Shays’ Rebellion and the Founders (Part 1)

Shays’ Rebellion and the Founders (Part I)

Beginning in the fall of 1786 until it was crushed in early 1787, Shays’ Rebellion made national headlines. If the exaggerated newspaper reports were to be believed, what began as local tax protests by indebted farmers in Western Massachusetts threatened widespread anarchy and the collapse of the American confederation. But what did the individuals who wrote the Constitution think about Shays’ Rebellion?

Historians studying the founding generation universally agree that Shays’ Rebellion was a wakeup call that exposed the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation and served as a catalyst for the adoption of the Constitution in 1787. The early rumblings of Shays’ Rebellion were evident in September of 1786 when the Annapolis Convention called for a Constitutional Convention to meet in Philadelphia the following year. The Rebellion’s bloodiest confrontation – Daniel Shays’ unsuccessful attack on the federal armory in Springfield – occurred on January 25, 1787, as State Legislatures had begun deciding whether or not to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention. 

Based on their private correspondence, Shays’ Rebellion was taken very seriously by George Washington, Henry Knox (the “Secretary at War” under the Confederation Congress until 1789), and several of the framers of the Constitution. Indeed, concern over Shays’ Rebellion may have been one of the primary motivations that coaxed George Washington out of retirement from Mt. Vernon. The subject of Shays’ Rebellion even spawned a twelve installment mock-epic poem, The Anarchiad, which was widely printed from October of 1786 through September of 1787.

In the month before the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia, Shays’ Rebellion influenced James Madison’s influential critique of the Confederation Congress (Madison’s “Vices of the Political System of the United States” otherwise known as “Madison’s Vices“). During the ratification campaign, Shay’s Rebellion was repeatedly cited by Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. It appears that the only prominent framer who downplayed “the little rebellion” was Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as the American minister in France at the time.

This post is divided into two parts. Part I provides an overview of Shays’ Revolution from the perspective of the founders who met in Philadelphia in 1787. Part I also discusses the economics of Shays’ Rebellion and summarizes General Lincoln’s successful suppression of the uprising with a privately raised militia, after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Confederation Congress were unable to restore order.

Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, as depicted in a newspaper illustration by an unidentified artist who may never have actually met them
Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, as depicted in a newspaper illustration by an unidentified artist who may never have actually met them

Part II reviews the laws that were adopted in Massachusetts following the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, including the Militia Act, the Riot Act, and Governor Bowdoin’s suspension of habeas corpus. As discussed in Part II, these draconian laws may have backfired and only exacerbated the Rebellion. After being elected Governor the following year, John Hancock eventually pardoned the Shaysites (including Daniel Shays) and agreed to many of the protestors’ demands.

Shays’ Rebellion – overview:

In the summer of 1786, impoverished farmers in western Massachusetts began by peacefully petitioning the state Legislature for debt and tax relief. When they failed to obtain the requested concessions from Boston, County conventions were held in July and August in Bristol, Middlesex, Worcester, Hampshire and Berkshire counties.

Invoking the Spirit of ’76, farmer/protestors symbolically wore evergreen stems in their hats. Marching with fife and drum, “a large concourse of people” occupied the Hampshire Courthouse on August 29, 1786. The script was repeated in surrounding counties, as farmers realized that they could not be dispossessed of their lands and sent to debtor’s prison when the courts were shut down.

At first, Massachusetts responded by calling out local militias. This effort was quickly dropped when too many militia members proved sympathetic and refused to muster against their neighbors. Next, Massachusetts asked the Confederation Congress for assistance.

According to its  Congressional Journal, Congress feared that “unless speedy and effectual measures” were taken the insurrectionists would “possess themselves of the arsenal at Springfield…and not only reduce the Commonwealth to a State of Anarchy and Confusion but probably involve the United States in the Calamities of a civil war.”

On October 21, 1786, Congress commissioned $500,000 of loans for an army to suppress the “dangerous insurrection.” This plan, however, was also problematic as financing was to be provided by the states, which were long delinquent in their obligations to Congress. When only a single state, Virginia, agreed to raise funds for a federal army, Massachusetts was effectively left to fend for itself.

