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The Roots of Shays’ Rebellion

The United States had emerged from the Revolutionary War as an independent nation, but independence brought with it hardship. This was certainly the case for many Massachusetts farmers who had fought in the war. When these farmers returned home, they found that they struggled to make ends meet.

Most of the soldiers who had fought in the war received little in the way of compensation. Even worse, many of the businesses that the farmers had previously dealt with were demanding immediate payment for goods that the farmers had previously traded for or had bought on credit. There was no paper money in circulation at the time, and the farmers did not have any access to gold or silver to pay off their debts. Along with the debts to local businesses, the Massachusetts State Government demanded its residents pay even more tax than they had paid to the British.

The farmers had mounting debt and taxes to pay. Since there was no paper money in circulation, they had no way to make money on their crops nor any way to pay off their debt. Authorities from the state capital of Boston began to arrest farmers and to foreclose on their farms.

Shays’ Rebellion Begins

This rebellion was, at first, a peaceful demonstration. Committees of leaders in the towns where the farms were located drafted documents of protest against the state government, and they proposed reforms that they believed the state government should enact. While there were peaceful actions like this happening, others began to take more direct action. In Northampton, a group of farmers led by Captain Joseph Hines blocked judges from entering the courthouse. While in Worcester, judges were blocked from entering the courthouse by a separate group of armed men. When the militia was called, these men refused to back down, and continued their blockade.

A depiction of the early days of Shays’ Rebellion.

Sometime during the summer of 1786, Captain Daniel Shays became involved in the rebellion. Shays had fought at Bunker Hill and a number of other memorable battles. In reality, Shays was one of a number of leaders of the rebellion. However, many farmers viewed Shays as the figurehead of their movement. Thus the rebellion became known as Shays’ Rebellion and those involved in the rebellion were known as Shaysites.

In September 1786, Shays brought a group of 600 men to the Springfield Courthouse. These men were determined to shut down the courthouse, but wanted to do so peacefully. Shays negotiated with General William Shepherd, head of the Massachusetts Militia, for the court to open in exchange for allowing the protestors to march. The court opened but soon shut down as they could not find any jurors to serve.

No Longer a Peaceful Rebellion

By the end of 1786, the situation had begun to escalate. In Boston, the state legislature passed a bill excusing sheriffs from legal punishment if they killed any of the insurgents (rebels). This bill also provided harsh punishments for any of the insurgents who were brought to justice. Another bill proscribed the death penalty for any of the militiamen who took part in the rebellion. In December 1786, a government militia attacked a farmer and his family, severely injuring the farmer in the process. This attack fanned the flames of the insurrection, helping to turn it into a violent rebellion.

In January 1787, Massachusetts Governor Bowdoin hired his own army. This army was privately funded by Boston businessmen and was approximately 4,000 men strong. The army, under the Command of General Benjamin Lincoln, was under orders to crush the insurgency.

Shays’ Rebellion Marches to Springfield Arsenal

Shays and the other leaders of the rebellion planned to raid the Federal Arsenal in Springfield for the purpose of getting more guns and ammunition. On a snowy day in January of 1787, 1,200 men marched on the arsenal, intent on securing weapons. Some carried rifles but many carried pitchforks and clubs.  

Springfield Armory, site of the final battle of Shays’ Rebellion

General Shepard had predicted that the insurgents would try to get weapons from the arsenal, and was waiting for them with his own army when they arrived. While this was happening, General Lincoln and his army were marching from Worcester to provide additional defense. However, there were two additional groups of insurgents marching to join the rebels. One group of 400 was marching from the north, while the other of 600 was coming from the Berkshires in the west.

General Shepard’s army fired two warning shots over the head of Shays and his men. They fired several more shots, but these shots killed a few of the rebels. Shays and the other rebels retreated immediately, with Shepard and Lincoln’s army in pursuit. Lincoln sent part of his army to head off the groups of rebels who were advancing to meet Shays. These rebels soon retreated as well, effectively ending the rebellion.

Most of the men involved in the rebellion were pardoned for their crimes. Shays fled first to Vermont and eventually settled in New York State, where he died in 1825. Governor Bowdoin lost the election in 1787. 

Legacy of Shays’ Rebellion

At the time of the rebellion, the United States government was defined by the Articles of Confederation. Many political leaders of the time viewed the Articles as too weak to successfully govern a nation for any length of time, and these leaders used Shays’ Rebellion as an example of why. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held and by 1789, the nation had drafted the Constitution, which provided the parameters for the federal government.

Shays’ Rebellion Fun Facts

  • While most men were pardoned, two men involved in the rebellion were executed afterwards.
  • Shays was condemned to death on a charge of treason He petitioned for amnesty in February 1788, and was pardoned by John Hancock on June 13.
  • Shays’ Rebellion is sometimes referred to as the Last Battle of the American Revolution.