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Shays’ Rebellion

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how different forms of government developed and changed as a result of the Revolutionary Period

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with The Articles of Confederation, 1781 Primary Source to highlight the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

Independence did not bring economic prosperity to many parts of the United States. Great Britain restricted U.S. trade with the Empire, especially the lucrative trade with the West Indies. As a result, imports of British goods remained strong while the export of American goods to Britain slumped. Continuing inflation made paper money virtually worthless. Meanwhile, taxes rose to pay off Revolutionary War debts and make up for the loss, at the end of the conflict, of foreign loans.

New England, in particular, was suffering an economic depression. Merchants and shopkeepers in eastern Massachusetts demanded the payment of debts from hard-pressed western farmers, many of whom had overextended themselves during the relative prosperity of the war years. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts legislature raised taxes to pay the state’s wartime debt and meet the national Congress’s requisitions of taxes from the states. Farmers were burdened by high taxes and unable to pay their debts, especially mortgages. They were hauled before county courts, often losing their property and going to debtors’ prisons.

In the summer of 1786, farmers in the western counties assembled to petition the Massachusetts legislature for relief. They asked that no taxes be collected for a year, that courts be closed so property could not be confiscated, and that a paper currency be issued to cause inflation, raising the price of farmers’ goods. Citizens from whom these farmers had borrowed money insisted, however, that contracts be honored. Critics called the farmers traitors and agents of the British, even though many were veterans of the Revolution. Some lenders, eager for the money farmers had promised to repay, insisted that debtors should be more industrious and live more frugally. Neither side provided an easy way to resolve the crisis.

Leaders of the farmers’ movement called on the people to be Minutemen, ready at a moment’s notice to defend their liberty as they had during the war. They met in taverns, churches, and town meetings to plot their strategy. Beginning in late August, they armed themselves and converged on county courts, hoping to close them. They reasoned that if the courts could not meet, they could not lose their property.

At the end of August, fifteen hundred angry farmers took up arms and seized the Northampton courthouse. On September 5, the judges tried to convene their court in Worcester, but three hundred bayonet-wielding farmers blocked their access. Over the next month, the rebels shut down courts in Worcester, Middlesex, Plymouth, and Berkshire Counties. In late September, a crowd of fifteen hundred led by Revolutionary War captain Daniel Shays prevented the Massachusetts Supreme Court from meeting in Springfield. Where authorities called out the militia, its members were locals who either refused to muster against their neighbors and kinfolk or who joined them.

A woodcut depicts Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, who wears the uniform of an officer of the Continental Army. He holds a sword.

This woodcut, from Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack of 1787, depicts Daniel Shays, one of the leaders of the rebels who rose up against the Massachusetts government during 1786 to 1787. As a Revolutionary War veteran, Shays wears the uniform of officers of the Continental Army.

Secretary of War Henry Knox asked Congress to send troops to quell the rebellion and protect the federal armory at Springfield, which stored seven thousand guns, bayonets, artillery, and gunpowder. Congress agreed, but little money and few recruits were forthcoming from the states. In October, Governor James Bowdoin called the Massachusetts legislature into session and warned that “wicked and artful men” were conspiring to “destroy all confidence in government.” The legislature provided some relief by suspending debt payments and property foreclosures for several months. However, it also passed several measures to deal with the crisis. The Militia Act made it punishable by court martial to join “any mutiny or sedition.” The Riot Act prohibited twelve or more armed persons from assembling and empowered sheriffs to beat, jail, and kill rioters and take their land. Finally, the ancient liberty of the writ of habeas corpus was suspended, authorizing the roundup and detention without bail of suspected traitors. The legislature offered a pardon to any insurgent who swore allegiance to the government.

Most courts closed or recessed in October; the farmers went home to harvest their crops. Another round of troubles occurred in November and December, however, when courts in Worcester and Springfield were forcibly closed. The farmers continued their appeal to Revolutionary principles and protested the suspension of habeas corpus.

In early January 1787, Governor Bowdoin authorized a force of more than four thousand men to be paid through privately raised funds. An army of nearly two thousand was eventually placed under a Revolutionary War general, Benjamin Lincoln, to secure “system and order” in the western Massachusetts countryside. Lincoln marched to Worcester to defend the courthouse, while a force of some twelve hundred local militia occupied the Springfield Armory to deny it to the rebels.

