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Shays Rebellion

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Shays Rebellion

An armed protest over oppressive taxation policies and a lack of representation in government, battling militias and rebels with casualties on both sides. What sounds like an event from the American Revolution is an event that ends the first attempt at a federal government in the United States. By exposing the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, Shays’ Rebellion forced a young nation to reevaluate the purpose and function of a central government. What caused Shays’ rebellion? What happened during it? Finally, what was its significance?

Daniel Shays' Rebellion forces repulsed from the arsenal at Springfield. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public DomainA depiction of Daniel Shays and the Regulators repulsed from the arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts by C. Kendrick, 1902. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Causes of Shays’ Rebellion

National and state economic and political turmoil created the roots of the unrest that erupted in Massachusetts in 1786.

In creating a “loose friendship of states,” as was the goal of the Articles of Confederation, the powers given to the national government were purposefully weak and limited. After the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the fledgling United States found itself in an economic crisis.

CauseExplanation
Retaliatory Economic Practices by Britain
  • These practices by Britain, the nation's most important trading partner created an economic crash in the U.S.
  • England could sell imported goods for less than U.S. goods, place tariffs on U.S. exports, and as a result, cause rampant inflation and economic hardship in the American states
Limits from the Articles of Confederation
  • The economic power of the federal government was restricted
  • Congress could not levy taxes or tariffs or force states to honor their trade obligations
  • Though the federal government had the power to conduct war against foreign nations, it did not have the power or tools to conduct an economic war
  • The power to tax was a state power that struggled to influence the international market.
Several states were in debt
  • States were in debt due to the more significant national economic crisis and being obligated to pay off the liabilities of the American Revolutionary War
  • States began to raise taxes, establish debtors' courts to prosecute those who could not pay off their debts, and manipulate their state currencies to stave off inflation
  • States held the obligation to pay soldiers their back wages from their enlistments in the Continental Army
  • Some states lived up to these obligations while others defaulted or did not pay them outright

The underlying issue with these problems was that the government under the Articles of Confederation had no means of alleviating the crises.

Shays’ Rebellion Summary

The economic issues infecting the nation and states boil over in Massachusetts. To pay off debts, Massachusetts raised taxes, especially targeting farmers in western Massachusetts. This was partly due to a lack of representation in the state legislature and the power eastern merchants had in lobbying the government to assist in paying off creditors. Due to the collapsing economy, many Western farmers had to barter or go into personal debt to get the tools and goods they needed. Additionally, many of these farmers were veterans of the American Revolution, who lacked back paid salaries, some of whom received no pay.

The “Regulators”

Farmers in western Massachusetts failed to pay their taxes and debts and saw their properties foreclosed. The state established debtors’ prisons for those farmers whose properties did not meet their debt obligations. Many farmers found the system wholly unfair, especially when the debtors’ courts would be funded by the sale of the foreclosed properties, incentivizing the court system to increase taxes, refuse debt relief, and foreclose more properties, creating a predatory cycle.

These farmers and former soldiers, such as Captain Daniel Shays, saw these actions as a betrayal of the state government to its people. The Massachusetts government had failed to pay them their enlisted salaries and now attacked their livelihoods. For many of these veteran farmers, the oppression felt much like the British rule before the war. In August 1786, a group of farmers sent a petition, called the Lunenburg Petition, to the state government requesting debt relief. The legislature adjourned without recognizing their petition. In response, 1,000 farmers marched in protest to the town of Northampton and obstructed the court from continuing foreclosure cases. These farmers called themselves the “Regulators.”

The Rebellion Spreads

The Regulators' success in Northampton on August 29, 1786, spread to other conventions of distraught farmers in western Massachusetts, and the protest actions spread to other courts in the state. These protests were primarily peaceful demonstrations, and by the end of 1786, the Regulators had successfully stopped ten debtors' court proceedings. The goal of the Regulators was to stop enough courts to force the legislature into agreeing to their demands of lower taxes, use of paper money - not a foreclosure of property, and debt relief.

On September 28, 1786, a special session of the state legislature began to attempt to address the Regulators' concerns. While the government offered some concessions, such as reducing court fees and allowing local courts to have jurisdiction over debt cases, the government rejected the main grievances of debt relief and paper money.

While the legislature was in session, the Regulators under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a Captain in the Continental Army and aggrieved farmer, began a plot to seize an arsenal of weapons in Springfield, Massachusetts. Their scheme, however, did not remain a secret as the Regulators negotiated with the local militia not to protect the stash of weapons when they arrived to claim it. In early January 1787, retired General Benjamin Lincoln raised funds to pay a militia of 3,000 men to defend the arsenal at Springfield and suppress the rebellious Regulators.

Daniel Shays’ and the Rebellion Erupts

Shays’ led his 1,500 men on a march towards Springfield to seize the weapons and overthrow the government. Shays’ men arrived at the armory on January 25, 1787 and encountered 1,200 militia under the command of Major General William Shepard. As the Regulators approached, Shepard fired a warning shot of cannon fire, with no response. Shepard opened up again with cannon fire, striking the Regulator troops, killing four and wounding 20. Shays’ and his forces fled Springfield, being pursued by Shepard's militia. In February 1787, Shepard attempted a peaceful negotiation with Shays, only to have Shays and his Regulators escape once more. Benjamin Lincoln marched additional forces to assist Shepard. They were able to capture many of the Regulators at their camp near the town of Petersham, but Shays himself and others had fled.

