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In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview
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Lesson 7: Daniel Shays and the Constitution

Lesson Central Question:

In This Lesson:

How are we as a nation in debt to Daniel Shays?

Lesson Length
Key Ideas

Lesson Length

2 class periods (85 minutes each)

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Key Content Ideas Taught in this Lesson and Teacher Background

After the costly Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation provided for each state to fight its own wars, issue its own money, and raise and collect taxes. In 1783, after eight years of fighting, the government of "laws not kings" was in jeopardy. The merchants who had contributed significant financial support to the war effort were being pressured to pay their English creditors. In turn, these same merchants were pressuring the government to repay its debt to them, rather than face financial ruin. Consequently, to do so, the legislature levied taxes against its citizens.

The Revolutionary War had been fought to underscore the rights of individual sovereignty. The farmers of Western Massachusetts were accustomed to rallying against perceived injustices by mob rule, hence the Rebellion. Although the Rebellion was grounded in economics, it has been seen as a catalyst in the formation of a constitution that provided for our present federal government, clearly outlining the powers of both the state and the national government and the rights of the individual.

Teacher Background Essay: Rebellious Farmers

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Intended Learning Outcomes

Students will understand:

  • Economic events and the reaction of the citizenry brought important changes that impacted the formation of the United States government.

Students will be able to:

  • Contrast the diverse views of Connecticut River Valley people in the years before, during, and after the Revolution.

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In Preparation for Teaching

1. Read Teacher Background Essay: Rebellious Farmers

Further Background Reading:
Grosse, Robert, ed. In Debt to Shays. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1986.

Hull, Mary. Shays' Rebellion and the Constitution. Berkley Heights, New Jersey: Enslow, 2000.

Nobles, Gregory. "The Politics of Patriarchy in Shay's Rebellion: The Case of Henry McCulloch." Families and Children: Dublin Seminar Series, Boston University, 1985.

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Primary and Secondary Sources:

Unless otherwise noted, all can be found on the American Centuries website.

  1. Video : A Little Rebellion Now and Then. Los Angeles, CA: Churchill Films, 1986. (not on website)
  2. Timeline showing the chronology of the Revolutionary War Period
  3. Justin Hitchcock's story of Daniel Shays
  4. Training Day notification to Consider Dickinson
  5. Daniel Shays' Inventory
  6. Blank Map of Massachusetts (not on website)
  7. Oath of Allegiance, February 27, 1787
  8. Shays' Rebellion website
  9. The Massachusetts Constitution
  10. The United States Constitution

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Activities Materials in Context

Class Period 1: The Rebellion

  1. Introduce the video, A Little Rebellion Now and Then, by asking student to note three threads that need to be understood to discuss this event: 1) The social classes and the economic interests of those classes that were involved; 2) The geography of the region, and 3) The political issues that are at stake.
  2. Watch the video, A Little Rebellion Now and Then.
  3. Discuss the main ideas of the film. When reviewing the "main points" of the story with the teacher, use a map and add to the time line.


Invite students to divide into groups and read the following:

  • Justin Hitchcock's account of Daniel Shays.
  • Sheldon's "Joseph Stabbings -- A Pioneer of the outbreak of the Revolution" and the Oath of Allegiance, February 27, 1787
  • Shays' inventory to conclude his story.

Listen to the reporting out of the groups and continue the discussion.

Assignment: What others were saying...

Select one quotation and write a response to the speaker.

"For God's sake, tell me what is the cause of all of these commotions?" -- George Washington (from his home in Mount Vernon)

"Ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principles. Have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard under the pretense of grievances which have no existence but in their imaginations." "The wisest and most vigorous measures (must be used ) to quell and suppress" the revolt. -- Abigail Adams (from Paris)

"The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy." -- Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

"What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is the natural manure." -- Thomas Jefferson (from Paris)

Class Period 2: Making the connection to the Constitution... Constitutional Convention, 1787.

  1. Invite the students to review the Shays event in terms of the governance, social and economic conditions that it reveals.
  2. Using a timeline, include dates for the following:
    • The Revolutionary War (from beginning to end)
    • The Writing of the Massachusetts Constitution
    • The Constitutional Convention
    • The Inauguration of George Washington
  3. As a class, read the preamble to the Massachusetts Constitution, noting its provisions for a two-house legislature. Note that the constitution provides for a bill of rights, for education, and that all men are born equal.
  4. Referencing the film, A Little Rebellion Now and Then, note that Shays' Rebellion influenced the addition in the constitution of the provision for the national government to call up troops to protect the common good (hence the phrase Commander-in-Chief) and that the nation should now be able to levy taxes.
  5. Compare the structure -- the length, organization, and basic components -- of the Massachusetts Constitution and the United States Constitution. Are there similarities?


Summarize the importance of Shays' Rebellion to the emerging nation.







Justin Hitchcock's story of Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays' Inventory

Oath of Allegiance, February 27, 1787














The Massachusetts Constitution

The United States Constitution

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For first assignment: Written response to one of the quotations.

For second assignment: The written summary of the importance of the Shays' event.

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