Yet, Massachusetts, like the federal government, was also insolvent. The political establishment in Boston passed a series of retaliatory laws, including a Riot Act and Sedition Act, which are discussed in Part II (pending). Rather than deterring the insurrectionists, the repressive laws and suspension of habeas corpus may have exacerbated it. Calling themselves “Regulators,” (based on a protest movement against corruption in the Carolinas in 1771), the protestors recruited former Revolutionary Army Captain Daniel Shays to assist with military training and organization. 

Forced to take matters into their own hands, wealthy merchants and bankers in Boston raised funds for a private army of 4,400 recruits to be led by Revolutionary War Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Under Shays’ leadership, the Shaysites attempted to capture the federal armory in Springfield on January 25, 1787. Nevertheless, lightly armed farmers proved to be no match for the cannons defending the armory. 

Lincoln’s well equipped army arrived shortly thereafter. On February 3, during a blizzard, Lincoln captured the rebel camp in Petersham. Shays and other leaders fled to New York and Vermont. While sporadic resistance would continue for several more months, the rag-tag rebellion had been squashed.

Early Correspondence and Advance Warning in Massachusetts

James Warren was able to read the writing on the wall. During the Revolutionary War, Warren had served as President of the Massachusetts Provisional Congress and Paymaster General for the Continental Army. In a letter to John Adams dated April 30, 1786, Warren described the “extreme scarcity” in Massachusetts leading to “confusion and anarchy,” as the post-war depression led to a debt crisis and farm foreclosures. At the time, Adams was serving as America’s first minister to Great Britain:

I know you wish to be Informed of the situation of your beloved Country….The constant drain of Specie to make remittances for Baubles Imported from England is so great as to Occasion an Extreem Scarcity: Commerce is ruined: & what is worse, the husbandry & Manufactures of the Country cannot be supported. the only Branch of Business that promises any success is the Fishery, & that is greatly Injured from the same Cause. No Debts Can be paid, or Taxes Collected. the first are severely demanded, by multiplyed Law suits. the last are become more necessary than ever by the wants of the public: our General Court sets often & long, do little & give no satisfaction to their Constituents— Paper Money, Tenders of Lands &c. suspension of Law processes, & a variety of Expedients are proposed, & Nothing Adopted. a Total Change in principles & Manners, Interest is the great object, the only pursuit, and Riches only respected. every thing seems verging to Confusion, & anarchy, & certainly great Wisdom & Address are necessary to prevent it.

Initially, John Adams wasn’t too alarmed. As farmers were shutting down the courts in Western Massachusetts, Adams admitted in a letter to Thomas Jefferson that the Massachusetts Assembly had been slightly aggressive in its efforts to pay off state debts with new taxes. Ultimately, Adams’ predictions would prove correct that the “commotion” would eventually end with “additional strength” being granted to the government. According to Adams’ November 30, 1786 letter:

Dont be allarmed at the late Turbulence in New England, The Massachusetts assembly had in its Zeal to get the better of their Debt, laid on a Tax, rather heavier than the People could bear. but all will be well, and this Commotion will terminate in additional Strength to Government.

Mercy Otis Warren understood both sides of the controversy. Mrs. Warren was James Warren’s wife and a poet, political commentator, and author in her own right. For example, she wrote an influential multi-volume history of the Revolutionary War. In a letter to John Adams December of 1786, Mercy Otis Warren observed that Shays Rebellion defied “all authority,” but that Massachusetts had been “drawing the reins of power” too tightly:

In this Country, lately armed for opposition to regal despotism, there seems to be on the one side a boldness of spirit that sets at defiance all authority, governments and order, and on the other, not a secret wish only, but an open avowal of a necessity for drawing the reins of power much too tight for republicanism, or even for a wise and limited Monarchy. Perhaps America is in the predicament of an adventurous youth, who has disengaged himself from parental authority, before the period of maturity that might have taught him to make a proper use of his freedom. You have a friend here who equally criminates the conduct of both parties.

Reaction by Washington, Knox and Lee

While George Washington had retired to Mt. Vernon following the war, he was kept appraised of events in Massachusetts by his former subordinates, including Secretary of War, Henry Knox. In the winter of 1786, the news of Shays’ Rebellion became increasingly worrisome. 

