Shays's Rebellion

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Shays's Rebellion

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.

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