Shay’s Rebellion

Shay’s Rebellion2018-11-28T09:54:40+00:00

Shay’s Rebellion for APUSH®

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

Shay’s Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion was an uprising in Massachusetts during late 1786 and early 1787.  The rebellion stemmed from a post-Revolutionary War depression and a shortage of hard money that left western farmers in danger of losing their land to foreclosures as a result of their failure to pay debts and taxes.  While similar situations existed for western farmers in virtually every other state, Massachusetts was the only state in which these conditions led to armed revolt.  While Shays’ Rebellion itself was relatively minor and easily put down by the Massachusetts militia, the revolt highlighted lingering problems that that had divided eastern and western interests since early in the colonial period.  More importantly, the rebellion reinforced the arguments of those who wanted to create a stronger federal government than that which existed under the Articles of Confederation.

A Long Line of Revolts (Context)

Shays’ Rebellion represents yet another instance of the conflict between easterners and westerners that began early in the colonial period.  Westerners, throughout colonial history, had a specific set of needs that were largely ignored by the eastern-controlled colonial governments.  As far back as 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led an uprising of western farmers in Virginia to protest the lack of protection from American Indians and unfair tax policies.  As in Shays’ Rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon and fellow rebels wanted a chance to air their grievances before the colonial officials who they believed to be insensitive to their needs.

Westerners, throughout colonial history, had a specific set of needs that were largely ignored by the eastern-controlled colonial governments.

Even the Salem Witch Trials had a component of conflict between agrarian interests and commercial interests.  Staunch Puritans of Salem Village tended to be the accusers of commercial interests moving out of Salem Town.

In the 1770’s, as tensions increased between British and colonial interests increased (leading to the American Revolution), the “Regulator” movement pitted westerner colonists against established eastern interests in the Carolinas.  Much of this discontent of the farmers and working men in the west came from the fact that settlers on the western frontier were the victims of under-representation in colonial, and later state, legislatures.  This was a result of rapidly increasing western populations and the time delay of reapportioning colonial assemblies to justly assure equal representation. Adding to the problem, eastern interests who controlled the assemblies had little ambition or incentive to quickly reapportion colonial assemblies because it would dilute their own influence.

Much of this discontent of the farmers and working men in the west came from the fact that settlers on the western frontier were the victims of under-representation in colonial, and later state, legislatures…  Adding to the problem, eastern interests who controlled the assemblies had little ambition or incentive to quickly reapportion colonial assemblies because it would dilute their own influence.

In the case of the regulators, grievances of westerner colonists were not aimed at Great Britain but at corrupt colonial governments.  Bribery, corruption, legal fees, taxes, and the lack of hard currency on the frontier meant that many western farmers were subject to losing their property due to foreclosure.  The Carolina regulators wanted to close the courts until their grievances were remedied by the colonial assemblies who were in no hurry to do so.  Armed conflict broke out and the regulators were routed.  Several regulators were hanged for treason.

The First American Revolt: Shay’s Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion followed the same general pattern as many of the previous confrontations between eastern and western interests.  In fact, participants in Shays’ Rebellion sometimes called themselves “regulators“.

Following the American Revolution, Massachusetts enacted three key policies that hurt western farmers. First, Massachusetts enacted extremely high tariffs on foreign goods; this led to a reduction in trade and an economic depression throughout the state. Second, Massachusetts enacted heavy taxes that disproportionally harmed poor western farmers. Third, Massachusetts enacted a strict monetary policy that reduced specie (hard currency) in the western front. The third policy was especially infuriating for western farmers because merchants and the government required debts and taxes to be paid in specie. Western farmers had a difficult time selling their crops for specie (western farmers relied heavily on bartering), and because they could not easily sell their crops to get specie, the government would foreclose on their farms.

In 1786 westerners used many of the same tactics that colonists had used to protest British rule.  They established Committees of Correspondence, closed courts, prevented sheriffs from foreclosing on property, and sent petitions to the Massachusetts government seeking redress of their grievances.  Ironically some leaders of the movement for American independence, particularly Sam Adams, saw this as treasonous and promoted the idea that leaders of the rebellion should be executed.

In 1786 westerners used many of the same tactics that colonists had used to protest British rule.  They established Committees of Correspondence, closed courts, prevented sheriffs from foreclosing on property, and sent petitions to the Massachusetts government seeking redress of their grievances.

