Shays Rebellion of 1786 was a series of violent attacks by rural landowners on county courthouses and armories in Massachusetts. It led to a full-blown military confrontation with the state militia in the winter of 1787. The angry rebels were mostly ex-Revolutionary War soldiers, now mostly farmers. They opposed the state’s tax and debt policies causing wide-spread foreclosures. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, one of the insurrection leaders, a farmer and former captain in the Continental Army. Shays’ Rebellion shocked the Founding Fathers. It was one of the catalysts of the Constitutional Convention the following year in Philadelphia.
Independence from Great Britain did not bring instant economic prosperity for the new U.S. Britain restricted U.S. trade with the British Empire, including the lucrative trade with the nearby West Indies. Continuing inflation made the new paper dollar nearly worthless. Meanwhile, states raised taxes in order to pay off Revolutionary War debts and make up for the loss of foreign loans to Britain.
New England was suffering an economic depression.
Merchants and bankers in eastern Massachusetts demanded the debt payments from hard-pressed farmers in western Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the state legislature had raised taxes to pay the state’s wartime debt and meet the national Congress’s requests of taxes. Western farmers were burdened by high taxes, unable to pay their debts, including mortgages on their farms. Lawyers called them before county courts, and they often lost their property.
Unlike other state legislatures, the Massachusetts government did not respond to the crisis by passing pro-debtor laws. As a result, judges told local sheriffs to seize many foreclosed farms. Some farmers who couldn’t pay all their debts were put in debtors prison. All this provoked anger against the state government, and led to the first armed rebellion in the new United States. In the farmers’ minds, it was much like 1776, Americans resisting high taxes and an apathetic government.
In the summer of 1786, western farmers assembled to petition the Massachusetts legislature for relief. They asked that no taxes be collected for 1 year and that courts be closed so property could not be confiscated. Eastern bankers and merchants from whom these farmers had borrowed money disagreed. They insisted that contracts be honored, and debts be paid. Boston critics called the farmers “Turncoats,” even though many had fought in the Revolutionary War.
Neither side provided a compromise to resolve the conflict.
Leaders of the farmers’ movement called on the former Revolutionary Minutemen to defend their rights, as they had during the war. They met in taverns, town meetings and churches to rally members and plot their next move. Committees of town leaders drafted a document of grievances and proposed radical demands for the legislature in Boston to enact.
Beginning in late August, they took their next steps. Insurgents armed themselves and converged on county courthouses, planning to close them by force. If the courts could not meet, they would not lose their property. Soon, events would flare into a full-scale revolt. On August 29th, 1,500 armed and angry men seized the Northampton Courthouse and blocked judges and jurors from entering.
Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin issued an angry proclamation: “A large concourse of people, many armed with guns and swords, in contempt and open defiance of the Government, did, by their threats of violence, take possession of the Court-House. I call upon all Sheriffs, Constables, and military officers, within this Commonwealth, to prevent and suppress all such violent and riotous proceedings.”
He also appealed to Massachusetts residents to aid and assist the officers. And to unite in preventing and suppressing such “treasonable acts.” On September 5, the judges in Worcester tried to convene their courts, but 300 bayonet-wielding insurgents blocked their access, and released debtors in jail. Over the next month, the rebels shut down additional courts in Middlesex, Plymouth, and Berkshire Counties.
In late September, a crowd of 1,500 men led by Revolutionary War captain Daniel Shays, prevented the Massachusetts Supreme Court from meeting in Springfield. He negotiated with the justices to keep the court open, while allowing the protesters outside. The court eventually had to close when it couldn’t find any jurors to serve.
The governor then called out the state militia to quell the rebellion.
Many of its members however were locals who refused to muster against their own neighbors, and in some cases, joined them. Daniel Shays was a farmer in Pelham and an ex-Captain who fought at in Bunker Hill and other battles. Shays had taken part in the Northampton Courthouse action. He was offered a leadership position afterwards, but initially refused. Soon, however, Shays gravitated back into leading the sizable group at Springfield. The governor, looking for a ring leader, claimed Shays was the leader of the entire rebellion.
Some thought the “Shayites” were patriots, like in the American Revolution. Others saw them as dangerous insurrectionists whose actions could topple the young republican government. Henry Knox, a commander during the Revolutionary war (and future U.S. Secretary of War), wrote to George Washington in to warn him about the rebels.
In Philadelphia, Knox asked Congress to send national troops to quell “Shays Rebellion.” In particular, to protect the federal armory at Springfield. It stored some 7,000 guns, artillery, bayonets and gunpowder. Congress agreed, but that required both money and recruits from other states. Because of the weak Articles of Confederation, little was forthcoming.
The insurgents found support in some unexpected places.
Chief Justice William Whiting was a wealthy conservative who publicly spoke out in favor of the rebels, accusing the state legislatures of making money off the struggling farmers. He claimed the farmers were within their rights to disrupt a government they saw as unfair. Famous Boston patriot Samuel Adams, however, called for the arrest and execution of the traitors.
