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Shays's Rebellion (1786)


The great debate among Americans before, during, and after the War for American Independence was whether a state based on liberty and freedom made unnecessary a central power, or whether liberty and freedom were inherent rights frequently trampled upon by others, hence demanding an orderly government to secure and protect them. In western Massachusetts, where the Berkshire Mountains and huge stands of virgin forest separated the few small towns of farmers, the feeling was, the less government the better. These people struggled to make ends meet, to provide the basic essentials for their families. Their desire for self-sufficiency led to a fierce independence. They had no love for government, and indeed feared that the natural tendency of government to order and secure the lives of the majority would take away their freedoms. These farmers, such as Daniel Gray and Thomas Grover, grew angry in the mid-1780s as the State of Massachusetts imposed more taxes to pay its debts, and allowed local law enforcement officials—sheriffs, constables, justices of the peace—the power to enforce the will of the government, to arrest those who refused to pay taxes and fomented rebellion, and to imprison those who were in debt and had no means to pay their creditors.

The exasperated farmers of western Massachusetts found their hero, as it were, in one Daniel Shays, who led them to desperate measures, intending to take the matters of self-government into their own hands. The result was Shays's Rebellion. Starting in Boston, this was an attempt to wrestle control from the State of Massachusetts. The rebellion was ruthlessly put down, and order secured in western Massachusetts. Yet Shays's Rebellion served as a reminder to conservative statesmen that the Articles of Confederation did not give enough authority to the central government, thus encouraging such anarchy.

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See also Debt, Imprisonment for ; Shays's Rebellion .

An ADDRESS to the People of the several towns in the country of Hampshire, now at arms.


We have thought proper to inform you of some of the principal causes of the late risings of the people, and also of their present movement, viz.

  1. The present expensive mode of collecting debts, which by reason of the great scarcity of cash, will of necessity fill our gaols with unhappy debtors; and thereby a reputable body of people rendered incapable of being serviceable either to themselves or the community.
  2. The monies raised by impost and excise being appropriated to discharge the interest of govern-mental securities, and not the foreign debt, when these securities are not subject to taxation.
  3. A suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus, by which those persons who have stepped forth to assert and maintain the rights of the people, are liable to be taken and conveyed even to the most distant part of the Commonwealth, and thereby subjected to an unjust punishment.
  4. The unlimited power granted to Justices of the Peace and Sheriffs, Deputy Sheriffs, and Constables, by the Riot Act, indemnifying them to the prosecution thereof; when perhaps, wholly actuated from a principle of revenge, hatred, and envy.

Furthermore, Be assured, that this body, now at arms, despise the idea of being instigated by British emissaries, which is so strenuously propagated by the enemies of our liberties: And also wish the most proper and speedy measures may be taken, to discharge both our foreign and domestick debt.

Per Order,
Chairman of the Committee.

2. To the Printer of the Hampshire Herald. SIR,

It has some how or other fallen to my lot to be employed in a more conspicuous manner than some others of my fellow citizens, in stepping forth on defence of the rights and privileges of the people, more especially of the country of Hampshire.

Therefore, upon the desire of the people now at arms, I take this method to publish to the world of mankind in general, particularly the people of this Commonwealth, some of the principal grievances we complain of, …

In the first place, I must refer you to a draught of grievances drawn up by a committee of the people, now at arms, under the signature of Daniel Gray, chairman, which is heartily approved of; some others also are here added, viz.

  1. The General Court, for certain obvious reasons, must be removed out of the town of Boston.
  2. A revision of the constitution is absolutely necessary.
  3. All kinds of governmental securities, now on interest, that have been bought of the original owners for two shillings, and the highest for six shillings and eight pence on the pound, and have received more interest than the principal cost the speculator who purchased them—that if justice was done, we verily believe, nay positively know, it would save this Commonwealth thousands of pounds.
  4. Let the lands belonging to this Commonwealth, at the eastward, be sold at the best advantage to pay the remainder of our domestick debt.
  5. Let the monies arising from impost and excise be appropriated to discharge the foreign debt.
  6. Let that act, passed by the General Court last June by a small majority of only seven, called the Supplementary Act, for twenty-five years to come, be repealed.
  7. The total abolition of the Inferiour Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace.
  8. Deputy Sheriffs totally set aside, as a useless set of officers in the community; and Constables who are really necessary, be empowered to do the duty, by which means a large swarm of lawyers will be banished from their wonted haunts, who have been more damage to the people at large, especially the common farmers, than the savage beasts of prey.

To this I boldly sign my proper name, as a hearty wellwisher to the real rights of the people.

Worcester, December 7, 1786.

SOURCE: Minot, George R. The History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts in the Year 1786 and The Rebellion Consequent Thereon, second ed. Boston: James W. Burditt, 1810.

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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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Shays's Rebellion


SHAYS'S REBELLION, an agrarian rebellion centered in Massachusetts and committed to debt relief for small farmers and rural artisans, August 1786–June 1787. Though former Continental Army Captain Daniel Shays was its nominal leader, the rebellion was relatively loose and decentralized.

After the American Revolution, the new United States suffered from a severe cash-flow problem. Merchants no longer enjoyed access to British markets and were stuck with large inventories. Unable to repay English creditors, they demanded money from numerous customers carrying small debts. At the same time, the state and Confederation governments were raising taxes to fund their own war debts.

Thus farmers and rural artisans, who were accustomed to a barter economy, owed creditors and tax collectors cash they did not have. As the economy worsened, they increasingly found themselves hauled into debtors'

courts or prisons. (Shays himself was sued twice.) Beginning in 1784, members of an inchoate agrarian movement peacefully proposed through town petitions and county conventions that states issue paper money or pass tender laws, which would allow debt payment in goods and services as well as hard currency. But with the exception of Rhode Island, New England's legislatures were dominated by commercial interests and refused to enact reform.

In the late summer and fall of 1786, armed Shaysites, adopting the symbols and rhetoric of the Revolution, started raiding and closing down various courts, aiming to suspend debt collection until states addressed their grievances. An estimated 9,000 people throughout New England participated in these early stages of rebellion.

Legislators reacted aggressively, arresting a number of Shaysites, calling out militias, suspending habeas corpus, and passing harsh laws, including the Riot Act (limiting public assembly) and the Treason Act (penalizing anti-government violence by death). Unable to requisition money to raise a proposed federal militia, local merchants funded an army of local troops.

In January, the Shaysites abandoned their policy of raiding courthouses in favor of wider rebellion. Talking now about overthrowing state government and not simply reforming debtors' courts and the tax system, about 2,500 farmers and artisans attacked the Massachusetts state arsenal at Springfield. The Shaysites were easily defeated in battle, but over the next four months small bands raided market towns such as Stockbridge and Great Barrington, kidnapping and terrorizing lawyers, merchants, military leaders, and politicians.

By June, however, the hostilities had come to an end. A number of frustrated rebels, including Shays, moved farther West where they could continue subsistence farming. In addition, the new legislature and a new governor passed a one-year tender act, and the economy started to show signs of improvement.

The rebellion, which was winding down as the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May, helped the federalists gain control of the proceedings. Convinced that unchecked democracy and a weak national government would enable a tyranny of the majority, the delegates wrote a constitution that rolled back some of the most radical revolutionary reforms by providing for a strong, indirectly elected president, an indirectly elected senate, and appointed judges.


Szatmary, David. Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Taylor, Robert Joseph. Western Massachusetts in the Revolution. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1954.


See alsoConstitution of the United States ; Insurrections, Domestic ; andvol. 9:Shays's Rebellion .

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Shays's Rebellion

Shays's Rebellion (1786–87).After the Revolutionary War, soldiers of the Continental army were demobilized with little or no pay; whatever “Continental notes” they received could be exchanged only at an enormous discount, and the very states that had approved their issue did not accept them as payment of taxes. Officers eventually received compensation, including land in the Ohio Territory, but by 1786 the plight of the former soldiery was dire, especially in rural Massachusetts, where veterans and farmers suffered most from both the postwar depression and the radical deficit reduction plan of the conservative new governor, James Bowdoin. That year, in western Massachusetts, where many believed they had lost significant political representation under the state constitution of 1780, scores of rural towns petitioned for relief but received none.

In September 1786, a movement called “the Regulation” began across western Massachusetts: whenever the circuit courts were scheduled to meet, between 500 and 2,000 men gathered and marched in a military manner on each court, with the stated aim of postponing the seizure of properties until after the next gubernatorial election. Over the next five months, under an indeterminate, changing leadership, the “Regulators,” armed with clubs and muskets, converged upon Northampton, Springfield, Worcester, and other towns where the courts were scheduled to sit, surrounding the courthouses to keep them closed. Until the last of these protests, there were no casualties.

This widespread movement resembled traditional protests, but those who wanted to establish a national constitution depicted it as anarchy. Gen. Henry Knox, Massachusetts‐born secretary of war for the Continental Congress, traveled to Springfield after the first Regulation to consider the safety of the weapons stored there in the undefended Continental Arsenal. It was Knox, writing to Congress, who first declared that this “rebellion” was led by former Capt. Daniel Shays. Knox, like other nationalists, welcomed an opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of a federal government and a permanent standing army; he proclaimed to Congress and to his mentor, Gen. George Washington, that the “rebels”' goal was to share all private property as “the common property of all,” “to annihilate all debts, public and private,” and to foment a “civil war.” Since the treasuries of both Massachusetts and Congress were empty, Knox helped Bowdoin solicit wealthy Boston merchants to finance an expeditionary force of 4,400 volunteers led by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to quell the “rebellion.” At the Springfield Arsenal on 24–25 January 1787, Lincoln's forces overwhelmed some 1,500 Regulators, led by Captains Daniel Shays, Luke Day, and Eli Parsons. With the first cannon fired, three Regulators were killed and the rest fled. In pursuit, Lincoln captured a number of Regulators for trial; later, two were hanged.

These mostly peaceable protests provoked alarm that the movement could spread across the thirteen states. This concern helped persuade the states to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, and to create a central U.S. government better equipped to deal with similar economic and social problems.
[See also Revolutionary War: Postwar Impact.]


Robert Feer , Shays' Rebellion, 1958; repr. 1988.
David Szatmary , Shays's Rebellion, 1980.

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Shays's Rebellion

Shays's Rebellion, 1786–87, armed insurrection by farmers in W Massachusetts against the state government. Debt-ridden farmers, struck by the economic depression that followed the American Revolution, petitioned the state senate to issue paper money and to halt foreclosure of mortgages on their property and their own imprisonment for debt as a result of high land taxes. Sentiment was particularly high against the commercial interests who controlled the state senate in Boston, and the lawyers who hastened the farmers' bankruptcy by their exorbitant fees for litigation. When the state senate failed to undertake reform, armed insurgents in the Berkshire Hills and the Connecticut valley, under the leadership of Daniel Shays and others, began (Aug., 1786) forcibly to prevent the county courts from sitting to make judgments for debt. In September they forced the state supreme court at Springfield to adjourn. Early in 1787, Gov. James Bowdoin appointed Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to command 4,400 men against the rebels. Before these troops arrived at Springfield, Gen. William Shepard's soldiers there had repelled an attack on the federal arsenal. The rebels, losing several men, had dispersed, and Lincoln's troops pursued them to Petersham, where they were finally routed. Shays escaped to Vermont. Most of the leaders were pardoned almost immediately, and Shays was finally pardoned in June, 1788. The rebellion influenced Massachusetts's ratification of the U.S. Constitution; it also swept Bowdoin out of office and achieved some of its legislative goals.

See G. R. Minot, History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts in 1786 (1788, repr. 1971); R. J. Taylor, Western Massachusetts in the Revolution (1954, repr. 1967); M. L. Starkey, A Little Rebellion (1955); D. P. Szatmary, Shays' Rebellion (1980).

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