The Rebellion that Shook a Fledgling America

Shays forces flee Continental troops, Springfield.jpg

On this day in 1786, the newly minted United States faced its greatest domestic challenge when Daniel Shays led an armed uprising in western Massachusetts against the federal government known as “Shays’ Rebellion“.

Shays was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War who saw combat in several major battles and was wounded in action. Like most people in the fledgling country of roughly three million, he was a subsistence farmer just scrapping by; most residents of rural Massachusetts had few assets beyond their land, and often had to rely on bartering or debt from urban merchants.

Like most revolts, there were many complex ideological, political, and economic factors that drove Shays and four thousand others to take arms against their purportedly representative government. The majority of veterans received little pay for their service, and still had difficult getting the government to pay up. Compounding this problem were mounting debts to city businessmen and higher taxes by the state government, which happened to be dominated by the same mercantile class. Mounting bankruptcies and repossessions, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the democratic process in addressing these issues, finally boiled over to well organized efforts to shut down the courts and prevent more “unjust” rulings. Over time, the protests morphed into an outright insurrection that sought the overthrow of the Massachusetts government. Things really came to a head in 1787, when Shays’ rebels marched on the federal Springfield Armory in an unsuccessful attempt to seize its weaponry for their cause. The national government, then governed by the Articles of Confederation, did not have the power nor ability to finance troops to put down the rebellion; it came down to the Massachusetts State militia and even privately funded local militia to put an end to the rebellion, at the loss of nine lives in total.

Most participants were ultimately pardoned, including Shays himself, who ultimately died poor and obscure in 1825. But the legacy of the conflict far outlived its relative blip in modern history: Though it is still widely debated, the rebellion may have influenced the already-growing calls for the weak Confederation to be replaced by a federal system under a new constitution. Among other things, the event is credited with creating a relatively more powerful executive branch, as it was believed one single president would have a better chance at acting decisively against national threats. Some delegates felt that the uprising proved the masses could not be trusted; the proposed Senate was already designed to be indirectly elected (as it would remain until the early 20th century), but some wanted even the House of Representatives to be removed from the popular vote. Regardless of its effects, if any, on the course of our constitutional and political development, the causes, sentiments, and public debates around Shays’ Rebellion (and the response to it) are no doubt familiar to many of us today; depending on how you look at it, that is either reassuring (things are not so uniquely bad after all) or depressing (things are *still* pretty bad over two centuries later).

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