For their assault on the armory, Shays and other insurgent leaders called on the farmers to “immediately assemble in arms to support and maintain not only their rights, but the lives and liberties of the people.” Guided by the Revolutionary principle that they had the right to overthrow and replace a distant and unresponsive regime, the insurgents announced their intention to smash the “tyrannical government in Massachusetts.” They controlled all the roads to Springfield, seized supplies going to the militia, and sent threatening ultimatums to the militia commander. Of course, Shays’ enemies also considered themselves to be Revolutionary War Patriots. Those in government considered their decision to increase taxes a necessary consequence of the need to pay for an expensive war. Others, who had agreed to loan money to the western farmers, viewed the repayment of debts as the upholding of the contracts that guaranteed their property rights.

On January 25, the rebel army of almost two thousand advanced through four-foot snow drifts, urged on by Shays. When they launched a three-pronged assault on the arsenal, the defending artillery, “humanely wishing to frighten them to lay down their arms,” first fired over their heads. Yet the farmers kept coming. The militia fired grapeshot, killing four and wounding dozens. The farmers retreated, and the battle for the arsenal was over. Most of the insurgents dispersed and returned to their farms. Shays and other leaders fled to Vermont and New York to escape prosecution, although thirteen Shaysites were rounded up, tried for treason, and sentenced to death. The governor pardoned them. Daniel Shays eventually received a pardon as well.

Shays’ Rebellion greatly influenced many to support revising the Articles of Confederation to strengthen the national government. Governments not strong enough to maintain order were too weak to protect liberty. James Madison thought the insurrection gave “new proofs of the necessity of such a vigor in the general government as will be able to restore health to the diseased part of the Federal body.”

Review Questions

1. Why did farmers in western Massachusetts begin to take up arms and march on courthouses in 1786?

  1. The Townshend Acts severely taxed the colonists, and farmers in western Massachusetts were unable to pay the tax, leading to the loss of their farmland.
  2. The Massachusetts government, under the Articles of Confederation, faced tariffs from other states, causing the farmers to sink into drastic debt.
  3. Massachusetts courts denied a farmer named Shays a fair trial for debt collection, which angered farming communities on the principle of due process.
  4. To repay state war debts and meet congressional requisitions for taxes, merchants in eastern Massachusetts began to request the payment of debts, prompting the courts to take farmers’ land as payment.

2. Which of the following best describes the result of Shays’ Rebellion?

  1. Debts of the farmers were forgiven because merchants and governors realized the state economy would ultimately benefit from farmers’ success.
  2. Many farmers returned home to their farms, although some fled across state lines.
  3. The rebel farmers were tried and persecuted for their treasonous crimes in the very courthouses they had marched upon.
  4. The Massachusetts government, realizing the need for a strong central government, invited the other states to a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

3. How was the perspective of Shays’ followers different from that of the Massachusetts government?

  1. Whereas Shays’ followers felt they were being patriotic in protesting a perceived unjust law, the government thought it was enforcing the rule of law by upholding what the duly elected legislative body had voted on.
  2. Shays’ followers wanted to overthrow the Massachusetts government, whereas the state governing body felt capable of fending off the rebellion on its own.
  3. Shays’ followers wanted to ally themselves with anti-government forces to protest taxes, whereas the state continued to push for a strong central government.
  4. Even though Shays’ followers were mostly urban dwellers, they were up against the state government, run primarily by planters from large farms.

4. How did Shays’ Rebellion catalyze discussion about the national government?

  1. The success of Shays’ Rebellion made legislators wary of passing state taxes; instead, they began to institute a policy of national taxes through the Articles of Confederation.
  2. It highlighted the weakness of the states and the national government, because the states could not control a rebellion and the national government lacked the money to support them in a time of crisis.
  3. The dynamic between eastern establishments and frontier farmers was a common thread during this time, and no change was discussed.
  4. French supporters of the Revolution saw a patriot in Daniel Shays and began to support his rebellion against state governments by sending aid and troops.

5. Which of the following best explains the economic situation in post-Revolutionary War America?

  1. France continued to support the new nation with loans for small businesses so they could compete with Great Britain.
  2. After its defeat of Great Britain, countries from all over the world were interested in trading with America, which brought in large profits that supported the states.
  3. The national government continued to use the paper currency from the war because it was such a stable form of payment.
  4. All the states were burdened with debts, and as they struggled to pay them, inflation hindered the overall economy.

6. Why wasn’t the federal government able to support Massachusetts in putting down Shays’ Rebellion?

  1. The federal government lacked the funds to gather and send troops to New England.
  2. The Articles of Confederation explicitly stated a national militia was forbidden.
  3. Shays’ supporters infiltrated the federal legislative branch and thwarted attempts to put down the rebellion.
  4. Washington’s Continental Army was accepting the surrender of the British and couldn’t risk splitting troops.

