January 25, 1787
Shays’ Rebellion: The First American Civil War
Perhaps no document has done more to shape the history of the United States than the Constitution, which was signed on September 17, 1787. The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, which followed in 1791, enshrined the principles of the American Revolution into law.
Every school child knows something of the efforts of the delegates that went into the writing of our founding constitution. There had been efforts to amend or replace the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation and create a more powerful central government. It is doubtful if our forefathers would have come to agreement on the new constitution if it had not been for the rebellion lead by Daniel Shays.
Shays is a shadowy figure in American history. He never posed for a portrait. None of contemporaries took time to describe him. He was born in eastern Massachusetts and worked as a farm laborer before enlisting in the Revolutionary War. He quickly rose through the ranks to sergeant, and fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, such as Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga.
After the war, Shays returned home to Pelham in western Massachusetts where he bought a small farm where he hoped to settle in peace and raise his family. The soldiers had risked all to rid the colonies of a distant oppressive government. Now when they returned home they found a new home-grown oppressor in the elected state legislature in Boston.
The Barter System
Prior to the war rural farmers made their living by barter. A housewife might trade a bucket of peas to a neighbor for some sewing. A preacher might be paid with a few chickens. A nurse might accept a sack of potatoes in return for a home visit. Barter was also used for goods not produced locally. A farmer might turn over part of his crop to pay his bill at the dry goods store. The owner of the dry goods store would send the farmer’s wheat, along with that of his neighbors, to Boston to pay his bill. A merchant in Boston would send the wheat to Barbados or Jamaica and send the proceeds off to London to pay his bill. No currency was used in all these transactions. It was just an account entry on paper in London.
The barter system came crashing down with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Until the end of the war the colonies had been part of the British Empire. Now considered a foreign nation, the colonies lost their trading privileges in the Empire. The markets in the Carribean were closed to them. Faced with a loss of lucrative markets, the large merchant houses were pressed for cash. They put pressure on their debtors who in turn put pressure on their customers.
The result of the credit crunch was a chain reaction of defaults by farmers and small businessmen. Many small farmers were forced to auction off livestock, furniture, homes, grain, whatever would bring in cash, to cover their debts. They grew tired of local courts threatening prison to families who failed to pay their debts. In one county as many as one in three families were forced into debt court. In 1784 Daniel Shays was hauled into court over a twelve pound debt. A few months later he was prosecuted over a three pound debt.
The War Debt
At the same time that merchants were putting pressure on their customers to raise cash, the state legislators in Boston were raising taxes to pay off the state’s war debt. Under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) the central government lacked power to regulate trade or to collect taxes. Each state had to develop its own plan for paying back the huge Revolutionary War Debt. During the war Massachusetts issued bonds to its soldiers instead of paying cash. Speculators bought the notes from the hungry soldiers for pennies on the dollar (or shillings on the pound?). The state now owed its debt to a handful of powerful men who lived in Boston. Many of these men served in the legislature or had relatives who did.
After the war some states printed more money, thereby inflating the currency to make repayment cheaper. As the holders of the Massachusetts bonds where mostly in control of the legistature, they were successful in preventing the devaluation of their assets. The legislature passed new taxes on farms. Poor farmers in the western part of the state saw their taxes increase five or six-fold. In many cases the taxes where worse than under British rule. Ironically, the farmers were being taxed to pay their own wages for their war time service.
Leading up to Shays’ Rebellion
In 1782, a preacher named Samuel Ely organized farmers in western Massachusetts. His target was the courthouse, the symbol of state authority in the area. He was arrested and charged with sedition. A supportive mob broke Ely out of prison and he fled to Vermont.
Between 1780 and 1782, the Court of Common Please of Hamphire County in Massachusetts saw a 262 percent increase in the number of debt cases. More than thirty percent of adult males were unable to pay their debts.
In the summer of 1786, farmers called for a countywide convention, to be held at the home of Colonel Seth Murray in Hartford, on August 22. Fifty towns were represented. The convention adopted twenty-one articles that called for changes to make state government more responsive to their needs. The protesting farmers believed they were fighting to uphold the ideals of the revolution. To underscore the seriousness of their demands, 1,500 farmers, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, marched in military formation on the Northampton courthouse on August 31, 1786. They blocked the entrance to the judges who were accompanied by the sheriff.
The demonstration in Northampton led to more demonstrations in other counties and states. By the end of 1786, more than nine thousand insurgents were active in every state except Rhode Island.
Soon after the demonstration at Northampton the legislature extended the deadline for paying taxes to April 1, 1787. Plans were maid to sell a large part of Maine (then a district of Massachusetts) to provide funds to retire the state’s debt. The legislation included more severe punishments for officers joining the protestors. Also police powers were increased. Forfeiture was introduced as penalty for protest.
Under his new powers, Governor Bowdoin issued warrants for five of the rebels and sent three hundred light horsemen into western towns to search for them. There were rumors of the horsemen multilating women and a child. Thirty towns protested the governor’s action.
Daniel Shays Stands Up
On September 20, 1786, Daniel Shays made his first appearance in the insurrection. He led a group of six hundred men in a successful assault on the courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wearing his uniform left over from the Revolution, he struck before the judges could consider treason indictments against the arrested rebels. If Springfield could be overcome by surprise, could Boston be next?
The Governor hired a 4,000 soldier mercenary army under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. At the same time the Continental Congress authorized the mobilization of 1,200 troops and placed them under the authority of General William Shepherd.
By raising an army, the governor engaged the fear of the people of standing armies that went back to British occupation. This worked to swell the number of insurgents under Shays’ command to more than a thousand men. Shays issued a proclamation on December 7, protesting “the present expensive mode of collecting debts, which, by reason of the scarcity of cash, will of necessity fill our gaols with unhappy debtors, and thereby a reputable body of peope rendered incapable of being serviceable to either themselves or the community.”
On December 26, Shays made plans to march on the federal arsenal in Springfield. This building housed seven thousand new muskets and more than two hundred tons of shot and shells. Capturing the arsenal would be a stategic advantage to the insurrection. However, news reached Boston on New Year’s Day, 1787, allowing General Shepard to bring his men to Springfield in good time.
When Shays saw that Shepard was in his path, he divided his troops into three groups and surrounded the arsenal. The largest body, which number 1,100 men, he kept with himself. On the other side of town, Luke Day, another Continental Army officer, was ready with 400 Regulators. To the north was Eli Parsons with 400 Regulators from Berkshire. Shays decided to move up his timetable. He sent a note to Day to attack on January 25. Day’s note back to Shays that he could not be in place before January 26 was intercepted by Sheperd’s men. At 4:00 P.M. on January 25, Shays began his assault unaware that he was missing a large body of his troops.
Shays group was quickly routed when Shepard his field pieces over the protestors.The Shayites lost the rebellion, but they won the peace in Massachusetts. In May, voters ousted the aristocratic “merchant party” that had controlled the legislature. The hardline governor lost his race to the popular John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Shays Rebellion exposed the fragility of the new American democracy, while at the same time it highlighted its possibilities. Virginia’s James Madison led the way in calling for a constitutional convention. Virginia’s governor, Patrick Henry, invited the other states to a general convention in September 1786 at Annapolis to resolve trade issues and other problems with the articles. Only five states showed up to the Annapolis convention.
Madison called upon the patriotism of George Washington to get the states together for a constitutional convention. It was the rebellion of Daniel Shays that swayed Washington to return to public service. The convention met in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. A quorum of delegations was reached on May 25, and the nation had a new constitution on September 17, 1787.
- Study Guide
Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.