Shays' Rebellion of 1786

Shays’ Rebellion was a series of violent protests staged during 1786 and 1787 by a group of American farmers who objected to the way state and local tax collections were being enforced. While skirmishes broke out from New Hampshire to South Carolina, the most serious acts of the rebellion occurred in rural Massachusetts, where years of poor harvests, depressed commodity prices, and high taxes had left farmers facing the loss of their farms or even imprisonment. The rebellion is named for its leader, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays of Massachusetts.

Illustration of a Fight During Shays's Rebellion
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Although it never posed a serious threat to the still loosely organized post-war United States federal government, Shays’ Rebellion drew lawmakers’ attention to serious weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and was frequently cited in the debates leading to the framing and ratification of the Constitution.

Key Takeaways: Shay’s Rebellion

  • Shays’ Rebellion was a series of armed protests staged in 1786 by farmers in western Massachusetts against repressive debt and property tax collection practices.
  • The farmers were aggrieved by excessive Massachusetts property taxes and penalties ranging from the foreclosure of their farms to lengthy prison terms.
  • Led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, the rebels stormed several courthouses in an effort to block tax collections.
  • Shays’ Rebellion was put down on January 25, 1787, when a private army raised by Massachusetts’s Governor James Bowdoin intercepted and defeated and arrested Shays and nearly 1,500 of his followers as they attempted to seize the federal arsenal in Springfield, Missouri.
  • Shays’ Rebellion underscored weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

The threat posed by Shays’ Rebellion helped persuade retired General George Washington to reenter public service, leading to his two terms as the first President of the United States.

In a letter regarding Shays’ Rebellion to U.S. Representative William Stephens Smith dated November 13, 1787, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson famously argued that an occasional rebellion is an essential part of liberty:

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

Taxes in the Face of Poverty

The end of the Revolutionary War found farmers in rural areas of Massachusetts living a sparse subsistence lifestyle with few assets aside from their land. Forced to barter with each other for goods or services, farmers found it difficult and prohibitively expensive to obtain credit. When they did manage to find credit, repayment was required to be in the form of hard currency, which remained in short supply after repeal of the despised British Currency Acts.

Along with insurmountable commercial debt, unusually high tax rates in Massachusetts added to the financial woes of the farmers. Taxed at a rate some four times higher than in neighboring New Hampshire, a typical Massachusetts farmer was required to pay about one-third of their annual income to the state.

Unable to pay either their private debts or their taxes, many farmers faced devastation. State courts would foreclose on their land and other assets, ordering them sold at public auction for a fraction of their real value. Worse yet, farmers who had already lost their land and other assets were often sentenced to spend years in dungeon-like and now illegal debtors’ prisons.

Enter Daniel Shays

On top of these financial hardships was the fact that many Revolutionary War veterans had received little or no pay during their time in the Continental Army and were facing roadblocks to collecting back pay owed to them by Congress or the states. Some of these soldiers, like Daniel Shays, began to organize protests against what they considered to be excessive taxes and abusive treatment by the courts.

A Massachusetts farmhand when he volunteered for the Continental Army, Shays fought in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. After being wounded in action, Shays resigned—unpaid—from the Army and went home, where he was taken to court for nonpayment of his pre-war debts. Realizing that he was far from alone in his plight, he began to organize his fellow protesters.

Replacement gravestone for Captain Daniel Shays, 5th Massachusetts Infantry, Continental Army and leader of Shays' Rebellion.
Replacement gravestone for Captain Daniel Shays, 5th Massachusetts Infantry, Continental Army and leader of Shays' Rebellion. Billmckern/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A Mood for Rebellion Grows

With the spirit of revolution still fresh, hardships led to protest. In 1786, aggrieved citizens in four Massachusetts counties held semi-legal conventions to demand, among other reforms, lower taxes and the issuance of paper money. However, the state legislature, having already suspended tax collections for a year, refused to listen and ordered the immediate and full payment of taxes. With this, public resentment of tax collectors and the courts escalated quickly.

On August 29, 1786, a group of protesters succeeded in preventing the county tax court in Northampton from convening.

Shays Attacks the Courts 

Having taken part in the Northampton protest, Daniel Shays quickly gained followers. Calling themselves “Shayites” or “Regulators,” in reference to an earlier tax reform movement in North Carolina, Shays’ group orchestrated protests at more county courthouses, effectively preventing taxes from being collected.

Greatly disturbed by the tax protests, George Washington, in a letter to his close friend David Humphreys, expressed his fear that “commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide and crumble them.”