Shays’ and the remaining Regulators scattered into neighboring states seeking shelter with sympathetic citizens. A few skirmishes quelled the rebellion over the coming year by early February. Though exiled for most of the year, after the national response to this rebellion settled, Daniel Shays’ was pardoned in 1788 and allowed to return to Massachusetts.

Shays’ Rebellion Significance

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."

-Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, his thoughts on the ongoing rebellion in Massachusetts, January 1787.

Shays’ Rebellion and the rebellion of the Regulators in Massachusetts was the death knell for the Articles of Confederation and the government it created. The actions of Massachusetts before and after the uprising and the lack of action or ability to act by the Federal government led to a growing movement for governmental reforms. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no means of helping its citizens financially through taxation. Congress had no authority to force Massachusetts to honor its obligations to pay veterans their pay or regulate the state’s taxation practices. Congress had no means of a judiciary to allow citizens to allow their grievances to be heard by a national justice system. And Congress had no power to fund a military to assist in quelling the rebellion.

These restrictions and the inability to act during the months of Shays’ rebellion led to the formation of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in May 1787. Its original purpose was to amend the Articles of Confederation. But many delegates, such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and others, would arrive at the convention with ideas of creating an entirely new government system, which would become the U.S. Constitution.

Shays Rebellion - Key takeaways

  • National and state economic and political turmoil created the roots of the unrest that erupted in Massachusetts in 1786.

  • Farmers in western Massachusetts failed to pay their taxes and debts and saw their properties foreclosed. The state established debtors’ prisons for those farmers whose properties did not meet their debt obligations.

  • These farmers and former soldiers, such as Captain Daniel Shays, saw these actions as a betrayal of the state government to its people.

  • 1,000 farmers marched in protest to the town of Northampton and obstructed the court from continuing foreclosure cases. These farmers called themselves the “Regulators.”

  • Shays’ led his 1,500 men on a march towards Springfield to seize the weapons and overthrow the government. Shays’ men arrived at the armory on January 25, 1787, and encountered 1,200 militia under the command of Major General William Shepard.

  • Shepard opened up again with cannon fire, striking the Regulator troops, killing four and wounding 20. Shays’ and his forces fled Springfield, being pursued by Shepard's militia.

  • Shays’ Rebellion and the rebellion of the Regulators in Massachusetts was the death knell for the Articles of Confederation and the government it created.

  • These restrictions and the inability to act during the months of Shays’ rebellion led to the formation of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in May 1787.


“From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 30 January 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-11-02-0095. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 11, 1 January–6 August 1787, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955, pp. 92–97.]

Cleve, V. G. W. (2017). We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.

Frequently Asked Questions about Shays Rebellion

An uprising in western Massachusetts in opposition to high taxes and stringent economic conditions that resulted in a violent clash between rebellious farmers and state militia.  

Unfair taxation and debt policies in Massachusetts that targeted poor farmers and veterans of the Continental Army. 

Protests by farmers began in September of 1786, but the clash between Daniel Shays and his forces with militia took place on January 25, 1787. 

Shays Rebellion exposed the weaknesses of the national government under the Articles of Confederation and led many to move for a new form of federal government. 

Unfair taxation and debt policies in Massachusetts that targeted poor farmers and veterans of the Continental Army.  Protests to stop courts from foreclosing farms, and an inability for the national government under the Articles of Confederation to act to stop the rebellion. 

Final Shays Rebellion Quiz

Question

Why did Massachusetts raise taxes on farmers? 

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Answer

To pay off creditors and debts

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Question

What did the farmers who protested the taxation and foreclosures call themselves? 

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Answer

The Regulators

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Question

Which of the following caused the debt of the state of Massachusetts? 

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Answer

Retaliatory economic practices by Britain

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Question

Farmers who could not afford to pay off their debts and whose property could not cover the costs, ended up where? 

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Answer

Debtors Prison

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Question

How were debtors' courts funded? 

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Answer

By the sale of foreclosed property

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Question

Why did farmers in western Massachusetts struggle to pay their debts? 

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Answer

Higher taxation rates

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Question

What was the name of the petition sent to the State legislature requesting debt relief and the use of paper money to pay off debts? 

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Answer

The Lunenburg Petition 

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Question

True or False: The Regulators were successful in stopping foreclosure courts and forcing the State Legislature to convene to hear their grievances. 

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Answer

True

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Question

Who became the leader of the Regulators who moved to overthrow the Massachusetts government? 

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Answer

Daniel Shays

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Question

What was the outcome of the Regulators under Shays command when they attempted to take the arsenal at Springfield? 

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Answer

They were fired upon by militia, killing 4 and wounding 20, causing the Regulators to flee. 

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Question

What was the fate of Daniel Shays? 

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Answer

He fled into exile in nearby states until he was pardoned in 1788. 

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Question

What was the significance of Shays Rebellion? 

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Answer

The lack of response and the ability to respond to the crisis by the Federal government exposed the weaknesses of the government, convincing many that a new form of government was needed. 

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