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August 29, 1786: Shays’ Rebellion Begins

 

 

In the aftermath of American victory in the Revolutionary War, times were tough in the new nation.  In Massachusetts farmers faced financial ruin as merchants, concerned with the inflation, were demanding repayment of debts in hard currency which was in short supply.  Governor John Hancock attempted to set an example by not demanding that his debtors pay him in hard currency, and he refused to authorize prosecution of those who failed to pay their taxes to the State.  This was to no avail as more farmers began to lose their farms through foreclosure.  That most of these farmers had fought in the Revolution made their plight more poignant, and also suggested that they would not stand idle as they were reduced to poverty.

Violence broke out after James Bowdoin, champion of the merchants, was elected Governor of the Bay State.  On August 29, 1786 a rebellion broke out when a well organized force prevented the court from sitting in Northampton.  Daniel Shays who had served in the Continental Army as a Captain, and who had receive a sword of honor from Lafayette that he had to sell to help pay his debts, participated in the Northampton action.  His name became attached to the Rebellion, but he staunchly denied that he was one of the leaders of the movement.

The Massachusetts government now confronted the quandary of attempting to assert its authority when the only armed force at its disposal were militia levies and much of the militia sympathized with the rebels.   The Federal government of the Articles of Confederation was deaf to appeals for aid, having no armed forces in any case to aid Massachusetts in putting down the Rebellion.

The solution was  a 3000 man militia force under former Continental Major General Benjamin Lincoln.  The force was paid for by 125 merchants who contributed 6000 pounds.  With this force, Lincoln crushed the Rebellion in February 1787.  Casualties were minor, five killed, a few dozen wounded, but the impact of the Rebellion was profound in convincing many of the leaders in the United States of the necessity of revising the weak Articles of Confederation and forming a stronger Federal government.  Shays Rebellion had given rise to outbursts throughout New England, and although they had been quickly quashed, the alarm they raised reached Mount Vernon.

On October 31, 1786 in a letter to Henry Lee, George Washington demonstrated how deeply Shays’ Rebellion disturbed him:

 

The picture which you have exhibited, and the accounts which are published of the commotions, and temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof of what our trans-Atlantic foe has predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable, that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country. In a word, I am lost in amazement when I behold what intrigue, the interested views of desperate characters, ignorance and jealousy of the minor part, are capable of effecting, as a scourge on the major part of our fellow Citizens of the Union; for it is hardly to be supposed that the great body of the people, tho’ they will not act, can be so shortsighted, or enveloped in darkness, as not to see rays of a distant sun thro’ all this mist of intoxication and folly.

You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found; and if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no Government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured; or let us know the worst at once. Under these impressions, my humble opinion is, that there is a call for decision. Know precisely what the insurgents aim at. If they have real grievances, redress them if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to do it in the present moment. If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once. If this is inadequate, all will be convinced that the superstructure is bad, or wants support. To be more exposed in the eyes of the world, and more contemptible than we already are, is hardly possible. To delay one or the other of these, is to exasperate on the one hand, or to give confidence on the other, and will add to their numbers; for, like snow-balls, such bodies increase by every movement, unless there is something in the way to obstruct and crumble them before the weight is too great and irresistible.

Shays’ Rebellion brought Washington out of retirement and ensured that those who sought to reform the Federal government would have his considerable personal authority behind them.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

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