The Road to the Constitution: Shays' Rebellion

For those who subscribe to the cyclical philosophy of history, history has a way of repeating itself, and that was true in the events leading up the Shays' Rebellion.

After the American Revolution, the states found themselves in an economic depression (much like Great Britain after the French and Indian War) and the states began to aggressively tax and collect the debts of those living in the states. After fighting a war to end the tyrannical rule of Britain and to end their aggressive taxes, the new nation found themselves in need of money to pay off their war debts, and needed to tax the citizens. However, there was a lack of hard currency in the new nation, which proved to be very problematic, especially in Massachusetts.

In the new nation, especially in non-coastal merchant-run towns, many of the citizens were farmers and suffered from debt as they tried to start new farms after the wake of the Revolution. Unlike many other state legislatures, Massachusetts did not respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more hard currency). As a result, many farms were seized and some farmers who couldn't pay their debts were thrown into debtor prisons.

The rebellion began in August 1786 and lasted through June 1787. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the rebellion leaders.

According to www.ushistory.org: "The farmers in western Massachusetts organized their resistance in ways similar to the American Revolutionary struggle. They called special meetings of the people to protest conditions and agree on a coordinated protest. This led the rebels to close courts by force in the fall of 1786 and to liberate imprisoned debtors from jail. Soon events flared into a full-scale revolt when the resistors came under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army. This was the most extreme example of what could happen in the tough times brought on by the economic crisis. Some thought of the Shaysites (named after their military leader) as heroes in the direct tradition of the American Revolution, while many others saw them as dangerous rebels whose actions might topple the young experiment in republican government."

James Bodowin, the governor of Massachusetts, organized a military force funded by eastern merchants to confront the Shaysites. There was no standing army at that time, per the Articles of Confederation and its weak central government, so the military force that was organized by Bodowin was local militia and the combined forces of militias from other states as well. However, those militia forces put a stop to the rebellion.

Although the rebellion was quickly out down, the underlying social forces that propelled the rebellion forward were still there. The discontent of the farmers and the debtors was so strong that it sparked similar, yet smaller, events to occur in other places such as Maine (which was still part of Massachusetts at the time), New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

Shays' Rebellion was seen as a key to changing from the weak Articles of Confederation to the stronger Constitution that remains the law of the land today. Shays' Rebellion showed the weakness of the Articles, such as the inability of the government to lay and collect taxes and to raise a standing army, and made way for the laws and freedoms we hold dear as citizens of this country.

 After Shays' Rebellion was put down, the Founders knew that the Articles of Confederation needed a complete overhaul as the weak central government and strong states governments created by the Articles was not working. In the 1780s, a Constitutional Convention was in session to solve the problem. What resulted was the Constitution, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others.

There was one problem though--the states, especially New York, weren't willing to ratify the Constitution unless there was a Bill of Rights stating what rights the people had. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay authored The Federalist Papers as a way to convince New York to ratify the Constitution. The United States Constitution was ratified in 1788, and the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) were ratified in 1791.


Key Terms:
  • Federalists--urban elites who believed that a large federal government would guarantee the rights and freedoms of everyone, and thus believed the Bill of Rights was unnecessary. 
  • Anti-Federalists--small farmers who believed that a strong federal government was a threat to their rights and freedoms, and thus believed that a Bill of Rights was necessary. 

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