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Shays' Rebellion

Shays' Rebellion (1786-87) and the Constitution



The Rebellion That Was Almost A Revolution

The type of wealthy house that poor farmers resented
Everyone knows about the group of armed rebels who stood up to the English at the battles of Lexington and Concord. They have been forever memorialized in American History as the first patriots who fought for the liberty we enjoy today.

Some of these same minutemen, only ten years after staging an uprising against British rule, gathered together in an armed attack against the newly formed government of the United States of America. The situation was so serious that the commonwealth of Massachusetts declared itself in a "state of war."

Why did they attack the government they had fought so bravely to create?

If America was founded on one steady principle, it has been the love of money. Money was at the center of these farmers' problems; more precisely it was the lack of money that drove them into rebellion.

The leader of the movement, a farmer named Daniel Shay, came from the same background as most of the farmers. Born into poverty, he worked hard to purchase his small farm. He joined the rebels in their war against England, and became a captain in the Continental Army. He fought so well that the famous French general Marquis de Lafayette presented him with a special sword brought from France.

After the war, he returned to his farm in Pelham and quickly fell into debt. He had to sell his treasured sword to keep out of debtor's prison. Like most farmers around, Shays was taxed by the government beyond his means. Many farmers had their livestock confiscated, only to find out that they were still in debt because of the interest owed. The farmers had no government outlet to complain, because by law, to be a politician you had to be very wealthy. Since most of the wealth of Massachusetts lay in Boston and the eastern part of the state, the western farmers found themselves with no representation in government. This was the same complaint the American colonists had placed against their British rulers: "No taxation without representation!"

The last straw for Shays was when a neighbor of his, a woman sick in bed and too weak to work to pay off her mounting debt, suffered a terrible injustice at the hands of government tax collectors. They removed her bed from beneath her as payment.

This is NOT the Amherst tavern where Shays planned his rebellion
Something had to be done! Had they fought for years against the British only to inherit new American kings and queens who could take their hard earned money through taxation? Would they again be ruled by a government in which they had no representation? Many veterans of the Revolutionary War could not hold office or even vote!

This is
In August of 1786, in the spirit of Lexington and Concord, hundreds of armed farmers marched to the county courts to stop the seizing of their property. They were accused of treason, acting out against their own democracy. Here is what farmer Adam Wheeler had to say in response:

"I earnestly step forth in defense of this country . . . my motive is not to destroy public government, [but to stop] valuable and industrious members of society dragged from their farms to prison, to the great damage of not only their families but to the community at large."

The crowds of armed farmers successfully stopped court meetings in Northampton, Worcester, Concord, and Great Barrington. The next stage was the State Supreme Court, which held its meetings in the capital of Massachusetts.

POP Quiz! Dudes and dudettes, what IS the capital of Massachusetts? I'll give you a hint; it's got the same name as the hometown of the Simpsons.

Even the Springfield court was shut down for three days!
For three days they prevented the Supreme Court from meeting, until finally the Massachusetts government backed down and allowed them to live free from the burden of debt.

Some very wealthy men in Boston were not too happy with this decision. Bankers, landowners, and conservative politicians decided to fight Shays and his fellow farmers. They bought their own army, paying 4,400 soldiers and supplying them with the newest rifles and cannons.

While Shays' army of farmers was high in number, they were no match for these well-armed mercenaries. The muskets the farmers owned had been used in the Revolutionary War ten years before, and only about one quarter of the farmers carried guns. The rest fought with farm tools and clubs.

The farmers were determined to defend themselves and their property. If the paid army overpowered them and reinstated the courts, they would lose their farms and many would be sent to debtor's prison. Their only chance was to get hold of a lot of guns and cannons.

In January of 1787, they marched to Springfield, Massachusetts, which as we all know by now is the capital of Massachusetts. Nearby the same Supreme Court building they had closed down four months before, lay the largest collection of arms in the state. The National Armory is a giant brick building that was built during the Revolutionary War to store all the weapons for the American government. It had a substantial collection of cannons, rifles, and artillery. If the farmers could get their hands on them, those weapons of war would turn them from insurgents to a real army.

Shays' farmer army needed weapons. The National Armory was the place to get 'em
They were met at the entrance to the National Armory by a small army with some big guns. Despite the looming threat of a Howitzer cannon pointed in their faces, the farmers marched forward. The men protecting the armory recognized many of the faces coming toward them as friends they had fought alongside in the Revolutionary War. No one wanted to shoot their friends or neighbors.

It was easier to light the fuse to a cannon then pull the trigger of a musket. The first shot from the cannon came out high above their heads. The next two were also shot high, an attempt to scare the farmers away from the armory. But the farmers marched on, defying the paid army and the powerful bankers whom they represented. Some farmers were sure that their friends defending the armory would join them once they reached the inner gate. That hope ended with the next shot from the cannons.

The cannon ball tore right through the middle of the band of farmers. Four bodies suddenly lay bloodied on the ground. The farmers wanted to keep their land, but they did not want to die. They scattered and got as far away from the cannons as possible.

This was really the end of the rebellion. Shays and his remaining men surrendered a week later. He was put on trial and sentenced to death for treason, although the next governor of Massachusetts pardoned him. Shays returned to his wife and lived the rest of his life on his farm.

Here is what Thomas Jefferson had to say about the rebellion:

"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 . . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Although Shays' Rebellion did not result in the installation of a new government, it did affect the way in which the United States Constitution was put together. After almost experiencing the overthrow of a fledgling democracy, our founding fathers decided that having a strong central government was important.

But why was it important? Did they want to "promote justice and ensure domestic tranquility" or have an armed force capable of squashing any rebellion against the rich?

Here is what Samuel Adams, who made himself a legend in the Revolution by rousing up the people of Boston against British rule, said about Shays and his followers:

"The man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."

Ten years after he himself was considered a rebel, Sam Adams was on the other side of the political fence. He created the Riot Act, which allowed anybody who rioted against the government to be jailed without trial.

Where was this new country heading? In May of 1787, the framers of the Constitution gathered in Philadelphia to answer that very question. As they headed off to Philly in their horse drawn carriages, the news of insurrection in Massachusetts was fresh in everyone's minds.

Check out my next dispatch to find out what went down in Philadelphia.


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - "President for Life" and other Constitutional Convention bloopers …
Becky - When politicians wore guns …
Daphne - Just what were they fighting for?
Making A Difference - One nation under…corporate control?
Team - How constitutional is the Constitution?
Kevin - Democracy: use it or lose it!