Lovers of history may view the end of the American Revolution in 1783 as a resolution to all the conflict in the new nation. Sadly, it did not lead to perfect peace in the American colonies.
The eight-years-long struggle for freedom from the Mother country left the new United States of America in desperate economic times. It was felt deeply in the state of Massachusetts and led to the uprising known as Shay’s Rebellion on January 25, 1787.
In the rural areas of western and central Massachusetts, soldiers returning home were faced with multiple financial stresses. Not only was the federal government unable to pay them what they were owed for their tenure in the army, but they had little in the way of assets. Most of the needs of their families were met through bartering for goods or services. Most were in debt and owed creditors for taxes.
The European business partners of Massachusetts merchants refused to extend lines of credit, insisting on being paid hard currency for goods. Yet real money was in short supply. Governor John Hancock of Boston refused to collect on delinquent taxes from poor borrowers and did not prosecute. He resigned in 1785, citing health reasons.
Hancock’s replacement, Governor Bowdoin, was elected in his place and the situation soon changed. Bowdoin increased actions against those who owed taxes, and the legislature made the situation worse by levying an additional property tax to help pay back foreign debts. John Adams declared these taxes to be “heavier than the people could bear.”
Individuals began to lose their lands and other possessions when they could not pay their taxes. Many of these who lost their homes were veterans of the war. They’d sacrificed and fought for years for a nation now turning their backs on them.
Daniel Shays was one of these soldiers and a farmhand by profession from Massachusetts. He had resigned from the army—unpaid—in 1780, only to go home and find himself in court for nonpayment of debts. When he realized he was not alone in this desperate financial situation, he began organizing protests against these conditions in order to fight for tax relief.
For several years, dissent grew to the point where Gov. Bowdoin issued a proclamation against the increasing protests. Unrest spread to several Massachusetts communities. James Warren wrote to John Adams in October of 1786 declaring, “We are now in a state of Anarchy and Confusion, bordering on Civil War.”
Several ringleaders were arrested in November and other protestors started to organize an overthrow of the state government of Massachusetts. On January 25, 1787, the rebels, with Daniel Shays at the helm, targeted the federal armory in Springfield in an attempt to seize weapons and overthrow the government. An intercepted message alerted the local militia to the planned attack, and the insurgents under Shays—some 1,500 men—faced the militia cannons. Grape-shot mortally felled 4 of the protesters while twenty were wounded.
The rebel forces fled to other towns and occasional conflicts ensued. The bloodiest battle occurred at Sheffield in February, thus ending the insurgency.
Four thousand people signed confessions as participants in the events of the rebellion in exchange for amnesty. Several were indicted but most were pardoned. Two men were hung.
Daniel Shays was pardoned in 1788 and returned to Massachusetts. Vilified by the Boston press, he eventually moved to New York where he died poor and obscure in 1825.
Shay’s rebellion became the catalyst for the formation of the United States Constitutional Convention which drew the retired George Washington back into public life. This renewed involvement of Washington in government policy led to him to being elected first President of the United States.
Excerpt from Promise of Deer Run:
“Bloody war.” The voice came from the man sitting by himself at the bar.
Nathaniel glanced at the poorly shaven face almost resting on the tip of his tankard. “Yes. Yes, it was.” Nathaniel took a bite of the stew and closed his eyes and moaned in pleasure. “Fine stew, sir.”
The man at the bar was not finished with his sad laments.
“Fought eight years for this ungrateful country. Came home to my farm and lost it to bloody Bowdoin. Governor indeed. Calls out the militia to shoot at decent citizens trying to spare their farm.” The man’s voice grew louder the angrier he got.
(Featured Image is the Springfield Armory as it looks today)