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What Was Shays’s Rebellion?

Daniel Shays needed $12 and couldn’t get it. Shays was a Massachusetts farmer and Revolutionary War veteran who, like many of his fellow veterans, found himself broke and in debt after the war.

Moreover, the state constitution Massachusetts adopted in 1780 was drafted mostly by businessmen who lived along the coast, and the state’s inland farmers got the short end of the stick when it came to things like paying taxes but not being able to vote.

When taxes couldn’t be paid, homes, farms, livestock, and personal possessions were seized, and debtors were sometimes thrown into prison.

So in 1786, Shays found himself at the head of an “army” of about 1,000 men who were fed up. They marched on Springfield, forced the state Supreme Court to flee, and paraded around town. In January 1787, Shays’s group tried to take a military arsenal at Springfield. But the state militia routed them, and after a few weeks of skirmishing, they dispersed and abandoned the fight.

Several of the group’s members were hanged. Shays fled to Vermont and was eventually pardoned, but he died the next year.

The whole thing wasn’t in vain, however. Some of the reforms they wanted — such as lower court costs, an exemption on workmen’s tools from debt seizures, and changes in the tax laws — were adopted. Jefferson noted

“a little rebellion now and then is a good thing . . . the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Washington, however, despaired that the rebellion illustrated how too much democracy would lead to anarchy.

But the biggest impact of Shays’s Rebellion may have been that it helped convince some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention that the country needed a strong central government to handle such things.

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