In the first years of peacetime, following the Revolutionary War, the future of both the agrarian and commercial society appeared threatened by a strangling chain of debt which aggravated the depressed economy of the postwar years.1 This poor economy affected almost everyone in New England especially the farmers. For years these farmers, or yeomen as they were commonly called, had been used to growing just enough for what they needed and grew little in surplus. As one farmer explained My farm provides me and my family with a good living.
Nothing we wear, eat, or drink was purchased, because my farm provides it all.2 The only problem with this way of life is that with no surplus there was no way to make enough money to pay excessive debts. For example, since farmer possessed little money the merchants offered the articles they needed on short-term credit and accepted any surplus farm goods on a seasonal basis for payment. However if the farmer experienced a poor crop, shopkeepers usually extended credit and thereby tied the farmer to their businesses on a yearly basis.3 During a credit crisis, the gradual disintegration of the traditional culture became more apparent. During hard times, merchants in need of ready cash withdrew credit from their yeomen customers and called for the repayment of loans in hard cash. Such demands showed the growing power of the commercial elite.
As one could imagine this brought much social and economic unrest to the farmers of New England. Many of the farmers in debt were dragged into court and in many cases they were put into debtors prison. Many decided to take action: The farmers waited for the legal due process as long as them could. The Legislature, also know as the General Court, took little action to address the farmers complaints. 5 So without waiting for General Court to come back into session to work on grievances as requested, the People took matters into their own hands.6 This is when the idea for the Rebellion is decided upon and the need for a leader was eminent.
The RebellionThe person that was chosen to lead the rebellion was Daniel Shays. Shays, born in Hopkinton Massachusetts, grew up as a farmer before he fought for his country in the War for Independence. During the War he fought in such key battles as the Battle of Lexington, Bunker Hill and Saratoga. For his success in battle he was awarded the rank of Captain and after the War returned to civilian life. After the War he held a political office in Pelham, Massachusetts but during the beginning of the rebellion his sympathies were with the farmers which is what brought him into the fight.
The farmers decided that the person who should lead them into rebellion against their own government had to, in the words of a farmer, Be a firm leader and a man the is capable of keeping his head in case of emergency and I belive Daniel Shays is that such man.8 So now the lines were drawn and a leader was picked it was time for action. Shays men were restless and wanted to take action. So while they were outside courthouse at Springfield they talked about kidnaping the judges and holding them as hostages. Daniel Shays was doing his best to hold them back. The Massachusetts militia was present but would not defend the judges, court was adjourned and the judges snuck away. Shays men then took control of the empty courthouse.
Then on a prearranged signal the two groups dismissed. 9 Now after this event, numerous court house throughout the state begin to be held up by other farmers groups inspired by the actions of Shays men. For example, the Hampshire Country court, Great Barrington, and Worcester Court of Common Pleas were all held up during the rebellion. Some of these were protested in small groups and other such as Worcester, which had over 5000 people, were done by Shays men on a much larger scale.10 Word of a rebellion spend quickly through the state as well as the country. Massachusetts asked the Congress of the Confederation for help but found that once Congress said they would it proved ineffective. They had no way to raise money to field an army to combat the rebels because of the lack of national taxes.
This rebellion demonstrated that the central government could not protect the citizenry from armed rebellion or provide adequately for the public welfare.12 With tensions and fears growing within the citizens of Massachusetts something had to be done to put this insurrection to an end. James Bowdoin, Governor of Massachusetts, decided to take matters into his own hands. With his own funds and the funds of other merchant leaders Governor Bowdoin fielded an army under the command of General Lincoln to put down the rebellion.13 During Shays second advance on Springfield in which he planned to storm the arsenal he and his men were met by General Shepard and the militia. General Lincoln and his army were still on the way from Boston. During the confrontation an unexpected shot from a cannon was sent into the ranks of the rebels killing 4 and wounding 20.
Shays men retreated in disarray, pursued by Lincolns governmental soldiers.14 Most of the men that were captured were pardoned right away. However, The Supreme Judicial Court soon sentenced fourteen of the rebellions leaders, including Shays, to death for treason. They were later pardoned by the newly elected Governor John Hancock. Only two men were hanged for their part in the Rebellion.15 So after all the fighting is done was anything really solved? Rebellion and the ConstitutionThe rebels primary plan was not one to show the need for national supremacy and a new constitution. We did not intend to destroy law, but only to reform all those laws which were oppressive said one Shaysite farmer.
The Importance of Shays Rebellion was not so much the acts of rebellion themselves but how it pointed out the weakness of the Articles of Confederation for governing the United States. In order to prevent such anarchy in the future and to strengthen the central government, the Philadelphia Convention convened to draft the Constitution in the spring of 1787, just a short time after the end of Shays Rebellion. For example, in the very first part of our present day Constitution called the preamble it states to ensure domestic tranquility.17 This is a definite red flag that Shays Rebellion was on the minds of many delegates at the convention. Some localists accepted the necessity for a stronger national government.
The resulting union of American leaders originated at least in part from the domestic upheavals taking place in 1786 and 1787. To the nationalists, Shays Rebellion reflected the overall inadequacy of a political system dominated by semi sovereign states. Prolonged domestic conflict in Massachusetts, one of the most respected and influential states in the Confederation, disclosed the vulnerability of individual states in the loose-knit union. For Nationalist-minded leaders such as George Washington, no stronger evidence could be given of the want of energy in our governments than these disorders.18Another concern was the right of each state to coin its own money. The problems that Congress had with this is that the value of money in each state was different.
This made interstate commerce very difficult and in turn creating a country of separate islands. At the Constitutional Congress both Northern and Southern delegates sought to block paper money and tender laws, two measures tied to back country discontent and insurrection. To guard against the two measures, convention members proposed that no state shall coin money, emit bills of credit, making anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts19 The next consequence of Shays Rebellion on the Constitution is the need for the national government to have a standing army.
To suppress future rural rebellions and slave insurrections, state officials recommended two types of military force. Some delegates pushed for national control of the state militias. Other delegates suggested a national army to put down uprisings. State leaders provided for both types of military force in the proposed Constitution. 20 To this day we still have a State National Guard and the different branches of the United States Military. Now it was time to send this new law of the land to each different state to have them vote on it. Unlike the Articles of Confederation which all 13 states had to vote conclusively, the new Constitution required only 9 of the 13 states to ratify it for it to become law.21 And it has been the law for over 200 years.
In conclusion, if it had not been for farmers and debtors alike we may not have the same great nation as we do today. What if all the people that were being brought to court out of outstanding debts just kept quiet and went to debtors prison? Would we have even found out that our national government was to weak to even protect us until it was to late. For example, during the time of the Civil War what strong unifying force would have kept our country together if there was no powerful central government or a Presidency position to harbor a great leader such as Abraham Lincoln.
Also what about the times during the World Wars when any country could have attacked the United States and taken over. What was keeping them at bay? Probably our strong military force and ability to draft great numbers of soldiers in times of crisis. Finally, taking the events of 9-11-01 what could have happened to our country if we were not united as one. One state could just say well at least it was not our buildings. But with the idea of The United States of America we fought back against the evils behind those actions and I belive we are a stronger country because of it. Just like the Rebellion caused our country to become stronger by uniting.