. Shays and his men were met by Major General William Shepard, who commanded a force of about 1,000 Massachusetts state militia men. Shays agreed to allow the court to begin its session, provided that no debt cases would be tried and no debtors put into prison. An agreement was reached and the court session began.

However, by December, Shays and his band were disgusted because the courts and the government had made no progress toward fixing the economic situation. Shays and his men marched to Worcester (pronounced WUSS-ter), Massachusetts, and from there to Rutland, Vermont. In January 1787, Shays's army marched back to Springfield, with the intention of capturing the federal arsenal there (an arsenal is a stockpile of weapons). Tensions mounted.

In the meantime, the federal government appointed General Benjamin Lincoln to head a force of between 4,000 and 5,000 federal troops to suppress what had become an armed rebellion against the United States. People throughout the country began calling it "The Shays Rebellion" and the followers Shaysites. While Shays had much popular support, the government and wealthy citizens considered him and his followers traitors to the United States.

In January 1787, Lincoln and his troops marched from Boston to confront Shays's army, which by now numbered about 1,200 men. Shays did not wait for the federal troops to appear, and attacked the Springfield arsenal on January 25. The state militia under General Shepard opened fire, killing two Shaysites and wounding a third. Shays responded by retreating ten miles.

General Lincoln's federal force pursued Shays and his army from town to town across western Massachusetts. During this time, Lincoln offered the rebels a chance to surrender and be pardoned. Shays declined, saying that their grievances were real and that until they were addressed, the rebellion would continue. Finally, on February 3, Lincoln led his men thirty miles through a snowstorm to catch up with Shays at Petersham, Massachusetts. Lincoln's troops captured 150 rebels and sent the rest home. Thus ended what history now calls "The Shays Rebellion."

The aftermath of the Shays Rebellion

The federal government could not tolerate its citizens taking arms and rising against it. Shays and the other leaders of the rebellion were sentenced to death by hanging. The other rebels were warned sternly and then pardoned. Shays petitioned for a pardon in February 1788, and it was granted that June.

After the rebellion, Shays lived in West Sandgate, Vermont, until 1790. After the death of his wife, Abigail, Shays moved to New York, eventually settling in Preston Hollow. Historical records show that Shays married a second time, in April 1815, to Rhoda Coller Havens, a widow, in Hungerford, New York. In 1818, he petitioned the federal government for an army pension for his service in the Revolutionary War. After receiving a pension of twenty dollars per month, Shays purchased twelve acres of farm land in Sparta, New York, in 1820. He died there in 1825 at the age of seventy-eight. A marker near Union Cemetery in Livingston County, New York, records that Daniel Shays served in the Revolution and was the leader of the Shays Rebellion.

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M., III. "Shays, Daniel" and "Shays's Rebellion." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 999-1001.

Feer, Robert A. Shay's Rebellion. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988, pp. 216-23.

Holland, Josiah Gilbert. History of Western Massachusetts: The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Vol. 1. Springfield, MA: Samuel Bowles and Company, 1855, pp. 292-95.

Nicholson, Mary Ann, ed. The Family of Daniel Shays (excerpted from Descendants of Daniel Shays, November 1934 by Elmer S. Smail). Boston: The New England Genealogical Society, 1987, pp. 4-9.

Parmenter, C. O. "Captain Daniel Shays." History of Pelham, Massachusetts from 1738 to 1898, Including the Early History of Prescott. Amherst, MA: Press of Carpenter & Morehouse, 1898, pp. 390-94.

Paulin, Michael. The Ballad of Daniel Shays. Athol, MA: The Transcript Press, 1986, pp. 100-07.

Purcell, L. Edward. "Shays, Daniel." Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, p. 438.

The Background of the Shays Rebellion

After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the United States faced the enormous task of setting up a central system (a federal government) that would run the states (the former thirteen colonies) as a single country. The leaders of the new country knew it was only a matter of time before the United States would have to defend itself from either foreign or domestic attack. The Shays Rebellion (1786–87) was the first real test of whether the new United States government would hold together in the face of armed rebellion. The rebellion had its roots in how the government was organized following the war.

