What Caused Shays’ Rebellion and How Did It Impact US History?

In 1786, only a few years after the War for Independence, American veterans rose against the governor over taxation and the impossibility of paying off debt. This uprising was called Shays’ Rebellion.

How did another revolt multiply after the American War of Independence? What caused Shays’ Rebellion, and what was its impact on the newly formed United States?

Shays' Rebellion
Shays’ Rebellion

What Caused Shays’ Rebellion?

In the 1770s and 1780s, a monetary crisis consumed the young United States. This disaster was sparked by the issuance of state bills of credit, which was paper money that rapidly depreciated in proportion to the printed volume. 

The Continental Congress compounded the issue further by printing currency during the war for independence which had the same inflationary tendencies and became basically worthless by 1780.

The rampant debasement of American money led to intense economic hardship, and Americans often struggled to get by. The inflation also made it virtually impossible to pay back debts accrued with hard cash as merchants demanded repayment in gold and silver.

Though some states issued state laws to give debtors extra time to pay their debts or permit the repayment of debts in paper rather than hard money, these strides often alienated the merchant class and debt holders.

Politicians in the early republic often had to strike a balance between policies that favored debtors and those that favored creditors, such as the situation in Massachusetts in the early 1780s. 

Governor John Hancock found himself unwilling to prosecute poor farmers who lost their land due to the creditor’s demand for hard money. He resigned from the governorship in 1785 for health reasons, and fellow merchant James Bowdoin was elected to replace him.

Bowdoin stood firm against taking the next step by introducing paper money, believing that doing so would fan the flames of the state’s economic crisis in addition to the monetary issue.

Who Was Daniel Shays and What Was Shays’ Rebellion?

Many soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War were paid in bonds that also became worthless near the war. Among these veterans was Daniel Shays. After receiving an injury in battle and forced into retirement, he found himself in court for the non-payment of debts owed to creditors.

Shays first took part in local meetings to send petitions of grievances to the government, which went unanswered. In many parts of Massachusetts, Shays attracted followers that found themselves in a similar predicament.

Peaceful protests gradually became hostile on August 29th, 1786, when many Northampton dissidents clogged a county court, preventing it from conducting business.

Governor Bowdoin denounced the action, and the Massachusetts government indicted eleven protesters for disorderly and riotous sedition. In response, Shays’ and another military officer named Luke Day successfully shut down other courts in Worchester, Barrington, Concord, and Taunton. The group even succeeded in breaking into the jail in Springfield to release imprisoned debtors and burned some civil officials’ barns.

Massachusetts was now in a state of anarchy and confusion bordering on civil war. Famous Massachusetts Patriots who had resisted British taxation from things like the Sugar Act the decade prior, like Samuel Adams, did not sympathize with the dissenters. They argued that local representatives of the people could tax individuals. A republican government had been established at that point with representatives from all regions of the state.

Ironically, future President John Adams even helped draft a riot act that would suspend habeas corpus. This act would allow the government to detain the rebels indefinitely. Adams famously believed that to rebel against a king was, but to rebel against a republic should be punishable by death. 

The issuance of an arrest warrant was the final straw for Shays and his followers. They began recruiting and put together an army of around 4,000 people, who all refused to pay taxes to the Massachusetts government until they addressed their grievances. Their presence was most substantial in the western portion of the state.

While serving as a diplomat in France, even the renowned Thomas Jefferson seemed to commiserate with Shay’s and his acolytes. He wrote in a letter, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

To meet the threat, Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Lincoln raised an army to confront the rebellion. He raised funds himself and was able to put together a formidable force. 

The most significant clash between the armies was in Springfield. Shays aimed to gain control over an armory in response to the Massachusetts government passing a bill authorizing martial law and expanding Governor Bowdoin’s powers. Shays’ soldiers were fired upon, and the army quickly collapsed.

As quickly as it started, the state put the rebellion down. The government charged Shays and his followers with treason, pardoning them later due to the uprising’s popular nature. Daniel Shays died poor in obscurity a few decades late. He likely never knew the full impact Shays’ rebellion had on American History.

The Impact of Shays’ Rebellion

Shay’s rebellion inspired nationalists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to advocate for granting more significant control over the militias to a central government. Both men argued Congress should have the authority to intervene on behalf of the fledgling Republican states like Massachusets if they come under threat. 

Republicanism in America would be threatened if the state governments remained unable to muster the militia forces necessary to deal with armed uprisings. 

However necessary these proposals were, they required amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, both Hamilton and Madison worked to ensure that the planned meeting to introduce new amendments would transpire in May of 1787 in Philadelphia.

Another impact of Shays’ Rebellion is that General George Washington out of retirement. Washington repeatedly resisted pressures to enter the political realm once more, but this incident finally convinced him to support constitutional reform in an official capacity. His presence in the Philadelphia Convention gave the assembly an aura of legitimacy and necessity. 

At the convention, many delegates advocated for a general government power to organize state militia forces and send them into other states to repel insurrections. Shays’ Rebellion was the perfect justification for these expanded powers.  

Another effect of Shays’ Rebellion was how the new Federal government would be organized. Instead of many executives that couldn’t organize together, the United States would need one executive, which would later become the President.  

The influence of Shay’s rebellion on the Philadelphia Convention and American history was profound. The incident was one of the most pivotal

events of the critical period where the Articles of Confederation were the law of the land. Without this event, we may have never had President George Washington or even a functioning United States of America. It was the epilogue that ended the Revolutionary War and pushed the United States into the future.

Further Reading

Shays’ Rebellion: The History and Legacy of America’s First Domestic Uprising

Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion: The History and Legacy of Early America’s Domestic Insurrections

Alan Behrens

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