Rebellious Farmers by
1786, 90 percent of the nearly 3.5 million Americans, were farmers.
They formed the heart of the Continental Army that defeated the
British to secure political freedom. During the war, the military
was a willing buyer, and farmers had a good market for their products.
Later, in order to pay the state's portion of the costs of
the Revolutionary War, taxes were levied on landowners throughout
the new United States. In Massachusetts, the merchants in the eastern
part of the state, who no longer enjoyed the protection and trading
ties with the British (especially the lucrative trade in the West
Indies), had to be repaid in hard currency to remain solvent. They
demanded payment from the small shopkeepers, payment that was not
These farmers, many of whom had been soldiers
in the Revolutionary War, were paid in scrip, generated by the state.
The state never intended the scrip to be redeemed at face value,
but these men used it to pay off their debts until the merchants
and storekeepers would no longer accept it because of its plummeting
value. A few of the wealthy bought up the scrip as an investment,
expecting that the value would be increased. As the value of the
scrip declined however, many were affected. Later, the state voted
to accept scrip at an increased value.
Since the farmers could not produce the necessary
cash for goods and taxes, land was taken then sold at auction to
satisfy the creditors, sometimes for as little as 1/3 its value.
To assume the land as payment, the courts met throughout the state
to act. Throughout New England former Revolutionary officers were
often looked to for leadership. They reasoned that if the courts
did not meet, no cases could be heard, no suits prosecuted, and
no foreclosures could be handed down. Led by Daniel Shays, the rebellious
yeomen in Western Massachusetts (the "regulators") proceeded
to shut down the courts to prevent them from acting on the disposition
of their land.
In 1786, 1,500 men, in what is now called Shays'
Rebellion, took possession of the Northampton courthouse. Disillusioned
by the perceived failure of the government to recognize their efforts
to gain liberty, these men later marched to Springfield to gain
control of the weapons owned by the Federal Government in the arsenal
Mindful of the discontent in the western part
of the state and unable to raise a militia at the state level to
control the outbreak, the eastern merchants and magistrates underwrote
the cost of an army led by General Lincoln. Because of poor communication
within the faction led by Shays the plan for three groups of men
to meet at the Armory failed. Lincoln's militia was able to
reach the armory before them, turning the cannon on the men, killing
three and scattering the rest. Many moved their families north to
New Hampshire and Vermont, and New York.
After the rebellion, men were asked to recant
and turn in their guns, signing an oath that for three years they
would not vote, or hold office, teach, or run a tavern. Although
the oaths were taken, little effort was made to enforce them. Shays
moved to Vermont, took the oath of allegiance, and was granted a
pension by the nation. He died impoverished in Sparta, New York.
The Impact of the Rebellion:
The event occurred in a time when society was
in dramatic transition. Some people felt the national government's
constitution rescued the republic from possible anarchy portended
by Shays, while others thought of the protests as exercise of "the
true democratic spirit by the common folk."
Shays' Rebellion had implications beyond the state level.
Other states had similar issues regarding taxation, scrip, and discontent.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, it was decided that the
Federal Government would assume all state debts incurred to fight
the Revolution. The clause "to ensure domestic tranquillity"
and the words "Commander-in-Chief" were added to the
Constitution. The vote for constitutional ratification in Massachusetts
in 1788 was 187-168. It was split roughly the same as the opponents
of Shays' Rebellion. Those against were largely in the west
for fear of oppression or discontent. Those in favor were mostly
in the east, perhaps because it would provide for unified trade
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