When the war ended in 1783, the federal government had to establish laws and courts, issue money, and so on. The government also had to pay for the cost of the war against England. One of the ways it did this was to tax each state, including Massachusetts. The states were not allowed to pay their share by using the paper money issued during the war. Nor was any private business allowed to be done using paper money. Instead, the government wanted every debt or sale to be paid in gold coin, which very few people had.

These conditions helped create an economic depression (downturn), in which the paper money issued by the government steadily lost its value. Many people grew poor, as they could purchase less with their money and found fewer markets for any goods they produced. The problem was made worse because many American soldiers were still waiting for the new U.S. government to pay them for their wartime services. Unable to pay their bills, they lost their farms, land, and other belongings.

There were other sources of unhappiness. Many ordinary citizens thought that lawyers were paid too much for their services. These same lawyers were the ones who argued against them in the new courts of law. The common citizens also believed that their local government officials acted superior toward them and were paid too high a salary. These citizens also felt the justice system had let them down. They did not believe that the courts would protect their interests, but would instead side with the wealthier people who owned property.

Men who owned property could vote in the young United States; those who did not own property could not. Poorer people purchased property by taking out a loan from the bank or from a wealthy person. If the new property owner could not repay the debt, he had to forfeit the land (a process called foreclosure). Once a farmer lost his property, he forfeited his right to vote. Thus, he had no say in who represented him in the government. This led many to once again cry out (as they had before the American Revolution), "No taxation without representation."

This series of problems led to a sense of injustice and disappointment that the Revolution had not gained them the liberties promised. Many poorer Americans felt bitter and disappointed in their new government.

While many poorer people throughout the new country felt the economic pinch, an active group of rebels began to meet in western Massachusetts. They challenged the local state militia, shut down the court system for a while, and faced a force of federal soldiers before giving up. The rebellion failed, but the U.S. government remembered its cause. New laws allowed debts to be paid in paper money. The Shays Rebellion also underlined the need for a stronger federal government, one that issued money that was worth something, one that had fair laws, and one that had the ability to respond to local armed conflicts "to ensure domestic tranquility" (calm). The stronger federal government was outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified (passed into law) in 1789.

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Shays, Daniel

Shays, Daniel

SHAYS, DANIEL. (1747–1825). Continental officer, insurrectionist. Massachusetts. Born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, Daniel Shays (the spelling varies) had married and moved to Shutesbury before the Revolution. Shays marched on the Lexington alarm as a sergeant in Captain Reuben Dickinson's company of minutemen in Colonel Benjamin Ruggles Woodbridge's Hampshire Country regiment of minutemen, and he served for eleven days. Shays was promoted to second lieutenant in Dickinson's company of Woodbridge's regiment, now enlisted for eight months of service to besiege Boston, and he behaved well at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He served as a lieutenant in Colonel James M. Varnum's Ninth Continental Regiment (Rhode Island) in the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776. He was promoted to captain in Colonel Rufus Putnam's Fifth Massachusetts Regiment on 1 January 1777 and served at Ticonderoga and Saratoga, where he again distinguished himself. He was detached to the corps of light infantry, a temporary unit raised for the campaigning season, in 1779 and again in 1780 He participated in Anthony Wayne's attack at Stony Point on 16 July 1779. In May 1780 the senior light infantry officers each received a sword from the marquis de Lafayette, the new commander; Shays sold this gift, probably because he already owned a serviceable weapon and needed the money. A man of humble origin, he was a brave and efficient officer who was considerate of his subordinates and popular with his men.

He resigned on 14 October 1780 and settled as a farmer in Pelham, where he sat on the local committee of safety in 1781 and 1782. He is remembered for lending his name to Shays's Rebellion of 1786–1787, although others were as active as he was in this popular uprising against what some residents in central and western Massachusetts perceived as oppression by eastern monied interests. Shays fled to Vermont until he was pardoned in June 1788. After the pardon he moved to Schoharie County, New York, and then to Sparta, New York, where he died in September 1825.

SEE ALSO Shays's Rebellion; Stony Point, New York.

                         revised by Harold E. Selesky

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