Shays' Rebellion: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Every day across the United States, homeowners that have been affected by the recession are having their homes foreclosed on. Their only option is to figure out a way to pay off their debt in a timely manner or vacate their homes. In the 1780s, several farmers decided to take a stand against the government foreclosing on their homes and farms. Learn here about Daniel Shays and the rebellion he led.

Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays was a captain in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He led and fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Daniel Shays served in the Continental Army at the Battle of Bunker Hill
bunker hill

Rough Times

After the war, the Articles of Confederation did not give the Continental Congress the power to enforce taxation. The economy in the new nation was struggling because of the inability of the Continental Congress to pay their debts, as well as high tax rates by individual states and a drop in the price of crops. That drop in the price of crops hurt farmers, who were being charged with heavy taxes by the states to pay off war debts and other debts of their own.


In order for states to get the money they needed, they started foreclosing on livestock, crops, and farms. States would also put some of these farmers in prison if the debt they were unable to repay was high enough. Farmers grew tired and fearful of the state governments foreclosing on their properties, so they decided to take action.

Taxes and a tough economy led to many farms being foreclosed


The action taken by farmers resembled the actions preceding the American Revolution. The new rebels started by holding meetings on how to petition the state government to fix the problems. Massachusetts, however, did not take action to help these farmers.


When the farmers realized the state government was not going to help, they decided to take action into their own hands. Rebels started forcing courts to close and freeing jailed debtors. They forced the courts to close so there could be no more hearings to foreclose on additional farms. The first court they shut down was the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton, Massachusetts, about ten miles away from Shays' farm. Close to 1,500 men armed with swords, rifles, or wooden clubs gathered at the Courthouse steps with Luke Day providing a petition to close the courts. Day gave the petition to the judges and they decided it was in their best interest to not hold session until November of that year.

Daniel Shays had experience in military leadership, so he was a natural fit to lead another group of rebels. Shays and over 1,000 other rebel farmers often called Shaysites, attempted to heavily arm themselves in 1787. These Shaysites referred to themselves as Regulators. They went to the Springfield, Massachusetts, Armory to get additional weapons from the armory in order to shut down more courts. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was scheduled to meet in Springfield in September, and Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin worried the rebels would disrupt or shut down their proceedings. The state government in eastern Massachusetts knew they would not last if citizens could shut down the basic functions of their government. In retaliation, Governor Bowdoin put together a privately funded militia to stop the rebellion. The Massachusetts government at the time referred to the rebels as insurgents, which is a term all Americans should be used to today with the War on Terror.

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