In 1786, just three years after the United States won its independence from Britain, an armed rebellion broke out in the state of Massachusetts. The Shays Rebellion shook the new nation, and nudged it towards rewriting its entire system of government–producing the Constitution that we have today.
A contemporary newspaper engraving depicting Daniel Shays and one of his lieutenants.
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris granted independence to the British colonies in New England, and a new country was born, the United States of America. But the United States were anything but united. Although the colonists had fought side by side during the Revolutionary War, they did not think of themselves as “Americans”; rather, their basic loyalty went to the State in which they resided. One was a “Virginian” or a “Pennsylvanian” first, and only after that an “American”.
This attitude was even reflected in the Constitutional Congress, which found itself the de factogovernment of the United States after independence. Even before the war had been won, the Continental Congress had begun drafting a constitution for a new republic, eventually titled “The Articles of Confederation”, which was ratified by the Congress in 1781. The name was significant. The new government was barely a national government at all–it was instead a confederacy of virtually independent states, tied together by only the weakest of bonds and united by a government which the writers, who were still fighting a despotic central government and had no desire to set up another, had deliberately made weak and incapable of asserting itself against the States. When the US gained independence in 1783, the Articles of Confederation became the founding document of the United States.
There were immediate problems. The United States had large debts to France and Spain that it needed to pay off, but the US Congress did not have the power to tax and so was virtually bankrupt and barely able to pay anything–including the pensions for Continental Army veterans. There was no central court to adjudicate disputes between states over claims to land lying west of the Appalachian mountains. And there was no central banking system with a single mint or currency. When the Congress tried to negotiate a trade treaty with England, it could not get the individual states to agree to the terms, and every state soon began unilaterally imposing its own trade rules.
As a result, by 1786, the United States was a financial mess. Paper money was worthless, and creditors began demanding payment in silver or gold currency, a demand that was soon taken up by each state’s tax collectors. Most Americans at this time were poor rural farmers, and they had no hard currency. As a result, they soon found themselves unable to pay their creditors, and farmers watched as their crops, their livestock, their furniture, and finally their land were confiscated to be sold at auction to pay off their debts or taxes. It was an explosive situation.
The spark finally ignited in Massachusetts. A group of local militia members under the command of Daniel Shays, a 39-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War who had fought at Lexington, formed an armed vigilante group that surrounded and shut down the debtor’s court in Northampton in August 1786. They then threatened tax collectors, disrupted debt auctions, and closed down more debtor’s courts. The rebellion quickly spread to other colonies, with similar armed groups appearing all the way to South Carolina. In all, some 9,000 rebels, calling themselves “Regulators”, had taken up their muskets, identified by the hemlock twigs they placed in their hats. Most of these were in Massachusetts, where in the rural areas debtor’s courts could not operate at all, and in larger towns courts had to be protected by militia troops. In September 1786, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court itself, protected by militia, was surrounded by Shays and his troops, who made a show of marching and drilling before withdrawing. Rebels began openly calling for the overthrow of the Massachusetts State Government, declaring that it was completely controlled by wealthy merchants and landowners.
In Boston and other state capitols, there was panic. They were unable to trust their own local militias, and so asked the US Congress for troops. But Congress did not have the power (or the money) to act. It fell to the individual states to raise their own money to move reliable troops to the scene. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin (one of the richest men in the state), decrying the threat to “life, liberty and property”, declared a state of insurrection and sent a unit of militia under General Benjamin Lincoln (paid for by contributions from 125 Boston merchants) to meet Shays on the field. In response to the news that troops were approaching, Shays took his unit to the military arsenal at Springfield and attacked it in January 1787, hoping to capture a supply of muskets and ammunition to supply the entire countryside. Shays’ 1500 men were met outside the arsenal by General William Shepard and his 1200-man militia unit, who opened cannon fire, killing 4 of the rebels and wounding 20 more. When General Lincoln arrived, his troops then broke the strength of the rebellion in a series of skirmishes. Shays was forced to flee to Rhode Island. When the state of Massachusetts called for his extradition on treason charges, he then fled to Vermont, which was at that time still not a part of the United States.
In the aftermath of Shays Rebellion, the state of Massachusetts indicted over 200 rebels for treason. Two were hanged. Five more were sentenced to be hanged, but were granted a last-minute reprieve at the foot of the gallows in June 1787. Shays, still hiding in Vermont, was pardoned in 1788. By then the rebellion was over.
But the political fallout would continue. All of the States in the confederation had been shocked by the rebellions and by the utter inability of the Congress to deal with it. General George Washington himself wrote, “I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned in any country… What a triumph for the advocates of despotism, to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious.” Alexander Hamilton wrote a call for a new constitutional convention to modify the Articles of Confederation. This was echoed by others, and in June 1787 a gathering of delegates met in Philadelphia. At the suggestion of delegates from Virginia, the convention decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation entirely, and to write a new Constitution that would take most power away from the State Governments and give it to a stronger central Federal Government with an elected President as chief executive. During the debate that followed, Shays Rebellion was cited as an example of the need for a strong central government. James Madison declared, “The rebellion in Massachusetts is a warning, gentlemen”, and George Washington echoed, “There could be no stronger evidence of the want of energy in our governments than these disorders.” The US Constitution was signed in September 1787 and went into effect in 1789.