After the Revolutionary War, soldiers of the Continental army were demobilized with little or no pay; whatever “Continental notes” they received could be exchanged only at an enormous discount, and the very states that had approved their issue did not accept them as payment of taxes. Officers eventually received compensation, including land in the Ohio Territory, but by 1786 the plight of the former soldiery was dire, especially in rural Massachusetts, where veterans and farmers suffered most from both the postwar depression and the radical deficit reduction plan of the conservative new governor, James Bowdoin. That year, in western Massachusetts, where many believed they had lost significant political representation under the state constitution of 1780, scores of rural towns petitioned for relief but received none.
In September 1786, a movement called “the Regulation” began across western Massachusetts: whenever the circuit courts were scheduled to meet, between 500 and 2,000 men gathered and marched in a military manner on each court, with the stated aim of postponing the seizure of properties until after the next gubernatorial election. Over the next five months, under an indeterminate, changing leadership, the “Regulators,” armed with clubs and muskets, converged upon Northampton, Springfield, Worcester, and other towns where the courts were scheduled to sit, surrounding the courthouses to keep them closed. Until the last of these protests, there were no casualties.
This widespread movement resembled traditional protests, but those who wanted to establish a national constitution depicted it as anarchy. Gen. Henry Knox, Massachusetts‐born secretary of war for the Continental Congress, traveled to Springfield after the first Regulation to consider the safety of the weapons stored there in the undefended Continental Arsenal. It was Knox, writing to Congress, who first declared that this “rebellion” was led by former Capt. Daniel Shays. Knox, like other nationalists, welcomed an opportunity to demonstrate the necessity of a federal government and a permanent standing army; he proclaimed to Congress and to his mentor, Gen. George Washington, that the “rebels”' goal was to share all private property as “the common property of all,” “to annihilate all debts, public and private,” and to foment a “civil war.” Since the treasuries of both Massachusetts and Congress were empty, Knox helped Bowdoin solicit wealthy Boston merchants to finance an expeditionary force of 4,400 volunteers led by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to quell the “rebellion.” At the Springfield Arsenal on 24–25 January 1787, Lincoln's forces overwhelmed some 1,500 Regulators, led by Captains Daniel Shays, Luke Day, and Eli Parsons. With the first cannon fired, three Regulators were killed and the rest fled. In pursuit, Lincoln captured a number of Regulators for trial; later, two were hanged.
These mostly peaceable protests provoked alarm that the movement could spread across the thirteen states. This concern helped persuade the states to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, and to create a central U.S. government better equipped to deal with similar economic and social problems.
Although Shays’ Rebellion fizzled, it had frightened some leading Americans. They believed that a stronger central government would protect against popular unrest. In response, Congress asked the states to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Their task was to revise the Articles of Confederation.