In a dire letter from Henry Knox to Washington dated October 23, 1786, Knox warned of a “formidable rebellion against reason, the principles of all government, and the very name of liberty. This dreadful situation has alarmed every man of principle and property in New England.” Knox estimated that Massachusetts rebels and their compatriots in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire numbered as many as 15,000 “desperate and unprincipled men.” 

Consulting with Knox in Congress, Virginia representative Henry Lee also sent dire warnings to Washington. In a letter dated October 17, 1786 to Washington, Lee wrote that, “[i]n all the eastern states the same temper prevails more or less, and will certainly break forth whenever the opportune moment may arrive.”  Lee added that the rebels were believed to be “in negotiation” with the Governor of Canada for assistance from Britain. “In one word my dear Genl we are all in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy with all its calamitys has approached, & have no means to stop the dreadful work.” Lee was not merely informing Washington, he wanted the former General to “pay us a visit” and exert his influence. 

Washington responded to Lee on October 31, that he was “mortified beyond expression.” Using language uncharacteristic for the customarily stoic commander, Washington replied that:

The picture which you have drawn, & the accts which are published, of the commotions & 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 have predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable; that mankind left to themselves are unfit for their own government. I am mortified beyond expression whenever I view the clouds which have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country. In a word, I am lost in amazement, when I behold what intriegueing; the interested views of desperate characters; Jealousy; & ignorance of the Minor part, are capable of effecting as a scurge on the major part of our fellow citizens of the Union:for it is hardly to be imagined that the great body of the people tho’ they will not act can be so enveloped in darkness, or short sighted as not to see the rays of a distant sun through all this mist of intoxication & folly.

Washington made clear that in his “humble opinion” a decisive action had to be taken. If the insurgents had “real grievances,” they should be acknowledged and addressed, “if possible.” If not the “force of government” should be deployed against them “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 their complaints and your inability of doing 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 & more contemptible than we already are, is hardly possible. To delay one of the other of these, is to exasperate in one case, and to give confidence in the other; and will add to their numbers; for like Snow-balls, such bodies encrease by every movement, unless there is something in the way to obstruct, & crumble them before the weight is too great & irrisistable.

Animated by the alarmist reports, in a letter to Henry Knox dated December 26, 1786, Washington bemoaned the conduct of the Massachusetts insurgents. Ultimately, it was becoming clear to Washington and other confirmed nationalists that a solution was necessary to “give energy to the federal system”:

I feel, my dear Genl Knox, infinitely more than I can express to you, for the disorders which have arisen in these states. Good God! who besides a tory could have foreseen, or a Briton predicted them! . . . notwithstanding the boasted virtue of America, we are far gone in every thing ignoble & bad. I do assure you, that even at this moment, when I reflect on the present posture of our affairs, it seems to me to be like the vision of a dream….

when—where—or how it will end. There are combustibles in every State, which a spark may set fire to. In this state, a perfect calm prevails at present, and a prompt disposition to support, and give energy to the fœderal system is discovered, if the unlucky stirring of the dispute respecting the navigation of the Mississipi does not become a leaven that will ferment & sour the mind of it.

In January of 1787, the critical month of Shays’ Rebellion, James Madison predicted that bloodshed was not “improbable.” Madison found these events “distressing beyond measure,” but took consolidation in the fact that the “crisis” in Massachusetts would “furnish new proofs of the necessity” of vigorous reform. Madison also mentioned that “[a]n attempt to bring about such an amendment of the federal Constitution” was of course planned for May next in Philadelphia:

Our latest information renders it not improbable that civil blood may be shed, and leaves it somewhat uncertain whether the Govt. or its adversaries will be victorious. There is good ground to believe that the latter are secretly stimulated by British influence. These events are distressing beyond measure to the zealous friends of the Revolution, and furnish new proofs of the necessity of such a vigour in the Genl. Govt. as will be able to restore health to any diseased part of the federal body. An attempt to bring about such an amendment of the federal Constitution is on the Anvil. The Meeting of deputies for that purpose is to be held in May next in Philada. 

The following year, in his opening speech at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Virginia delegate and Governor Edmund Randolph began by enumerating the defects of the Articles of Confederation. According to James Madison’s notes on May 29, 1787, among the first failures listed was the fact that “the foederal government could not check the quarrels between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power nor means to interpose according to the exigency.”

