Shays' Rebellion was an armed uprising in Western Massachusetts that lasted from 1786 to 1787. Many of the rebels, known as Shaysites or Regulators, were small farmers angered by high debt and tax burdens. The rebellion started on August 29, 1786.
The crisis leading to the rebellion was precipitated by credit problems incurred after the American Revolutionary War, when many of the trade benefits of British colonialism vanished and British companies began to demand payment of debts. This debt ultimately trickled down to consumers, in large part small farmers. In addition, the tax system at the time was highly regressive. As a result, many small farmers were forced to sell their land to meet their debts, often less than 1/3 real price.
Furthermore, when Massachusetts rewrote its constitution in 1779, the towns of Western Massachusetts and modern-day Maine were unable to contribute to the final document and ratification because of extremely bad weather. The resulting feeling of disenfranchisement led to discussions of reform and/or secession in both areas.
Initially the farmers' response was primarily political, a demand for the printing of fiat money, which would cause inflation and therefore reduce the debt burden on the farmers. The farmers also demanded that debtor courts, which enforced many of the credit schemes at the time, be staffed by elected rather than appointed officials. These efforts were resisted and stymied by wealthy and influential parties, led by men like James Bowdoin who had strong control of the government because of the property eligibility requirements for office at the time. When Bowdoin was elected governor, many of the people in Western Massachusetts became restless.
Calling themselves Regulators, men from all over the western and central parts of the state began to agitate for change. Initial disturbances were mostly peaceful and centered primarily on freeing incarcerated farmers from debtor's prisons. In the late summer of 1786 the conflict escalated when armed Regulators shut down debtor courts in Northampton, Worcester, Concord, and elsewhere. After the passage of the Riot Act, the Regulators seized arms from the Springfield Armory. Militia groups called out to fight the Regulators often switched sides.
The rebellion eventually gelled into an organized army, led by one Daniel Shays, a farmer from East Pelham and a former captain in the Revolutionary Army. Another leader, Luke Day, was the son of a wealthy family in West Springfield. While the Regulators are usually thought of as a rabble of poor farmers, many of them were members of prominent local families, including the Dickensons of Amherst. In addition, many of the rebels were former soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.
The lack of a standing army under the government of the time (set up by the Articles of Confederation) forced the eastern elites to create a private army to quell what was becoming an increasingly effective rebellion. When the Regulators heard about the mercenary army, they planned to return to the federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts for more weapons. A column of rebels led by Luke Day was delayed by heavy snows, so the mercenaries arrived first and looted the arsenal. When the other column of Regulators arrive, an extended conflict between the rebels (of some 2000 men) and the opposing private army (of around 5400 men) followed. In the end, this "Battle of Springfield" resulted in a rebel defeat, although only four rebels were actually killed.
Shays and his followers were pursued by the mercenaries to Petersham, Massachusetts, where they were defeated on February 3, 1787. Shays and many of the leaders escaped to Vermont where they were sheltered by Ethan Allen and other prominent Vermonters. Vermont governor Thomas Chittenden is believed to have helped shelter these refugees while at the same time publicly decrying the practice. Shays himself was sentenced to death for treason but he and many other leaders were pardoned by the newly elected Massachusetts governor John Hancock. The breakup of this rebel army was followed by guerilla-style attacks on wealthy landowners, liberation of jailed farmers, arson and the like. The last known battle of this kind was fought in South Egremont. In the end, only two men, John Bly and Charles Rose were hanged for their part in the rebellion.
In exchange for amnesty, Shays' followers were banned from elected office for three years and were not allowed to serve on juries or vote. Eventually the force for the rebellion was dissipated both by an improving economy and by elections that replaced some incumbents with individuals sympathetic to the rebellion (including many of Shays' followers, despite the ban).
Later in 1787 twelve states sent delegates to a meeting in Philadelphia. Their purpose was to change the Articles of Confederation, but the subject changed to negotiations that were to lead to the United States Constitution. Fear of uprisings like Shays' Rebellion were a motivation for creating a strong central government, especially the creation of a standing federal army. In addition many states moved their capitals to rural regions, where state governments would be better informed of local events and better able to control such uprisings.
Shay's Rebellion strongly infuenced the decision to call for the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
- Richards, Leonard "Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle." (2002)