In October, Governor Bowdoin called his legislature into session and warned that wicked and devious men were conspiring to “destroy all confidence in our new government.” The legislature provided some relief by suspending debt payments and property foreclosures for several months. However, it also passed several new stricter measures to deal with the crisis:
The Militia Act made it punishable by court martial or even death for any militiaman who joined the sedition. The Riot Act prohibited 12 or more armed people from assembling, and empowered sheriffs to jail, and even kill rioters if necessary. Finally, the writ of habeas corpus was suspended, authorizing the detention without bail of suspected traitors. Amnesty was also offered to the rebels if they disavowed their efforts and took oaths of allegiance to the state.
In October, the rebel farmers went home, needing to harvest the crops in their fields. Another round of troubles, however, occurred in November and December, when rebels regrouped and forcible closed courts in Worcester and Springfield. The farmers continued to shout what they felt were their patriotic rights and protested the suspension of their liberties.
PATRIOTS or TRAITORS?
In early January 1787, Governor Bowdoin authorized a force of more than 4,400 men. It would be paid through funds privately raised amongst wealthy Boston businessmen. An army of nearly 2,000 was eventually placed under Revolutionary War General Benjamin Lincoln. His orders were to secure order in western Massachusetts. Lincoln marched west to defend the courthouses. A separate force of 1,200 militiamen occupied the Springfield Armory to deny it to the rebels.
Shays and the other insurgent leaders called on the western farmers to assault the armory. Immediately assemble in arms to support and maintain your rights and liberties. Guided by the Revolutionary War ideal that they had the right to replace an unwanted government, the insurgents announced their intention to smash the “tyrannical administration in Massachusetts.”
The rebels controlled all the roads to Springfield, seized supplies going to the militia, and sent threatening ultimatums to General Lincoln. Shays’ opponents in Boston considered themselves the true Patriots that created the new independent democracy. The increase in taxes was a consequence of needing to pay for the war. Those who loaned money to the western farmers, viewed the repayment of debts as guarantying property rights.
On January 25th, the rebel army of almost 2,000 men advanced on the armory through deep winter snow drifts, urged on by Shays and the other leaders. Most had guns, but some just pitchforks or clubs. They planned to divide up and institute a three-pronged assault on the Springfield arsenal.
The rebels were intercepted on the day before their planned attack.
The defending artillery under the direction of General Lincoln, fired first over their heads to frighten them to lay down their arms and surrender. The western men kept coming, so he ordered a second warning shot over their heads. Still the angry mob advanced. The militia then fired grapeshot at the insurgents. Four were killed and dozens more wounded.
Shocked by the death and bloodshed, the farmers retreated. The battle for the arsenal and Shays Rebellion was over in an hour. Lincoln sent troops up the Connecticut River to prevent further advances. Most of the insurgents dispersed and returned to their farms. Shays, his wife, and other leaders fled to Vermont to escape arrest.
The Boston legislature then passed the Disqualification Act, banning rebels from serving on juries, holding public office, or voting for three years. While the rebellion disintegrated quickly, the underlying anger that propelled such action remained. The debtors’ discontent was still widespread across the state. Similar protests and actions started popping up on a smaller scale in Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania!
Shays Rebellion alarmed Founding Fathers like George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. A government not strong enough to maintain order amongst it own people was too weak to maintain liberty. Washington remarked that it threatened the Union. “If any person had told me that at this day, I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws & constitutions of our own making, I should have thought him fit for a mad house,”
While Governor Bowdoin succeeded in crushing the Shays Rebellion, he was voted out of office in the next election. Thirteen Shaysites were rounded up, tried for treason, and sentenced to death. Some rebels were publicly paraded past the gallows – before their ultimate release. The new governor, John Hancock, pardoned them all. The new legislature placed a moratorium on debts and cut taxes, easing the burden the rebels were struggling to overcome.
Daniel Shays was never captured, but eventually received a pardon as well the following year. He moved to Sparta, New York, where his legend made him a local celebrity. He died decades later in 1825. Shays is memorialized by the Daniel Shays Highway in western Massachusetts, a section of Route 202, built in 1935, that runs through his home town of Pelham.
This high level of popular resistance in other states worried many in Founding Fathers. Shays Rebellion shined a light on the discontent lurking just beneath the surface of the new U.S. It showed that their new government, under the Articles of Confederation, could barely put down an internal insurrection. The central government didn’t have the means to act fast enough to protect the union.
National leaders felt compelled to act to put an end to such populist actions that broke the rule of law. Shays Rebellion provided fuel to Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists who advocated for a stronger federal government. Nationalists used the rebellion to heighten fear of internal rebellions amongst the people. George Washington was convinced enough to come out of retirement and take part in the process.
If Shays Rebellion somehow sounds familiar, we need only look back on the 2020 Election. A mob of angry election deniers, urged on by their leaders, defied their own government, and police authority. They violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempted coup to change results of a national election.