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Shays' Rebellion: Significance & Effects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Shays' Rebellion was not the longest insurrection in history, but it had a major impact. In this lesson, we'll explore this moment and see how it changed American history forever.

Shays' Rebellion

Imagine you'd sacrificed your time and energy, as well as left your farm and family, to fight for your country's independence. But then imagine you weren't paid for it, and then were landed in jail for not paying debts while you were gone - unfair right? This is similar to the cause of Shays' Rebellion.

In 1783, the United States signed the Treaty of Paris with Britain, and officially ended the American Revolution. They'd done it; they had achieved their freedom and recognition as an independent nation.

Four years later, they completely scrapped their young government and started over. Why? What happened between the end of the Revolution and the drafting of the United States Constitution?

Known as Shays' Rebellion, this brief insurrection from 1786-1787 demonstrated to the nation that independence would not be quite as easy as they had imagined.

Background

When the United States finally achieved independence, the nation did not have a true constitution. What they had was a document called the Articles of Confederation, which organized the states into a single nation under Congress as a loosely defined government. This Congress was able to fight the Revolution, but was weak outside of wartime.

This was intentional; the Americans were terrified of creating a strong central government, which they equated with monarchy. However, without the power to even reliably collect taxes, Congress under the Articles of Confederation struggled to govern.

At the same time, individual citizens were also struggling. Since Congress had no money, many soldiers were never paid for their service in the Revolution. Instead, they returned home from war to find they were in massive debt. Many had their homes seized by the courts, while others were arrested. One such soldier to leave the war shackled by debt was Captain of the Continental Army and Massachusetts farmer Daniel Shays.

Daniel Shays (left) and another protest leader
Daniel Shays

Seizing the Courts

Shays, along with other farmers, began meeting to debate the problem of this debt. Just as they had done before the American Revolution, they called town meetings, organized protests, and drafted letters of complaint to the government. The only difference was that now they were writing to the state government in Boston, not the Parliament in London.

The government in Boston refused to take action, since the money the farmers owed were needed to pay back European investors who had helped finance the American Revolution. Massachusetts itself was in debt too. With the state government unwilling to help, Shays and the other protestors decided to take action.

Calling themselves the Regulators (since they would regulate and enforce the law against these unjust courts), they marched across rural Massachusetts and began seizing control of the courthouses. Throughout 1786, the Regulators broke people out of debtors' prisons and prevented judges and sheriffs from entering the courts. After all, if the courthouse wasn't open, then no one could be arrested.

Rebellion

As the Regulators grew in size, Shays' was elevated as leader, reluctantly taking on the role. At first, he fought diligently to cooperate with the state government, trying to peacefully resolve the conflict. However, there were rumblings among the growing number of protestors that the Massachusetts government needed to be overthrown. By the end of 1786, the government in Boston was calling for help, claiming that their state was on the brink of a civil war.

So, what did the government do? Nothing. Under the Articles of Confederation, they didn't actually enough legal or practical power to amass an army, especially since no one had actually declared war on the United States. Instead, the governor of Massachusetts sent out a plea for help to the wealthy citizens of the state.

The elites contributed their personal money to finance a private army, which was quickly assembled. In late January of 1787, Shays' army of roughly 4,000 Regulators marched on the Springfield Armory, the United States' primary arsenal. It was the first major battle of Shays' Rebellion…and the last. The private army funded by the wealthy elites scattered the Regulators, and the rebellion dissolved not long after that.

Impact

Shay's Rebellion was pretty short, and even Daniel Shays would eventually be pardoned for his role in it. So, why do we care about it? Although brief, the rebellion was the straw the broke the camel's back: Americans realized that their government wasn't working.

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