Shays’s Rebellion revealed the conflicting interests of farmers in rural areas and merchants along the coast of the new United States. The economic problems driving the rebellion were soon addressed, when the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution.
On January 16, 1786, sixty farmers in Greenwich, Massachusetts, signed a petition to the Massachusetts Assembly outlining their grievances against local and state enforcement of tax collection and debt assessment. The petitioners emphasized their support for the recent revolution and their willingness to pay their share of the debt that resulted from it. They expressed their concern, however, that many farmers were being imprisoned for debt. Their property was being seized and sold for less than real value, causing many farmers to flee to New York and other states.
The petitioners noted that the governor had recently sent out a proclamation urging the promotion of piety and virtue throughout the commonwealth. They felt that these values should lead the state to provide relief to those who were suffering severe economic distress. A major component of that relief would be the issuance of paper currency, making debt payment much easier.
Dissent soon spread to other states, but it was most serious in Massachusetts. When the assembly adjourned on July 8 without issuing paper currency or addressing their other demands, protesting farmers initiated an armed rebellion centered on the western town of Springfield, the location of a federal arsenal. The farmers were led by Daniel
A state militia of over four thousand men was assembled in January, 1787, in Boston and Springfield to subdue the rebels. Although Congress authorized a federal force, it never had to be used. An attack by Shays on the Springfield arsenal was quickly repulsed. When Shays was routed at Petersham on February 4, the rebellion collapsed. All involved, including Shays, were eventually pardoned.
As a result of Shays’s Rebellion, the Massachusetts Assembly enacted laws to lower court foreclosure costs and to exempt clothing, tools of one’s trade, and other items from debt collection. The assembly did not pass a proposed direct tax in 1787. In 1802, President John Quincy Adams observed:
The insurrection of the year 1786 forms one of the most instructive periods of the history of our country . . . [and] will give [citizens] a deeper insight into the character of this people, a more extensive view of our social organization, and its internal operations at critical times, than they could obtain by years of personal observation.
McCarthy, Timothy, and John McMillian. The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition. New York: New Press, 2003. Szatmary, David P. Shays’s Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Articles of Confederation
Depression of 1784