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Shays' Rebellion was an armed uprising in central and western Massachusetts (mainly Springfieldmarker) from 1786 to 1787. The rebellion is named after Daniel Shays, a veteran of the American Revolution who led the rebels, known as "Shaysites" or "Regulators". Most of Shays's compatriots were poor farmers angered by what they felt to be crushing debt and taxes. Failure to repay such debts often resulted in imprisonment in debtor's prisons or the claiming of property by the County.

Seeking debt relief through the issuance of paper currency and lower taxes, they attempted to prevent the courts from seizing property from indebted farmers by forcing the closure of courts in western Massachusetts. The participants in Shays's Rebellion believed they were acting in the spirit of the Revolution and modeled their tactics after the crowd activities of the 1760s and 1770s, using "liberty poles" and "liberty trees" to symbolize their cause.

The rebellion started on August 29, 1786 and by January 1787, over 1000 Shaysites were arrested. A militia that had been raised as a private army defeated an attack on the federal Springfield Armorymarker by the main Shaysite force on February 3, 1787. There was a lack of an institutional response to the uprising, which energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation and gave strong impetus to the Philadelphia Convention which began in May 17, 1787. Shays's Rebellion produced fears that the Revolution’s democratic impulse had "gotten out of hand."

Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays was a poor farm hand from Massachusetts when the Revolution broke out. He joined the Continental Army where he fought at Lexingtonmarker, Bunker Hillmarker, and Saratogamarker, and was eventually wounded in action. In 1780, he resigned from the army unpaid and went home to find himself in court for the nonpayment of debts. He soon found that he was not alone in being unable to pay his debts and once even saw a sick woman who had her bed taken out from under her because she was also unable to pay.

Mounting financial crisis

The financial situation leading to the rebellion included the problem that European war investors (among others) demanded payment in gold and silver; there was not enough specie in the states, including Massachusetts, to pay the debts; and through the state, wealthy urban businessmen were trying to squeeze whatever assets they could get out of rural smallholders. Since the smallholders did not have the gold that the creditors demanded, everything they had was confiscated, including their houses.

At a meeting convened by aggrieved commoners, a farmer, Plough Jogger, encapsulated the situation:

It was decided that the legislature (General Court) in Boston would be petitioned.

Veterans like General Charles Logan Harding of the Continental army, also aggrieved because they had been conscripted, had to fight with no payment to help them pay for their living, and because they were treated poorly upon discharge, including being locked up in debtors' prison, began to organize their neighbors, the besieged farmers, into squads and companies in order to halt the confiscations. Veteran Luke Day of West Springfield, Massachusettsmarker asked the judges holding the confiscatory hearings to adjourn until the Massachusetts legislature met. Throughout Massachusetts, newly organized farmers and veterans faced militia at courthouse thresholds. But sometimes the farmers and veterans were the militia, and often the majority of the militias sided with the veterans and farmers.

Boston elites were mortified at this resistance. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin commanded the legislature to "vindicate the insulted dignity of government." Samuel Adams claimed that foreigners ("British emissaries") were instigating treason among the commoners, and he helped draw up a Riot Act, and a resolution suspending habeas corpus. Adams proposed a new legal distinction: that rebellion in a republic, unlike in a monarchy, should be punished by execution.

What caused Shays to take on the situation as a revolutionary cause was that on September 19, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted eleven leaders of the rebellion as "disorderly, riotous, and seditious persons." Incensed by the indictment, Shays led seven hundred armed farmers, most of them war vets and led them to Springfield. As they marched their ranks grew, and some of the militia joined along with additional reinforcements from the countryside. The judges then postponed hearings for a day, then adjourned the court. At this point, the General Court, which was meeting in Boston, was told by Governor James Bowdoin to "vindicate the insulted dignity of government." Samuel Adams helped write up a riot act and a resolution that temporarily suspended habeas corpus, in order to permit the authorities to keep people in jail without trial. The legislatures also moved to make some concessions to the upset farmers, saying certain old taxes could now be paid in goods instead of money. However, this only led to confrontations between farmers and militia increasing.