As the protest progressed, Daniel Shay reluctantly assumed a position of leadership and led a small, poorly armed army to Springfield, Massachusetts early in 1787.  The goal of Shays’ followers was to capture the federal armory at Springfield to better arm themselves and to block the meeting of courts in Springfield which might consider charges of treason against the agitators.  Following that, there was some indication that Shays and his followers would attempt to overthrow the state government.  The rebellion was easily broken by local militia and later augmented by state militia.  Daniel Shays fled to Vermont and he and most of the other leaders were eventually pardoned.

The goal of Shays’ followers was to capture the federal armory at Springfield to better arm themselves and to block the meeting of courts in Springfield which might consider charges of treason against the agitators.

Be Careful What You Ask For (Synthesis)

Shays’ Rebellion did cause a great deal of concern with leaders in other states.  Most states had experienced some type of disruption: courts being closed by disadvantaged westerners and foreclosures blocked by local townspeople, as a result of the post-Revolutionary War adjustments.  There was some fear, largely unfounded, that Shays’ Rebellion, or something similar, might morph into an intercolonial insurrection.

Most states had experienced some type of disruption: courts being closed by disadvantaged westerners and foreclosures blocked by local townspeople

Shays’ Rebellion also reinforced the call for a more powerful central government that many had been advocating for some time.  George Washington feared that insurrections such as Shays’ could snowball because the Articles of Confederation government lacked the power to deal effectively with such outbreaks.  Some say Washington, who had retired from public life, was convinced by friends that the situation was serious enough for him to chair the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia later in 1787.  Alexander Hamilton, ever the supporter of a powerful central government, saw Shays’ Rebellion as an example of anarchy that could not be controlled without a powerful federal government.  Thus, to a degree, Shays’ Rebellion helped pave the way for the U.S. Constitution.

Alexander Hamilton, ever the supporter of a powerful central government, saw Shays’ Rebellion as an example of anarchy that could not be controlled without a powerful federal government.  Thus, to a degree, Shays’ Rebellion helped pave the way for the U.S. Constitution.

Shortly after Shays’ Rebellion, during Washington’s presidency under the Constitution of 1787, the federal government faced a similar revolt from farmers in western Pennsylvania.  Farmers in western Pennsylvania turned surplus crops into liquor so they could haul their grain over the Appalachian Mountains; it was much cheaper to transport the grain in the form of liquor.  In 1791, as part of Hamilton’s economic plan, Congress enacted an excise tax on distilled liquor.  This tax hurt western farmers because they now had to pay a tax on liquor as it was the only profitable way to sell their grain (turned into liquor) to eastern colonists.

In 1794, an insurrection, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, broke out when a small group of western farmers refused to pay the tax (believing it to be unjust).  Unlike what happened in Shays’ Rebellion, the Pennsylvania governor refused to call out the state militia to put down the rebellion.  Washington, at the urging of Hamilton, assembled an army of 13,000 men and marched west to confront the rebels.

Washington Determines Not to Repeat History

This army of 13,000 was larger than any army Washington commanded during the American Revolution. This overwhelming show of force caused the protesters to scatter and the rebellion was broken. Washington used this excessive show of force because he was concerned with the colonial example of resistance to British measures to restrict colonial freedom.

Washington used this excessive show of force because he was concerned with the colonial example of resistance to British measures to restrict colonial freedom.

What happened when the British passed the Proclamation of 1763 banning colonial settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains?  Colonists ignored the restriction and settled there anyway.  What was the British response? They cowered and moved the Proclamation line farther west.

What happened when colonists protested the Stamp Act through non-importation agreements and the intimidation of the Sons of Liberty? Britain repealed the Stamp Act.

If armed insurrections like Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion were allowed to go unchallenged, Washington feared that citizens would question the ability and the will of the new federal government to enforce its laws.  By firmly suppressing this initial challenge to federal authority, Washington demonstrated that the new government had both the means and determination to enforce its laws.

If armed insurrections like Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion were allowed to go unchallenged, Washington feared that citizens would question the ability and the will of the new federal government to enforce its laws.

Thus, Shays’ Rebellion represented typical conflict between the easterners who controlled the colonial and later state governments and the westerners who felt underrepresented and overburdened.  Subsequently Shays’ Rebellion served as a rallying cry for those who wished to strengthen the federal government.  Westerners, whether challenging state or federal authority, aimed their protests at distant authorities which they believed were insensitive to frontier needs.  In the case of Shays’ Rebellion, a subsequent show of force by the federal government showed it had both the will and the ability to enforce its laws.

 

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