Daniel Shays: Rebellion & Quotes

Instructor: David Lobb
In the aftermath of the revolution, America had to determine how to govern itself. Many believed there should be no central government, but rather a loose confederation. As the country struggled with these issues, rising revolts such as the Shays' Rebellion exposed how fragile democracy can be.

A Fragile Young America

At the close of the American Revolution, countries around the globe held their breath in anticipation of whether or not the great democratic experiment could succeed. The idea that colonies, different in interests and make-up, could form a union in support of independence was unthinkable to many, and doomed to failure according to others.

How to govern such a country became the central question in the years following the Revolution. Two schools of thought emerged. One favored strong central government, and the other called for a loose confederation in which states' rights ruled the day. Prior to the development of the Constitution, the country was a loose confederation government that attempted to unite the disparate new states. Shays' Rebellion was one of the first challenges to America's governance.

Chaos Builds

By the late 1780s, chaos seemed present in almost every former colony. Money issues plagued many of the northern states, leading some to say the country was on the brink of anarchy. Events in Massachusetts provided some with final proof of the dangers of democracy and stood as an example of the philosophy run riot. There, the problem was not too much paper money (as was the case in neighboring Rhode Island, which flooded the state with currency), but too little. In addition, there was too much taxation. After the war, Massachusetts had remained in the grip of a conservative state leadership that levied larger taxes in order to pay off heavy war debt, mainly held by wealthy creditors in Boston.

Massachusetts Map, circa 1786
Mass 1786

No Taxation

The taxes fell mostly upon the poor and small farmers. When, in 1786, the legislature convened without providing for more paper money or relief from taxes, the western counties erupted in revolt. Armed bands closed the courts and prevented foreclosures. A rag tag 'army' of some 1,200 disgruntled farmers under the direction of Daniel Shays, a destitute farmer and war veteran, took the federal arsenal in Springfield.

Portrait of Daniel Shays
Portrait of Shays

Despite this show of force, a small state militia disbanded Shays' crew quickly. They fired at the debtor army, killing four. The rest fled. The rebel farmers nevertheless had a victory of sorts. The new state legislature included members sympathetic to the agricultural crisis. They did away with many direct taxes the next year, lowered court fees, and exempted tools and household goods from the debt process. But a more important consequence was the impetus the rebellion gave to nationalism.

Depiction of the rebel group taking the armory in Springfield
Shays Rebellion

The Tyranny of the Few

Rumors, at times created deliberately, often inflated or exaggerated the extent of the small rebellion of desperate men. Often, the men were linked to British conspiracies or plans to plunder the wealthy. More than this, Shays' Rebellion set an ominous example to the new democracy. The elite in each state began to fear that mobs such as Shays' could destroy the young government.

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