Shays’ Rebellion was a series of violent attacks on courthouses and other government properties in Massachusetts that began in 1786 and led to a full-blown military confrontation in 1787. The rebels were mostly ex-Revolutionary War soldiers-turned farmers who opposed state economic policies causing poverty and property foreclosures. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a farmer and former soldier who fought at Bunker Hill and was one of several leaders of the insurrection.
What Caused Shays' Rebellion?
The farmers who fought in the Revolutionary War had received little compensation, and by the 1780s many were struggling to make ends meet.
Businesses in Boston and elsewhere demanded immediate payment for goods that farmers had previously bought on credit and often paid off through barter. There was no paper money in circulation and no gold or silver to be accessed by the farmers to settle these debts.
At the same time, Massachusetts residents were expected to pay higher taxes than they had ever paid to the British in order to assure that Governor James Bowdoin’s business associates would receive a good return on their investments.
With no means to move their crops and make money to pay off debts and taxes, Boston authorities began to arrest the farmers and foreclose on their farms.
The Rebellion Begins
Farmers first attempted peaceful means to settle their issues. In the August of 1786, farmers in western Massachusetts began to take direct action against debtors’ courts.
Committees of town leaders drafted a document of grievances and proposed reforms, some considered radical, for the legislature in Boston to enact.
But other actions began to take place. In Northampton, Captain Joseph Hines led several hundred men to block judges from entering the courthouse. They were joined by a contingent from Amherst and several hundred more men from elsewhere.
In Worcester, judges were blocked from holding court by crowds of hundreds of armed men. When the militia was called in, those men refused to answer, and many joined the crowd around the courthouse.
Daniel Shays, for whom the rebellion was eventually named, was a farmer in Pelham and an ex-soldier who fought at Bunker Hill and other significant Revolution battles.
Shays became involved with the insurgents sometime in the summer of 1786 and had taken part in the Northampton action. He was offered a leadership position in August but refused.
Soon, however, Shays was leading a sizable group and the eastern elite claimed he was the leader of the entire rebellion and potential dictator. But Shays was only one leader in the rebellion.
In September, Shays led a group of 600 men to shut down the court in Springfield. Determined to use peaceful means, he negotiated with General William Shepard for the court to open while allowing protesters to parade. The court eventually closed down when it couldn’t find any jurors to serve.
A concerned Henry Knox, an artillery commander during the Revolutionary war and the future first U.S. Secretary of War, wrote to George Washington in 1786 to warn him about the rebels:
“[T]hey see the weakness of Government[,] they feel at once their own poverty compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former. Their creed is that that the property of the United States has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore ought to be the common property of all…Our government must be braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property.
We imagined that the mildness of our government and the virtue of the people were so correspondent, that we were not as other nations requiring brutal force to support the laws—But we find that we are men, actual men, possessing all the turbulent passions belonging to that animal and that we must have a government proper and adequate for him.”
Shays’ Rebellion Escalates
The insurgents found support in unexpected places. Chief Justice William Whiting of the Berkshire County Court was a wealthy conservative who publicly spoke out in favor of the rebellion, accusing the wealthy state legislatures of making money off the impoverished farmers and claiming the farmers were obligated to disrupt government in response.
Legendary patriot Samuel Adams, however, called for the execution of the rebellious farmers.
The Massachusetts legislature offered leniency and flexibility to those with tax burdens. Amnesty was also offered to the rebels if they disavowed the efforts to close the courts. The farmers were expected to take oaths of allegiance to the state government.
However, a bill was passed excusing sheriffs from responsibility if they killed any insurgents and declaring harsh punishments for rebels in custody. Soon after, the legislature suspended the writ of habeas corpus for a period of time.
Another bill prescribed the death penalty for militiamen who took part in the protests.
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The situation continued to escalate. In December 1786, a militia assaulted a farmer and his family in Groton, arresting and crippling the farmer, which further fanned the flames of the insurrection.
In January 1787, Governor Bowdoin hired his own army, privately funded by Boston businessmen. Some 4,400 men under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln were directed to put down the insurgency.
Attack on Springfield Arsenal
Shays and other leaders made plans to raid the federal arsenal in Springfield to procure weapons. On the snow-covered morning of January 25, 1787, 1,200 men approached the arsenal. Some men had guns, while some carried clubs and pitchforks.
General Shepard predicted the assault and was waiting at the arsenal. Shepard believed the insurgents planned to overthrow the government. Meanwhile, General Lincoln’s troops marched from Worcester to Springfield to provide additional defense.
Two other groups of insurgents traveled to join Shays. Another rebellion leader, Luke Day, who had ridden to Quebec with Benedict Arnold in 1775, would head from the north with 400 men. Eli Parsons would lead 600 men from the Berkshires.
As they approached the arsenal, shots were fired at Shays and his men. The first two were warning shots over their heads, but further shots left two rebels dead and 20 wounded. The rest retreated to Chicopee, sending a message back to Shepard demanding the dead for burial.
Aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion
Attempts to rekindle the rebellion from Vermont with Revolutionary War leader Ethan Allen failed. Allen quietly gave former rebels refuge in Vermont, but publicly disavowed them.
The Boston legislature passed the Disqualification Act banning rebels from serving on juries, holding public office, voting or working as schoolmasters, innkeepers and liquor salesmen for three years.
By the summer of 1787, many participants in the rebellion received pardons from newly-elected Governor John Hancock. The new legislature placed a moratorium on debts and cut taxes, easing the economic burden the rebels were struggling to overcome. Some rebels were publicly paraded to the gallows before release. Two were executed for burglary.
Shays was pardoned the following year. He returned to Pelham briefly, then moved to Sparta, New York, where his legend made him a popular attraction for visitors. He died in 1825 and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
Shays is memorialized by the Daniel Shays Highway in western Massachusetts, a section of US Route 202 built in 1935 that runs through Pelham.
Significance of Shays’ Rebellion
At the time of Shays’ Rebellion, the newly formed United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a document that many in the country felt was too weak to effectively manage the fledgling nation.
The specter of Shays’ Rebellion informed the debate over the framing of a new U.S. Constitution, providing fuel to Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists who advocated for a strong federal government and diminished states’ rights.
Nationalists used the rebellion to heighten paranoia, and George Washington was convinced enough by their arguments to come out of retirement and take part in the Constitutional Convention, where he was elected the first president of the United States.
Shays’ name was often mentioned in attacks by the Federalists against critics of the Constitution, who were referred to as “Shaysites.”
When the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention began, many communities in Massachusetts that supported the rebellion sent delegates that had taken part in it. Of the 97 “Shaysite” towns sending delegates, only seven voted in favor of the Constitution.
Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Leonard L. Richards.
Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers, and Radicals from the Bay State. Paul de Valle.
Shays’ Rebellion. Lenox Historical Commission.
Shays’ Rebellion Starts in Massachusetts. National Constitution Center.
To George Washington From Henry Knox, 23 October 1786. National Archives.