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Shays Rebellion

 

In 1776, Daniel Shays had eagerly rushed off to enlist in the Continental Army to fight for his country. But after the war, Shays returned home broke–and like many soldiers hadn’t received the full pay promised him by the new government. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal’ were ringing hollow as the wealthy merchants and planters quickly took control over the new government as governors, state senators, and judges. With power firmly in the hands of the elite, every state made property ownership a requirement to vote or hold office. For example, if you had aspirations of running for a position in the Maryland state legislature you had to own at least £1000 worth of property. In the eyes of Shays and his supporters, the revolution was turning out to be not all that revolutionary.

 

America may have won the war but it lost its biggest trading partner, and the country sank into a post-war depression. Merchants and farmers from Vermont to Georgia were left holding bills that they couldn’t repay. And, in those days owing money to a creditor didn't mean annoying phone calls from snippy telemarketers. A debtor who couldn't repay their debt would have their property confiscated. And, if that wasn’t enough to settle the debt, they faced imprisonment for as long as the court saw fit or until the debt was repaid. Many found themselves locked up alongside murderers and thieves; only to become homeless and unemployed once they got out. The masses were angry at a system that was stacked against them. The crisis finally erupted into open rebellion in the summer of 1786 as Massachusetts farmers fought back to save their farms. Ironically, the state that sparked the American Revolution with protests over taxation was now the same place where the poor were being crushed under heavy taxation.  

 

A Rebellion put down by Rebels

The Massachusetts General Court was scheduled to meet in Boston to decide what to do about the debt crisis, but until that decision was made farmers continued to have their property auctioned off. Farmers, led by leaders like Daniel Shays, decided to take matters into their own hands and surrounded the courthouses to prevent judges from hearing the lawsuits brought against them; insisting that the judges sign a pledge to not make any decisions until after the General Court met. The reason being that if the court couldn’t convene then they couldn’t take away their farms. The larger the mob grew, they bolder they became, and thousands marched to the jails to spring their friends out of prison. The Chief Justice of the General Court praised the protesters saying “I have never heard anybody point out a better way to have their grievances redressed than the people have taken.”

 

Sam Adams, the fiery radical of the revolution, didn’t see things in the same light. Adams demanded that the rebels quit their ‘illegal protests” and drafted a Riot Act which suspended the right of Habeas Corpus– the protection against being held in jail without a trial. The same guy who had attacked British tax collectors was now calling the protesters ‘criminals’. The protesters were quick to point out that Adams was a hypocrite.

 

However, Shays Rebellion fell apart as quickly as it had begun, brought down by the worst blizzard New England had seen in a long time. Many fell ill from exposure or froze to death while on the run from the militia. It was inevitable that the rebels were rounded up and put on trial for treason. Sam Adams demand that the leaders hang for treason, arguing that rebelling against a monarchy was not the same thing as rebelling against a republic. While a few men did dance the hangman’s jig, others like Shays avoided the rope. Daniel Shays had sought justice for the farmers of Massachusetts yet left a giant footprint on the history of the United States. The rebellion made it clear that the Articles of Confederation was a failure. Because the national government didn't have the power to collect taxes, it was unable to pay off state debts or send in troops, both of which could have helped to solve the crisis.

 

The Dis-United States

Back in 1777, a weak national government sounded like a good idea to prevent tyranny, but perhaps it was time to rethink that stance? Fearing a powerful national government, the Second Continental Congress had created the Articles of Confederation to unite the thirteen colonies into a loose alliance—which worked more like a book club than a government. Nearly all power was placed in the hands of the individual states There was no president nor a national court, and Congress was left with very limited power to negotiate foreign treaties, declare war, raise an army, and buy Indian lands. However, the essential power of any government— the ability to regulate trade and collect taxes— was left to the states. To raise money, Congress had to beg for donations, and not a single state contributed its “fair share.” Congress was like a homeless guy with a tin can.

 

Pennsylvania Wanted Poster for the capture of Shays
signed by none other than
Benjamin Franklin

As Massachusetts struggled to put down Shays rebellion, other states refused to get involved. Southern states, in particular, didn’t see how a disturbance in New England had anything to do with them. This lack of patriotism may seem to strange to us, but in those days people didn’t yet call themselves Americans and loyalty to your state mattered more than loyalty to your country. So it’s no surprise that each state also engaged in cut-throat competition to undermine its neighbors. Each state sought to protect its own economic interests by placing tariffs (taxes on imports) on goods being brought in from other states. Imagine if you had to pay double for an I-phone just because it was shipped from Ohio rather than your home state. States also fought one another over territorial disputes. Without the power to regulate interstate commerce Congress was powerless to step in and take charge. When Congress tried to negotiate a trade treaty with Great Britain, the ambassador joked if America would like thirteen treaties or just one. The ‘United States’ was just a name on a piece of paper.

 

Prominent men like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison saw that the country was falling apart while our nemesis Great Britain was only too happy to sit back and watch it fail. The British still had not vacated the western forts that were now on American soil and were providing guns to the Indians to attack the American settlers. America was locked in a dispute with Spain over parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. The weakness of the government to act– was an embarrassment.  Immediate action had to be taken to avoid a total collapse.

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