Free Response Questions

  1. What was the impact of Shays’ Rebellion on the state of Massachusetts?
  2. Explain how the rebels’ understanding of their rights and individual liberty affected their decision to protest.

AP Practice Questions

Reactions to Shays’ Rebellion

“What, gracious God, is man! That there should be such inconsistency & perfidiousness in his conduct? It is but the other day we were shedding our blood to obtain the Constitutions under which we now live – Constitutions of our own choice and framing – and now we are unsheathing the Sword to overturn them! The thing is so unaccountable, that I hardly know how to realize it, or to persuade myself that I am not under the vision of a dream.”

George Washington to David Humphreys, December 26, 1786

“No Morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did – and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom, & good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm. . . . Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expence of much blood and treasure, must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy & confusion!”

George Washington to James Madison, November 5, 1786

Refer to the excerpts provided.

1. Which of the following best describes the influence of Shays’ Rebellion on the mindset of many U.S. political leaders such as George Washington?

  1. It demonstrated to them the need for reform in the structure of government under the Articles of Confederation.
  2. It led many to change their stance on the U.S. Constitution from federalism to anti-federalism.
  3. It caused some to favor a strong executive over a strong legislature.
  4. It demonstrated that citizens were not prepared to vote for their leaders.

2. Which of the following best explains why Shays’ Rebellion garnered national attention?

  1. It involved a large portion of the population on both sides of the conflict.
  2. It was the first significant instance of resistance to the new American republic.
  3. It was the first test of the new Constitution, which led many to question its strength.
  4. It portrayed the tyranny and domination of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation.

3. What did Washington mean by “the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expence of much blood and treasure”?

  1. He was angry about the political machine that had taken over and corrupted the government of the United States just seven years after the Revolutionary War ended.
  2. The endangered superstructure to which Washington referred in this passage was the new republic under the Articles of Confederation.
  3. Washington warned that the only safe political creed existing by 1786 was the form of government existing under the Articles of Confederation,
  4. Washington was pleased and hopeful about the “favorable morn” dawning in 1786, because the authors of the Articles of Confederation had set such a good example of wisdom and leadership.

“The moment is, indeed, important! If government shrinks [backs away], or is unable to enforce [carry out] its laws; fresh manoeuvres [movements] will be displayed by the insurgents [protestors] – anarchy [lawlessness] & confusion must prevail [win out] – and every thing will be turned topsy turvey in that State; where it is not probable [likely] the mischiefs [troubles] will terminate [end]. . . .

If three years ago, any person had told me that at this day, I should see such a formidable [dreadful] rebellion against the laws & constitutions of our own making as now appears I should have thought him a bedlamite – a fit subject for a mad house.”

George Washington to Henry Knox, February 3, 1787

Refer to the excerpt provided.

4. The excerpt provided was most likely written in response to which of the following?

  1. “Shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord
  2. Surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown
  3. Decapitation of Marie Antoinette in Paris
  4. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts

5. The excerpt provided most directly reflected a growing belief that

  1. the Continental Congress needed to step down from leading the country
  2. because of the weakness of the central government, American Indians would gain strength and return to reclaim their land
  3. the Articles of Confederation required some reform
  4. the Constitution was lacking a bill of Rights

“II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

III. The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”

Articles of Confederation, 1781

Refer to the excerpt provided.

6. Which of the following was the main intent of the second article of the Articles of Confederation?

  1. Prevent a tyrannical leader from usurping power, like the king of England did
  2. Create a powerful national government with the power to defend its borders
  3. Articulate a Bill of Rights that would protect each citizen from oppression
  4. Establish a flexible government that could share power between state and federal levels

7. Which of the following best describes the impact on Shays’ Rebellion of the central government under the Articles of Confederation?

  1. The national government lacked the power by which it could bring order to the troubled states.
  2. The league of friendship created an interstate alliance that required nearby New England militias to support Massachusetts.
  3. Excessive tax collection by the federal government brought an influx of funds, allowing the state to lower its tax rates.
  4. The farmers’ liberties were secured by the Articles because they were protected by freedom of speech, petition, and assembly.

Primary Sources

Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 30 January 1787.”Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration.

Madison, James. “James Madison to Edmund Pendleton. 24 February 1787.”Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration.

Washington, George. “George Washington to David Humphreys, 26 Dec. 1786.” The Washington Papers.

Washington, George. “George Washington to James Madison, 5 November 1786.”Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration.

Suggested Resources

Condon, Sean. Shays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Richard, Leonard L. Shays’ Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Szatmary, David P. Shays’ Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

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