The Economics of Shays’ Rebellion

After the Revolutionary War, Americans went on a buying spree prompted by credit from British exporters eager to recapture American markets. As described in the book, Decision in Philadelphia, “[e]ight years of privation had left them hungering for ‘luxuries’  – clocks, rugs, glassware, and sideboards from Europe, and especially from England. They ordered good recklessly, paying for them – or not paying for them – on credit.” Initially following the war, America experienced a predictable economic boost, but it was short lived.

The war had devastated the American economy. As a percentage of the population, Revolutionary War deaths exceeded every American conflict except the Civil War. According to economic historians, national income declined 30% between 1774 and 1790. This deep of an economic dislocation is consequential.

While English merchants were happy to extend credit for American buyers after the war, British trade restrictions limited American exports. During the mid-1780s, Americans imported three times as much as they exported. By 1785, British merchants became nervous and began tightening credit.

In many states, conservatives introduced austerity programs intended to protect private creditors from depreciating paper money. Congress and most states ceased printing paper currency and revoked its status as legal tender. As a result, consumers and taxpayers were required to pay with increasingly scarce hard currency. When inflation reversed into deflation, farmers were especially hard hit, as farm income plunged.

Economic difficulties were particularly acute in Western Massachusetts. In the midst of the recession Massachusetts adopted the most regressive fiscal policy in the country. In 1786, Massachusetts raised taxes rather than heeding petitions from rural areas asking for relief.

Among other reasons, Shays’ Rebellion was triggered by the decision in early 1786 to lay the heaviest ever direct tax in specie on the citizens of Massachusetts. It is estimated that in the mid 1780’s Massachusetts farmers paid up to a third of their income in state taxes. Rather than funding only the depreciated value of its state debt as other states were doing, Massachusetts attempted to pay creditors based on the face value of its debt obligations. 

According to some estimates, by July of 1784 there was only £150,000 in Massachusetts, amounting to approximately ten shillings per person (3 shillings per day was a good day’s wages at the time, prior to the introduction of the 100 cent-dollar as U.S. currency in 1792). The shortage of hard currency meant that many had no cash and had very little ability to acquire any. 

As the depression worsened, lawsuits multiplied. Worse still, creditors demanded payment of court judgments in hard currency. This was particularly challenging for famers who were accustomed to bartering. By way of example, in Hampshire County in Massachusetts, it is estimated that up to a third of all males over the age of 16 were involved in debt cases in the courts. Massachusetts Governor, James Bowdoin, drew his support from merchant interests in the eastern part of the state and proved tone death to the growing popular uprising.

Aftermath of Shays’ Rebellion

As described by the book Decision in Philadelphia, Shays’ Rebellion “hung like a shadow over the old Congress, and gave both impetus and urgency to the Constitutional Convention.” According to historian John Kaminski, Shays’ Rebellion had an “enormous impact” beyond Massachusetts. “By October of 1786 the news of Shays’ Rebellion had spread from one end of America to the other,” just in time to reinforce the urgency of the Annapolis Convention’s call to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1787. Indeed, on February 21, only three weeks after Shays’ defeat at the Springfield armory, the Confederation Congress officially approved a resolution drafted by James Madison calling for states to attend the Constitutional Convention.

Harlow Unger in the book America’s Second Revolution, compares the popular uprising to resistance to the British a decade earlier:

Just as the shots fired at Lexington had echoed in London’s Parliament, so the shots fired in Springfield reverberated loudly in Congress and in the nation’s state capitals and jolted even the most ardent state supremacists into realizing that their only hope of retaining their wealth, power and sovereignty lay in sharing enough of each with a central government strong enough to ensure national integrity.

In the spring elections in Massachusetts, Governor Bowdoin lost to the more conciliatory John Hancock by a margin of 3 to 1. General Lincoln ran for lieutenant governor but was also badly defeated, based on the western view that his tactics were unnecessarily heavy handed. Hailed as a hero in the east for protecting the Springfield armory, militia commander William Shepard was derided locally for his decision to fire cannon grape shot at “patriotic protestors.”

Mobilized to the polls, agrarian voters demanded political change. The Massachusetts Legislature subsequently suspended direct taxes in 1787 and cut them by a third in 1788. The predictable result was a decline in the value of Massachusetts state securities by 30%.