Henry Gale, a co-leader

George Gale, in a work published in 1866, wrote the following:

The end of the rebellion

This monument marks the spot of the final battle of Shays's Rebellion, in western Massachusetts near South Egremont.

After several years of ad hoc popular conventions sending petitions to the Massachusetts General Court for tax and debt relief, and protesters shutting down local courts (to prevent judges from enforcing debt collection), action was taken. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin was unsympathetic to the farmers' cause and he dispatched an army headed by former Revolutionary War General Benjamin Lincoln. "Boston merchants raised money for an army, led by General Benjamin Lincoln. Governor James Bowdoin ordered Lincoln's large Boston militia as well as General William Shepard's local militia of 900 men to protect the Springfield court so that it could process more property confiscations.The rebels were dispersed in January 1787 with over 1,000 arrested. Bowdoin declared that Americans would descend into "a state of anarchy, confusion, and slavery" unless the rule of the law was obeyed.

Daniel Shays of Pelham, Massachusettsmarker sent a message to Day proposing to get the weapons from the Springfield armory on January 25, 1787, before Lincoln's 4,000-man combined Boston and Springfield militia could arrive. Day's response that his forces would not be ready until January 26 was never received (a real-world example of the Two Generals' Problem). Shays approached the armory not knowing he would not have reinforcements.

General Shepard's forces were unpaid and without food or adequate arms. Shepard had requested permission to use the weaponry in the Springfield Armory, but Secretary of War Henry Knox had denied the request on the grounds that it required Congressional approval and that Congress was out of session. Shepard reached the armory before Shays, and, ignoring Knox, Shepard's militia commandeered the weapons stored there.

When Shays and his forces neared the armory, they found Shepard's militia waiting for them. Shepard ordered a warning shot; the two cannon present were fired directly into Shays's men. Four of the Shaysites were killed, twenty wounded. There was no musket fire from either side. Crying "Murder!", for they never thought that their neighbours and fellow veterans would fire at them, the rebels fled north. On the opposite side of the river, Day's forces also fled north. The militia captured many of the rebels on February 4 in Petersham, Massachusettsmarker; by March there was no more armed resistance.

Shepard reported to his superiors that he had made use of the armory without authorization, and returned the weapons in good condition after the armed conflict had ended.

Several of the rebels were fined, imprisoned, and sentenced to death, but in 1788 a general amnesty was granted. Although most of the condemned men were either pardoned or had their death sentences commuted, two of the condemned men, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged on December 6, 1787. Shays himself was pardoned in 1788 and he returned to Massachusetts. Sometime afterwards, he moved to the Conesus, New York, area where he lived until he died poor and obscure in 1825. He is buried in the Union cemetery.


Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as an ambassador to France at the time, refused to be alarmed by Shays's Rebellion. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Ultimately, however, the uprising was the climax of a series of events of the 1780s that convinced a powerful group of Americans that the national government needed to be stronger so that it could create uniform economic policies and protect property owners from infringements on their rights by local majorities. Men like Charles Harding helped to spread concepts created during Shays's Rebellion. These ideas stemmed from the fear that a private liberty, such as the secure enjoyment of property rights, could be threatened by public liberty- unrestrained power in the hands of the people. James Madison addressed this concept by stating that "Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power."

See also


  1. Foner, Eric. (2006) Give Me Liberty! An American History. (New York: W.W Norton & Company)., pp. 218-219
  2. Zinn, Howard. A People's History Of The United States. New York: Harper, 1995. 71-72
  3. Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper. p. 91
  4. Zinn, 1995, 91
  5. Zinn, 1995, 91-93
  6. Zinn, 1995, 93-94
  7. Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper. p. 71
  8. Swift, 1969, pp. 37-41
  9. Zinn, 1995, 93.
  10. Zinn, Howard. 1995. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper. p. 72
  11. Richards (2002) p. 41
  12. Foner, Eric. "Give Me Liberty! An American History." New York: W.W Norton & Company, 2006. 219


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