Shay’s Rebellion

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Shay’s Rebellion

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.

The Rebellion started with

petitions to the government

for paper currency, lower

taxes, and judicial reform.

When this failed, the farmers

took more drastic measures.

The first target of the Rebellion

was the Court of Common

Pleas at Northampton, which

an armed body of farmers

kept from sitting on Aug. 29th.

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

2,000 farmers behind him, assaulted the arsenal on

Jan. 25th, 1787. General William Sheperd

successfully defended the arsenal with 1,200

local militiamen. The rebels suffered four dead

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

General William Shepard

unexpectedly fired their

cannons into the ranks

of the advancing rebels,

killing 4 and wounding 20.

Crying “murder” – for the

insurgent farmer-veterans

never supposed their

neighbors and fellow

veterans would fire on them—

the Shay’s men retreated

in dismay pursued by

Lincoln’s government soldiers.

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.
Name _____________________________
Shay’s Rebellion

1. Why did the farmers of Western Massachusetts face a difficult time when

the American Revolution ended in 1783?

2. Who was viewed as causing these problems?

3. How did the farmers of Western Massachusetts react to this situation?

How long did it last?

4. This Rebellion started with petitions to the government for what three


5. When these petitions failed, the farmers took more drastic measures.

The first target of the Rebellion was what? What did the farmers do there?


6. Who was the leader of this rebellion?

7. Describe the uniforms of the rebels.

8. Who did Governor James Bowdoin send to oppose the rebels?

9. The rebels suffered four dead and twenty wounded in the attack on


10. What action ended this rebellion?

11. Most insurgents took advantage of a _____________________ and surrendered.

12. The Supreme Judicial Court soon sentenced fourteen of the rebellion’s

leaders, including Shays, to death for treason. How many were actually

killed? Why?

13. Shay’s Rebellion is considered one of the leading causes of what?

14. What was the critical battle of the rebellion?

15. What happened unexpectedly here?

16. What did the rebels never think would happen there but did?

17. How did the farmers view this?

18. With the Rebellion broken down, what did Shay’s do? Why?
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