Attack on the Springfield Armory

By December 1786, the growing conflict between the farmers, their creditors, and state tax collectors drove Massachusetts Governor Bowdoin to mobilize a special army of 1,200 militiamen funded by private merchants and dedicated solely to stopping Shays and his Regulators.

Led by former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln, Bowdoin’s special army was ready for the pivotal battle of Shays’ Rebellion.

On January 25, 1787, Shays, along with some 1,500 of his Regulators, attacked the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. Though outnumbered, General Lincoln’s well-trained and battle-tested army had anticipated the attack and held a strategic advantage over Shays’ angry mob. After firing a few volleys of musket warning shots, Lincoln’s army leveled artillery fire on the still-advancing mob, killing four of the Regulators and wounding twenty more.

The surviving rebels scattered and fled into the nearby countryside. Many of them were later captured, effectively ending Shays’ Rebellion.

The Punishment Phase

In exchange for immediate amnesty from prosecution, some 4,000 individuals signed confessions acknowledging their participation in the Rebellion.

Several hundred participants were later indicted on a range of charges relating to the rebellion. While most were pardoned, 18 men were sentenced to death. Two of them, John Bly and Charles Rose of Berkshire County, were hanged for thievery on December 6, 1787, while the rest were either pardoned, had their sentences commuted, or had their convictions overturned on appeal.

Shays, who had been hiding in the Vermont forest since fleeing from his failed attack on the Springfield Armory, returned to Massachusetts after being pardoned in 1788. He later settled near Conesus, New York, where he lived below the poverty threshold until his death in 1825.

Effects of Shays’ Rebellion

Though it failed to achieve its goals, Shays’ Rebellion focused attention on serious weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation that prevented the national government from effectively managing the country’s finances.

Petersham Historical Society with Daniel Shays' Rebellion marker - Petersham, Massachusett.
Petersham Historical Society with Daniel Shays' Rebellion marker - Petersham, Massachusett. Daderot/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The obvious need for reforms led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

Governor Bowdoin’s actions in quashing the rebellion, though successful, were widely unpopular and proved to be his political downfall. In the gubernatorial election of 1787, he received few votes from the rural parts of the state and was easily defeated by Founding Father and first signer of the Constitution John Hancock. Additionally, the legacy of Bowdoin’s military victory was tarnished by extensive tax reforms. Over the next several years, the Massachusetts legislature cut property taxes significantly and placed a moratorium on debt collections. 

In addition, his concerns over the rebellion drew George Washington back into public life and helped persuade him to accept the Constitutional Convention’s unanimous nomination to serve as the first President of the United States.

In final analysis, Shays’ Rebellion contributed to the establishment of a stronger federal government.

Aftermath 

In 1786, Shays asked Revolutionary War leader Ethan Allen and his Vermont Green Mountain Boys to rekindle the rebellion in western Massachusetts. Allen was reluctant to do so despite Shays' offer to crown him “King of Massachusetts.” Allen felt that Shays was just trying to bribe him to erase his unpayable debts. Allen did, however, quietly shelter several of Shays’ former rebels in Vermont, while publicly disavowing them.

On February 16, 1787, the Boston state legislature passed the Disqualification Act setting forth conditions for granting pardons to the men who participated in Shays' Rebellion as privates or non-commissioned officers. The men were required to turn in their firearms and take an oath of allegiance. The Justice of the Peace was then required to relay the men's names to the clerks of their towns. The men were barred from serving as jurors, members of town or state government, and from working as schoolmasters, innkeepers, and liquor salesmen for three years. They also lost their right to vote in town elections. The men would forfeit their pardons if they did not follow those rules.

Impact on the Constitution

Serving as ambassador to France at the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia refused to be overly alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion. In a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787, he argued that occasional rebellion was essential to the preservation of freedom. In a letter to William Stephens Smith on November 13, 1787, Jefferson famously wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. … What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

In contrast to Jefferson, George Washington, who had long been calling for constitutional reform, expressed great concern over such uprisings. “For God’s sake tell me, what is the cause of all these commotions? Do they proceed from licentiousness, British influence disseminated by the Tories, or real grievances which admit of redress?” he asked his former aide David Humphreys in an October 1786 letter. “Commotions of this sort, like snow-balls, gather strength as they roll, if there is no opposition in the way to divide & crumble them,” he warned.

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Longley, Robert. "Shays' Rebellion of 1786." ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2022, thoughtco.com/shays-rebellion-causes-effects-4158282. Longley, Robert. (2022, April 11). Shays' Rebellion of 1786. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/shays-rebellion-causes-effects-4158282 Longley, Robert. "Shays' Rebellion of 1786." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/shays-rebellion-causes-effects-4158282 (accessed December 4, 2022).