In his Conjectures About the New Constitution written after the Constitution was signed, Alexander Hamilton assessed the arguments which could be marshaled in support of ratification. Along with the universal popularity of General Washington and the strong belief in the “insufficiency of the present confederation to preserve the existence of the Union,” Hamilton attributed “the good will of most men of property in the several states who wish a government of the union able to protect them against domestic violence and the depredations which the democratic spirit is apt to make on property.”

According to historian Sean Condon:

[Shays’ Rebellion] highlighted the fact that a state like Massachusetts, which in many ways was relatively homogenous in terms of ethnicity, religious belief, and language, could still be deeply divided by different economic and political cultures.

Condon also notes that Shays’ Rebellion “raised critical questions about the rights and responsibilities of citizens who found certain governmental policies oppressive,” along with the appropriate response of those responsible for maintaining order. Shays’ Rebellion also reinforced the important early lesson that “identification with and loyalty to that fledgling government were not automatic but would need to be cultivated.”

Historian Ron Chernow observes that “[i]f ever American history had a useful crisis, it occurred in western Massachusetts in the autumn of 1786.”

Jefferson’s famous thoughts on rebellion and the tree of liberty

Historian Gordon Wood in the book Revolutionary Characters observes that, “Jefferson alone of the founding fathers was unperturbed by Shays’s Rebellion.” Referring to Shays’ Rebellion, Jefferson famously admitted that “I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.”

In a February 22, 1787 letter to Abigail Adams, Jefferson expressed the hope that the “malcontents” would be pardoned. “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive.”

Abigail Adams had written to Jefferson in January 29, 1787 expressing the view that the rebellion in her home state would prove salutary, even though it was led by ignorant desperadoes, “devoid of conscience or principals”:

With regard to the Tumults in my Native state which you inquire about, I wish I could say that report had exagerated them. It is too true Sir that they have been carried to so allarming a Height as to stop the Courts of Justice in several Counties. Ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principals, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievences which have no existance but in their immaginations. Some of them were crying out for a paper currency, some for an equal distribution of property, some were for annihilating all debts, others complaning that the Senate was a useless Branch of Government, that the Court of common Pleas was unnecessary, and that the Sitting of the General Court in Boston was a grieveince. By this list you will see, the materials which compose this Rebellion, and the necessity there is of the wisest and most vigorous measures to quell and suppress it. Instead of that laudible Spirit which you approve, which makes a people watchfull over their Liberties and alert in the defence of them, these Mobish insurgents are for sapping the foundation, and distroying the whole fabrick at once.

But as these people make only a small part of the State, when compared to the more Sensible and judicious, and altho they create a just allarm, and give much trouble and uneasiness, I cannot help flattering myself that they will prove Sallutary to the state at large, by leading to an investigation of the causes which have produced these commotions. 

Later that year, Jefferson would remark that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” The full context of the famous quotation in Jefferson’s November 13, 1787 letter to William Stephens Smith (his son-in-law) is copied below:

We have had 13 states independent 11 years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.

Decades later, Madison admitted in 1823, that Jefferson had “a habit,” like “others of great genius,” of expressing in strong and round terms impressions of the movement.” On the eve of the bicentennial of Shays’ Rebellion, President Reagan conceded that “Shays’ protest was put down forcefully, but it helped lead to the adoption of the United States constitution, a blueprint for freedom…”

This post continues in Part II with a discussion of the Massachusetts laws passed during Shays’ Rebellion.

Additional reading:

Shays Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America, Sean Condon (2015)

In Debt to Shays’ Revolution: Bicentennial of an Agrarian Rebellion, Robert Gross, editor (1993)

America’s Second Revolution: How George Washington Defeated Patrick Henry and Saved the Nation, Harlow Giles Unger (2007)

Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, Ray Raphael (2009)

The Shadow of Shays’ Rebellion, the Center for the Study of the American Constitution ( providing links to correspondence about Shays’ Rebellion along with newspaper articles

Agrarian Unrest and the Constitution, Volume XIII, Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution

American Revolutions: A Continental History, Alan Taylor (2016)

Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle, Leonard Richards (2002)

Shays’ Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection, David Szatmary (1980)

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