Shays' Rebellion

Tue, 08/30/2016 - 4:26pm -- lwhite

 Three years after the new United States gained its independence from Great Britain a new set of challenges faced the infant country. Held together by the hastily made Articles of Confederation, the new nation slowly moved into the postbellum years that saw the strings of the union of states under a larger federal government become strained under the process of tax collection. It would all come to a head on August 29, 1786 when several courts would be shut down by mobs in the state of Massachusetts that would be known as Shays’ rebellion, after one of its organizers, Daniel Shays.

   Daniel Shays From 1878's "Our First Century" by Richard Miller Devens.

     Daniel Shays was a farmer and a Revolutionary War Veteran, joining the local militia and eventually rising to the rank of captain of the 5th Massachusetts regiment of the Continental Army. He would serve in the Boston Campaign; the battles of Lexington and Concord and the battle of Bunker Hill, as well as the Battle of Saratoga. During the war he would be wounded and eventually resign from his military position, which was unpaid. Upon returning home to western Massachusetts, Shays found that he had been summoned to court for unpaid debts, debts that he still could not pay as his military career offered no salary. In 1780 he was given a ceremonial sword by General Lafayette in honor of his service which he later sold to help pay off his debts. It would be one thing if it was just him, but Shays noticed that many of his fellow veterans were in the same financial situation as he was.

    Shays and fellows veterans began to protest these high taxes levied on them by the government centered in Boston. This was a government maned by wealthy merchants who also had debts that they incurred through European financiers to help fund the war. Populist Governor, John Hancock was very lenient with collecting taxes, but when his predecessor James Bowdoin took office things would be radically different. Bowdoin would ramp up civil actions to collect back taxes and even levied new taxes to help pay off the war debt. Veteran farmers like Shays and his peers could not pay and sent numerous petitions to the state legislature, all of which would go unanswered by the time they adjourned.  Soon these protests would take direct action and on August 29st the first of several court shutdowns began in Northampton, Massachusetts, with Shay taking part. 

     Governor Bowdoin issued a proclamation condemning the response and future response like it, but offered little else of a reaction besides the promise of force if it were to happen again and again it did. Throughout the month of September more courts were shut down by protests when finally on September 28, local militia were successful in stopping Shays’ mobs from taking the court building in Hampshire County (today Hampden County). The militia was a force of around 300 pro-government troops under William Shepard against a force of almost 1,200 Shays supporters. Though the court was safe it was still adjourned without hearing any cases. Shepard and his men, now 800 strong would fall back to the Springfield Armory under rumors that Shays was planning to take it. It had officially become a rebellion. 

 Shay's forces met resistance from pro-government forces led by Shepard

     November saw an increase in violence as in the eastern part of the state possess were made to arrest protest leaders. This act would radicalize the western part of the state and a new goal would form, tooverthrown the state government.  In the east, the pro-government forces were being collected, while in the west Shays’ forces would also come together.  The plan would be a three pronged assault on the Armory of Springfield on January 25th. One prong led by protestor Luke Day sent a last minute message to Shays indicating that the allotted time for the attack was not in the best interest and he would attack the next day. Unluckily enough for the protestors the message was intercepted by a soldier under William Shepard and never got to Shays. On the 25th Shay’s incomplete force approached the Armory from the east and was met with resistance under Shepard. Shepard fired warning shots over the oncoming protestors and then loaded two cannon with canister shot.  Four of Shays’ rebels were killed and several more wounded as the attack instantly evaporated and the rebels fled north, regrouping near Amherst. More pro-government forces from the east would come and the game of cat and mouse would go on until the middle of June 1787.

     The Rebellion would result in some 4,000 resident signing confessions indicating participation in the rebellion, two rebels would be hanged, and as for Daniel Shays, he would be pardons in 1788, eventually develop a drinking problem and die in poverty in 1825. The effects of this rebellion would be felt instantly as it showed the weakness in the Articles of Confederation and the need for a strong centralized government, because of that Shays’ Rebellion would influence the creation of the United States Constitution.