AP®︎/College US History
Armed rebellion in the newly-formed United States of America led to the creation of a stronger central government.
- In August 1786, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays led an armed rebellion in Springfield, Massachusetts to protest what he perceived as the unjust economic policies and political corruption of the Massachusetts state legislature.
- Shays’s Rebellion exposed the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation and led many—including George Washington—to call for strengthening the federal government in order to put down future uprisings.
- The rebellion, which revived the rhetoric of the American revolution, shaped debate over the proper scope and authority of the US government that ultimately resulted in the creation of the US Constitution.
Daniel Shays and the plight of farmers and veterans
In the eighteenth century, farmers in western Massachusetts were outraged at the taxes levied by a distant and unsympathetic government; they rebelled. The government responded by attempting to suppress the rebellion.
If you thought the government in the description is Great Britain, think again! The rebellion described above did not occur in 1776, nor did it involve Great Britain. The farmers in question—led by the very revolutionaries who had fought against such taxes in the American war for independence—were rebelling against taxes imposed by the state government of Massachusetts.
Daniel Shays, born in Massachusetts in 1747 to Irish immigrants, was a landless farm laborer when the Revolutionary War broke out. He joined the local militia, fought in the Battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Lexington, and rose to the rank of captain in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment. He was wounded in battle and never got paid for his military service. When in 1780 he returned home to Brookfield, a rural area west of Boston, he found that he was being taken to court for debts that went unpaid while he was off fighting the war. Since he had not been compensated for his service, he had no way of paying these debts.
Poor quality engraving depicting Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck in Revolutionary-era garb.
After attending several town meetings, Shays discovered that many other veterans and farmers were in the same situation. They banded together to petition the Massachusetts state legislature for debt relief. The legislature was at that time dominated by Eastern banking and merchant elites who did not understand the plight of rural communities. All proposals for debt relief were rejected.
Massachusetts Governor John Hancock—signer of the Declaration of Independence—had refused to prosecute debtors for back taxes. But, in early 1785—perhaps anticipating trouble ahead—he resigned his post, claiming poor health. He was replaced by James Bowdoin, who took a much more confrontational approach. While Bowdoin initiated civil actions to collect delinquent tax debts, the state legislature imposed even more taxes.
Shays’s Rebellion and its consequences
The protest movement, in which Shays took active part and eventually assumed a leadership role, revived the rhetoric of the American revolution and the colonists’ grievances with British rule. Rural laborers opposed the economic policies and perceived corruption of Massachusetts state politics. Having just fought a revolution inspired in large part by opposition to British tax policies, they resented the state’s levying of burdensome taxes and the onerous terms of credit imposed by the banks. Job Shattuck, a farmer from Groton, led a protest in 1782, during which he and his followers physically prevented tax collectors from collecting on rural workers. The following year, in the town of Uxbridge, a mob seized confiscated property and returned it to its former owners.
In August 1786, the Massachusetts legislature adjourned without addressing the petitions for debt relief from the state’s rural communities. On August 29, a group of protestors, calling themselves the Regulators, converged on Northampton to stop the county court from convening.
In response, Governor Bowdoin drew up contingency plans to use the militia to quash any such actions in the future. On September 5, protestors shut down the court in Worcester and Governor Bowdoin ordered the militia to quell the protest. The militia, however, sympathized with the protestors and refused the governor’s order, leading Bowdoin to recruit and fund a new private militia.
On January 25, 1787, Shays led a group of nearly 1,200 protestors on a march to the federal armory in Springfield. Bowdoin’s private militia was waiting for them, and the resulting skirmish left four of Shays’s followers dead and 20 wounded.
Popular uprisings like Shays’s rebellion raised the urgent question of whether the democratic governments formed after the American Revolution could survive. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had extremely limited powers. It did not have the authority to fund troops to suppress the rebellion, nor was it empowered to regulate commerce and thereby mitigate the economic hardships of rural workers. General George Washington came out of retirement to promote a strong national government that would be capable of dealing effectively with popular discontent.
