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Drafting the Constitution

15a. Shays' Rebellion

Northampton courthouse
The modern day Northampton courthouse, built in 1884 on the same site as the courthouse where Shays' Rebellion occurred.

The crisis of the 1780s was most intense in the rural and relatively newly settled areas of central and western Massachusetts. Many farmers in this area suffered from high debt as they tried to start new farms. Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn't respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money). As a result local sheriffs seized many farms and some farmers who couldn't pay their debts were put in prison.

These conditions led to the first major armed rebellion in the post-Revolutionary United States. Once again, Americans resisted high taxes and unresponsive government that was far away. But this time it was Massachusetts's settlers who were angry with a republican government in Boston, rather than with the British government across the Atlantic.

The farmers in western Massachusetts organized their resistance in ways similar to the American Revolutionary struggle. They called special meetings of the people to protest conditions and agree on a coordinated protest. This led the rebels to close courts by force in the fall of 1786 and to liberate imprisoned debtors from jail. Soon events flared into a full-scale revolt when the resistors came under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army. This was the most extreme example of what could happen in the tough times brought on by the economic crisis. Some thought of the Shaysites (named after their military leader) as heroes in the direct tradition of the American Revolution, while many others saw them as dangerous rebels whose actions might topple the young experiment in republican government.

Insurgents of Shays' Rebellion
Patriots or traitors? Farmers from western Massachusetts followed petitions for economic relief with insurgency in the fall of 1786. A group of protestors, led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, began a 6 month rebellion by taking over the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton; the goal was to prevent the trial and imprisonment of debt-ridden citizens.

James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts, was clearly in the latter group. He organized a military force funded by eastern merchants, to confront the rebels. This armed force crushed the movement in the winter of 1786-1787 as the Shaysites quickly fell apart when faced with a strong army organized by the state. While the rebellion disintegrated quickly, the underlying social forces that propelled such dramatic action remained. The debtors' discontent was widespread and similar actions occurred on a smaller scale in Maine (then still part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania among others places.

While Governor Bowdoin had acted decisively in crushing the rebellion, the voters turned against him in the next election. This high level of discontent, popular resistance, and the election of pro-debtor governments in many states threatened the political notions of many political and social elites. Shays' Rebellion demonstrated the high degree of internal conflict lurking beneath the surface of post-Revolutionary life. National leaders felt compelled to act to put an end to such popular actions that took place beyond the bounds of law.

On the Web
The Springfield Armory
In 1787, poor farmers from western Massachusetts fighting against high taxes followed Daniel Shays in an attempt to seize the arms stockpiled at the Springfield Armory. Learn more about the Armory and its role in Massachusetts history here.
History of the Militia in America
The rights of the militia date back to the uprising of Shays and his followers. You'll find answers to all your questions about the history of militia law from Shays' Rebellion to the Constitution. Plus a short bibliography of other helpful sources on the militia and military history.
Shays' Rebellion and the Constitution
Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death. Samuel Adams was not alone in his ideas against the unrest in Massachusetts in the 1780s. Find out what Governor Bowdoin and even Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Washington had to say about the rebellion brewing in western Massachusetts.
Radicalism of the American Revolution
How does radicalism and the Revolution define America? A history professor from Villanova University presents some of her thoughts with replies from 8 other professors from around the world.
Surely Shays must be either a weak man, the dupe of some characters who are yet behind the curtain, or has been deceived by his followers. -George Washington in a letter to Henry Knox, 1787
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I had a vision, and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened, the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams. -Nat Turner
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People throughout history have felt the need to take up arms against their government. For this reason and others, the government has made laws regulating citizens' rights to bear arms. Read this appendix to the David Koresh investigation to find out what role Shays' Rebellion played in the formation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
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