The American Revolution ended in 1783, but the young republic it created faced a difficult time. Nowhere was this more evident than to the farmers of Western Massachusetts. A severe economic depression forced people unable to pay their debts first into court, than into jail. These troubles were viewed as coming from the rich merchants of Eastern Massachusetts, especially Boston, who demanded hard currency to pay foreign creditors. The farmers of Western Massachusetts, after years of frustration, reacted with an armed uprising that lasted for six months at the end of 1786 and start of 1787.
Similar groups of insurgents stormed the courts at Worcester, Concord, Taunton, and Great Barrington in the following weeks. They hoped to prevent further trials and imprisonment of debtors.
The man who rose to lead the insurgents was Captain Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolution and a farmer from Pelham. The Supreme Judicial Court had indicted eleven other leaders for sedition, more would follow.
Shays and 1,500 followers, many wearing their old Continental Army uniforms with a sprig of hemlock in their hats, occupied the Springfield Courthouse from Sept. 25th – 28th, preventing the Supreme Judicial Court from sitting. Governor James Bowdoin assembled 4,400 militiamen under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln to defend the courts and protect the Commonwealth.
Shays and the other insurgents chose the
Federal Arsenal in Springfield to be the next
target. General Lincoln marched to defend the
debtor court in Worcester on Jan. 20th. Shays, with
and twenty wounded in the attack.
General Lincoln soon arrived in Springfield and quickly chased Shay’s army into the neighboring towns. The insurgents were taken completely by surprise on the morning of Feb. 3rd in Petersham. General Lincoln had marched his troops through a snowstorm the previous night. The farmers scattered, and the rebellion ended. Most of the insurgents took advantage of a general amnesty and surrendered. Shays and a few other leaders escaped for a while.
The Supreme Judicial Court soon sentenced fourteen of the rebellion’s leaders including Shays, to death for treason. They were later pardoned by the newly elected governor John Hancock. Only two men, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hung for their part (burglary) in the 1787 Rebellion. A new Massachusetts Legislature in Boston began to undertake the slow work of reform.
That summer, the Federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia struggled to create a stronger central government that would “establish justice and insure domestic tranquility.” Shay’s Rebellion is considered one of the leading causes in the formation of the United States Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison
from Paris, Jan 30, 1787
“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical…..
It is a medicine necessary for the sound
health of government.
The critical battle of the Rebellion was Shay’s attack on the government arsenal at Springfield in Jan 1787, the only means of standing off troops who were advancing from Boston under General Benjamin Lincoln. At the arsenal, the defending militia commanded by
But the Rebellion was now broken. Shays himself fled to Vermont, not yet part of the Union and therefore not bound to heed Massachusetts’ appeals for extradition of offenders. Some other insurgents followed him there.