Shays’s rebellion led Washington and other Nationalists— including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison—to proclaim the Articles of Confederation inadequate and urge support for the Constitution produced by the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The specter of armed upheavals like that led by Shays strengthened the convention delegates’ conviction that the national government needed to be more powerful. Moreover, it changed the opinion of those delegates who had been arguing on behalf of the more limited powers of government under the Articles of Confederation. As a direct result of Shays’s Rebellion, the US Constitution granted powers to the states to suppress future violence.
In 1788, Daniel Shays was granted a pardon by the state of Massachusetts, and he was able to return home from Vermont, where he had been in hiding out in the woods. He was also belatedly paid for his five years of service in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
What do you think?
In your opinion, what was Shays’s most substantial grievance? Was there anything else he could have done to obtain debt relief?
Do you sympathize more with the rural workers of Massachusetts or with the Nationalists led by George Washington? Are the views of these different groups irreconcilable?
What was the most profound consequence of Shays’s Rebellion?
Why do you think the same people who didn’t want to pay taxes to the British during the Revolution were so angry when citizens in their own nation didn’t want to pay taxes?
Want to join the conversation?
- I understand that all these farmers were angry because these states were taxing the people and the citizens couldn't pay it because they hadn't been compensated for their service, but what difference does it make that a CENTRAL government taxes the people instead of the states. The people are still in debt which was the reason why Shays's rebellion started in the first place, so I don't understand how a Central government fixes this problem. State militias can use their taxes to recruit men. And if we were to bring up that the central government uses those taxes to fund an army to suppress any uprisings, how is that different than if the state did it themselves?(22 votes)
- all of the states would need to agree first of all AND the US didn't have any way to collect money so everybody goes into debt and get their farms taken away by the state as payment and they go to debters prison so there's really no way to pay taxes anyway.(16 votes)
- why did the wealthy in government not care about the plight of the farmers like daniel shays?(8 votes)
- because the farmers were poor and it didnt affect the wealthy folks(16 votes)
- how else could have shays obtain debt relief?(2 votes)
- Shay would have possibly talk to or do something with the rulers.(1 vote)
- why didn't the states have alot of money to pay the people that was in the Revolutionary War(4 votes)
- In the Articles of Confederation, the United States government didn’t give itself the power to levy taxes, so only individual states could levy taxes. Without a way to raise revenue, the US couldn’t pay those who had served.(6 votes)
- Why didn't the 13 colonies make a paid military during the Revolutionary war?(4 votes)
- It wasn't that the soldiers did not deserve to get paid. The American military (not the state militias) that fought the British Army, the Continental Army, was under the authority of the Continental Congress, the rebel's federal government. The main problem in this case was that the federal government, under the Articles of Confederation, did not have the ability to tax the states; therefore, it could not appropriate the funds to pay the troops during the American Revolution.(6 votes)
- Me and the boys hate the IRS and taxes(6 votes)
- The IRS wasn't yet in existence when Shays Rebellion happened. The IRS is a 20th century thing.(0 votes)
- what did shay's rebellion encourage federalists to ask for about governmental power?(0 votes)
- the second amendment to the constitution to preserved the militia power of the state(0 votes)
- Who was the first president under the Articles of Confederation?(3 votes)
- George Washington.
In November 1781, John Hanson became the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, under the Articles of Confederation. Many people have argued that John Hanson, and not George Washington, was the first President of the United States, but this is not quite true.
- DO you think the farmers are justified in the revolt?(3 votes)
- There are people in America today (2020) who will tell you that all taxation is theft. Shays was like that. He felt that he didn't have to pay taxes. But Shays was poor to start with. Unlike certain plutocrats, autocrats and oligarchs in the 21st century whose contempt for participation in civic life (through manipulating themselves out of paying taxes), Shays got punished.(3 votes)
- I think that Shay had a point he had just finished fighting and got nothing out of it that's not fair. And then they are saying he had to pay taxes. He left Britain so that he didn't have to pay taxes. I am with the rural people there should have been changed they should not have to pay taxes.(3 votes)
- I think it's reasonable and fair for citizens to pay taxes. If they disagree with what is being done with the tax revenue and/or the amount of the taxes they can vote in new politicians.
What was not reasonable and fair - in my opinion - was not paying the veterans for their service. They risked their lives and their livelihoods to defend their country. They deserved the thanks of their countrymen and at the very least to be compensated for doing that.(2 votes)