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Shays' Rebellion: The Unsung Uprising That Helped Spark a New America

Shays' rebellion
Shays' Rebellion pit farmers against tax collectors in the hills of Western Massachusetts just after the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the late months of 1786, only a few years after the spanking-new United States won its independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain with a victory in the Revolutionary War, another battle erupted in the hills of Western Massachusetts. This one was a homegrown uprising, loosely led by a farmer and war veteran who, along with thousands of others, quickly had tired of the unforgiving and heavy-handed state government in Boston.

Daniel Shays was the reluctant leader of the insurrection that came to bear his name. He is recognized today as every bit the New England patriot that Paul Revere or John Hancock was.

And Shays' Rebellion is remembered as a critical (if not entirely successful) touchstone in the formation of America's current system of government.

"One of the things about historical events is that you [usually] have a place where an important event takes place. Shays' Rebellion doesn't necessarily have that focal point that we associate with others, so it maybe makes it a little harder," says Massachusetts Historical Society librarian Peter Drummey.

"But it's certainly very hard to think about the founding of the United States under the federal Constitution without thinking of this as something of substantial concern; people really got behind the idea of reforming this revolutionary confederation into a new federal government."

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How Shays' Rebellion Began

After the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts (like many other states) was in a huge financial hole. The war was expensive. The rich people that ran the state needed to make some of that money back. So they did something that governments often do: tax their citizens. Heavily.

That didn't go over well in rural Western Massachusetts, where subsistence farming was the way of life, and bartering for goods and services was common. Tax collectors from the big city weren't about to take chickens for payment, and so showdowns between the government and farmers soon broke out.

Land was seized. Farmers were jailed. Protests were waged. Petitions were thrown about and ignored. Farmers and their families sometimes physically kept tax collectors from their appointed rounds. And then, late in 1786, angry protesters who called themselves Regulators shut down courthouses that they felt weren't sympathetic to their plight.

When the state responded with government-backed militia, tensions ratcheted up, quickly.

The situation became a mirror of the Revolutionary War. It was a revolt against a tax-happy distant government, one in which the people felt they weren't properly represented.

"They were seeing the same things play out," Drummey says. "This was about taxation without effective representation, and the other thing was, it was just very, very severe taxation relative to the income you have as a small farmer in the interior of New England. So many of the people who participated in this were former soldiers, people who had fought in the American Revolution, and now found themselves taking up arms against their state government, not a long time thereafter. It's very striking."

Into this fray (and sometimes in the middle of it) was Shays. His experience fighting in the war elevated him in the eyes of his fellow rebels, though he insisted he was not their leader. Like many, he felt his only way of living would be in danger if he didn't fight back.

Eventually, the Regulators — who came to be known as Shaysites — plotted to overthrow the unyielding state government. Their big plan was to seize weapons at the federal armory in the western Massachusetts town of Springfield, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Boston.

The rebels tried to take the armory, in late January 1787, though Shays first looked for a way out in a letter to Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln, who was hot on his trail. From the letter:

[U]nwilling to be any way accessary to the Shedding of Blood and Greatly Desirous of Restoring Peace and Harmony to this Convulsed Commonwealth We Propose that all the troops on the Part of Government, be Disbanded immediately, and that all and Every Person who has been acting or any way Aiding or Assisting in any of the Late Risings of the People May be Indemnified in their Persons and Properties untill the Seting of the Next General Court ...

A local militia, anticipating the rebels' strategy, already controlled the armory and quickly repelled the disjointed Shaysites. A few of the rebels were killed and wounded. Many more fled. The 3,000-strong government force led by Lincoln, made up of troops from Eastern Massachusetts, soon gave chase to the retreating Shaysites and, through brutal New England winter weather, routed the rest of Shays' men, capturing them or chasing them into neighboring states

By the end of February, Shays' Rebellion was quashed.

Shays' rebellion
This pillar of marble along the Appalachian Trail marks the last battle of Shays' Rebellion, Feb. 27, 1787.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

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The Fallout and What Came Next

Some 4,000 rebels confessed to a role in the insurrection in exchange for amnesty. Many others were tried, convicted and then pardoned under the more-lenient new governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock.

Two men were hanged for their part in the uprising, but Shays escaped, was pardoned and eventually settled into obscurity on a farm in New York.

The rebellion, though, was at least partially successful in one important way.

In the months during which the Shaysites were fighting and later scattering, Massachusetts and the rest of the states were engaging in another wider political debate on the very structure of the new United States. It was a debate between the federalists, who favored a stronger national government and believed that the Articles of Confederation were too weak for the new country, and the anti-federalists, who did not.

Famously during the rebellion, the retired general George Washington fretted that no mechanism existed in the country to protect Massachusetts if its government was facing overthrow.

Later in 1787 the states would meet in Philadelphia to draw up the U.S. Constitution, whose preamble "provides for the common defence" and which grants the federal government, in Section 8, "Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."

Two years later, Washington would be elected the country's first president.

Historians still debate the exact role that Shays' Rebellion played in the forming of the Constitution. But the grassroots agrarian uprising, as it's often described, against a powerful government is still a source of pride in large swaths of Massachusetts. Especially outside of Boston.

"I lived out in Western Massachusetts for a while," Drummey says, "and I thought that people in the western part of the state of Massachusetts have never, in some respect, gotten over Shays' Rebellion."

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