Like the other states, Massachusetts had participated in a radicalizing event: the American Revolution. In the years leading up to war and then independence, communities throughout Massachusetts experienced turmoil and often violence as resistance to British government and authority intensified.
What sorts of resistance to government occurred in Massachusetts in the 1770s? Compare this activity to the actions of the Massachusetts Regulators in 1786-87. In what ways are they similar? In what ways do you think they differed?
Shays’ Rebellion and internal convulsions in other states occurred against an international backdrop. Independence freed American traders and governments from the onerous obligations of Britain’s mercantile colonial empire. By the same token, however, independence cut Americans off from its protection, including the British West India trade network, a mainstay of pre-Revolutionary commerce.
What sorts of economic opportunities and challenges did the people and the government of Massachusetts face as the Revolutionary War ended? What policies did the Massachusetts government adopt in order to pay the state’s war debt? What impact did those policies have on its citizens?
By the mid-1780s, Massachusetts, like the rest of the new nation, was in the throes of a severe depression. Communities petitioned the state legislature with grievances and pleaded for fiscal relief. Delegates from dozens of towns gathered at County Conventions and issued resolves, including calls to amend or revise the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.
What sorts of concerns did communities express in these petitions? What solutions did they suggest? How did the state legislature respond?
As towns continued to petition and town delegates attended county conventions, many citizens decided it was necessary to prevent the judicial courts of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from convening until the state addressed the grievances expressed in the petitions. Other citizens believed it was their duty to protect the courts and ensure that they could open.
What did the citizens who wanted to close the courts call themselves? How did they go about stopping the courts? How did the government respond? Who protected the courts?
By winter of 1786, protests were gaining momentum and members. All eyes turned to the United States Arsenal in Springfield as expectations grew that the Regulators would try to take over the barracks and supplies there.
Why did the Regulators go to the Arsenal? Who got to the Arsenal first? What happened there? What sorts of decisions did General Shepard have to make? Why do you think the Regulators responded as they did?
As armed resistance ended in the winter of 1787, the Massachusetts government offered a pardon to rank-and-file men who had taken up arms. Men identified as ringleaders were imprisoned; several were sentenced to death.
Why do you think armed conflict ceased? Did many Regulators take up the government on its offer of a pardon? What were the conditions of this pardon? Why do you think the pardon included restrictions on teaching school and running a tavern? On what charge were the imprisoned leaders condemned to death? When and why did the government decide to pardon them?
In the spring of 1787, delegates from every state except Rhode Island attended a convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to revise the Articles of Confederation, under which the national government had been operating since 1781.
What sorts of problems did the delegates hope to address at the Convention? What role do you think the Massachusetts Regulation played in the creation of the new federal Constitution? What sort of role or influence do you think the conflict in Massachusetts played in the debates and in the final document?
In 1788, Massachusetts became the sixth state to ratify the new Federal Constitution when the Massachusetts ratifying convention voted to accept the proposed plan of government.
How many delegates to the Massachusetts ratifying convention voted to adopt the Constitution? How many voted against it? Do you think former Regulators were more likely to oppose or to support ratifying the Constitution? What about their opponents?
In the years following the ratification of the Federal Constitution, the turmoil of the mid-1780s faded into memory, and became known as “Shays’ Rebellion.” Who was Daniel Shays? How and why do you think his name became synonymous with the Regulation? Do you think what happened in 1786-87 in Massachusetts was a rebellion? Why or why not? Consider the concerns expressed by the Regulators, their sympathizers, and the supporters of the Massachusetts government during the Regulation. Do you think any of these any of these issues are still relevant today? If so, which ones?
On February 4, 1787, government militia under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln surprised and routed a force of Regulators led by Captain Daniel Shays in Petersham, Masachusetts. A monument erected in 1927 to commemorate this event bears the following inscription:
"In this town on Sunday morning, February fourth, 1787, Daniel Shays and 150 of his followers, in rebellion against the commonwealth, were surprised and routed by GENERAL BENJAMIN LINCOLN in command of the Army of Massachusetts, after a night march from Hadley of thirty miles through snow in cold below zero.
"This victory for the forces of government influenced the Philadelphia Convention which three months later met and formed the Constitution of the United States.
"Obedience to law is true liberty."
A second monument was erected in 1987 with this inscription:
"In this town on Sunday morning, February fourth, 1787, CAPTAIN DANIEL SHAYS and 150 of his followers who fought for the common people against the established powers and who tried to make real the vision of justice and equality embodied in our revolutionary declaration of independence, was surprised and routed, while enjoying the hospitality of Petersham, by General Benjamin Lincoln and an army financed by the wealthy merchants of Boston. "True Liberty and Justice may require resistance to law." What is similar in these inscriptions? What is different? What changed between the event itself, the period in which the first monument was erected, and the time in which the second monument appeared in Petersham? Is one interpretation more “true” than the other? What sort of inscription might you compose to describe this event?