About Shays Rebellion

Shays Rebellion (also Shays's or Shays'), 1786-87 in Western Massachusetts, was the first populist uprising after the American Revolution. It's 218 years later, but the spirit of Shays Rebellion has never been more important to revive than now. Corporations still derail democracy and use their power against ordinary citizens by buying our public officials and blocking sane changes in agriculture, energy, transportation, health care, manufacturing and social spending.

Daniel Shays, from Pelham, organized poor farmers from the Connecticut River Valley to shut down the courts that were sending them to debtors prison on behalf of big Boston banks. Many of the farmers were veterans who had trudged home from the Revolution "with not a single month's pay" in their pockets, but only worthless government certificates.

In the days of Shays, as now, corporate interests used their power against ordinary citizens. Just a few years after Shays Rebellion, the Constitution was adopted to protect bankers, landowners & merchants. We've been living with big government protecting those business interests ever since.

Historians and scholars, including former President Woodrow Wilson (when he was a Princeton University professor), have said that Shays Rebellion was one of the key forces behind the shaping of the U.S. Constitution as a document of protection for corporate interests. The Shays resistance alerted the Founders to the dangers of a populist democracy to their business interests.

The importance of Shays Rebellion has never been fully appreciated, until recently, and Shays and his followers have always been viewed as a small group of poor farmers and debtors who closed the courts as a protest of local civil authority.

The meaning of Shays' Rebellion for our time is to understand an escalating crisis in which the men who fought or financed the American Revolution were obliged to reconsider that revolution and its principles only ten years later. Was the new country to be "of the people, by the people, for the people?"

To quote Howard Zinn: "The American colonists, having fought and won the war for independence from England, faced the question of what kind of government to establish. In 1786, three years after the treaty of peace was signed, there was a rebellion of farmers in western Massachusetts, led by Captain Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary war. The uprising was crushed, but it put a scare into those leaders who were to become our Founding Fathers."

After Shays Rebellion, General Henry Knox warned his former commander, George Washington, about the rebels: "They see the weakness of government; they feel at once their own poverty, compared to the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former. Their creed is that the property of the U.S. has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore should be the common property of all."

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia for 1787 was called to deal with this problem, to set up "big government," to protect the interests of merchants, slave-holders, and landowners.”

So, who were these Shays rebels?

Daniel Shays, a farmer from Pelham and a Revolutionary war veteran, organized poor farmers from the Connecticut Valley try to shut down the courts that were sending them to debtors prisons on behalf of big Boston banks and business interests calling in debts. Many of the farmers were veterans who had trudged home from the Revolution "with not a single month's pay" in their pockets, but only worthless government certificates.

In 1786-87, these debt-ridden farmers, struck by the economic depression that followed the American Revolution, petitioned the state senate to issue paper money and to halt foreclosure of mortgages on their property and their own imprisonment for debt as a result of high land taxes. Without such relief, they were being put into prison and losing their lands for debts they had no way to pay.

Sentiment was particularly high against the commercial interests who controlled the state senate in Boston, and the lawyers who hastened the farmers’ bankruptcy by their exorbitant fees for litigation.

When the state senate failed to undertake reform, armed insurgents in the Berkshire Hills and the Connecticut River Valley, under the leadership of Daniel Shays and others, began (Aug. 1786) to forcibly to prevent the county courts from sitting to make judgments for debt. In September they forced the state supreme court at Springfield to adjourn.

Other Shays related material on the web:

Also, the book: