Understanding Shays' Rebellion

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On Aug. 31, 1786, a nearly year-long uprising began in western Massachusetts over tax collection that was so large it required pleas from the State of Massachusetts to the national government for assistance. The help never came, mostly because the national government, then a confederation and not yet a union, was unable to raise the funds nor garner the political support necessary for such an undertaking.

Instead, the Massachusetts state militia mustered up enough support to march into the wilds of the western part of the state and crush the rebellion in its infancy.

The result of this uprising, known as Shays’ Rebellion, has been the subject of debate by historians for decades, if not centuries. What is known is that in 1789, a constitution enacting a federal union between 13 sovereign states went into effect, just three years after Shays’ Rebellion.

Daniel Shays was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who, after being wounded in the war, was sent home - unpaid - in 1780 and immediately summoned to court over unpaid debts that had accumulated while he was away fighting the war against the United Kingdom. Because Shays had not been paid for his service to revolution, he was unable to pay his debts and soon began to be hounded by creditors and tax collectors. Shays found that many other commoner-veterans of the war against the U.K. were in the same position as him, and soon they began to meet in public locales to discuss their problems.

The secession from the U.K. forced the states to borrow heavily from foreign lenders, and the results after the war were predictable: states had trouble paying down their debts, which meant taxes were raised, which meant that larger domestic lenders raised rates, which meant that smaller domestic lenders raised rates, which meant that commoner-farmers like Shays and all of the other forgotten men of the revolution were squeezed from all sides. To make matters worse, inflation began to soar. Such is the nature of war, which tends to be glorified through battle scenes and theories about politics. If only more people would think of what comes after war (economist Chris Coyne has recently done just that, if you’re interested).

Shays and his peers began doing what all proper New Englanders did when grievances became too much to bear, and petitioned the Massachusetts government for redress. Their repeated petitions fell on deaf ears. The state of Massachusetts, then a sovereign polity, was also unable to do much to help, since it was so deep in debt itself and foreign creditors were beginning to threaten the Bay State with violence. Most of the other rebellious states were in the same financial shape, and had the same debt-and-taxes problem.

The Shaysites, as supporters of Daniel Shays came to be known, eventually grew to thousands of men, and the movement grew confident enough that it planned to seize a federal armory. However, the governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin, directed a local militia leader (William Shepard) to protect the armory. The armory, though, was federal property, and the militia was operating under state direction, so the seizure of the armory in the name of protecting it from rebels had the potential to ignite a powder keg of legal ramifications throughout the war-torn eastern seaboard.

Bowdoin’s gamble paid off, however, and the militia dispersed the rebels on Jan. 25, 1787, when plans of an attack on the armory were intercepted by state militiamen. Thousands of men were arrested, but only two were hanged (the rest were pardoned after signing confessions): John Bly and Charles Rose. Shays himself fled to Vermont, where he remained until 1788. He was eventually given a pension by the newly formed federal government.

The debate surrounding Shays Rebellion is based on whether or not it influenced the formation of the federal government. Robert Feer’s influential 1969 article argues that Shays Rebellion barely registered in the talks surrounding union, as more pressing matters were of concern to the delegates, such as preserving peace between the states, creating a tariff-free and standardized zone of commerce between the states, and staving off the imperial ambitions of European powers.

Others, including many libertarians [https://mises.org/library/rocky-road-american-taxation#8], argue that Shays’ Rebellion and others like it served the Machiavellian purposes of federalists well, as it gave them an excuse to push for more centralized power at the expense the Articles of Confederation’s decentralized governance structure.

Vermont was the main beneficiary of Shays’ Rebellion. The polity, which New York claimed as its own, was struggling to maintain a de facto independence from New York and its role as a safe haven for rebellious taxpayers forced Alexander Hamilton and other powerful New Yorkers to recognize the danger of having a hostile, secession-minded polity in its backyard.

Hamilton and his allies pushed hard for Vermont to be recognized as a state within the American federation, and Vermonters responded by handing over several prominent rebels. Vermont became the 14th state of the newly formed union in 1791, a time when federations were much more open to admitting new polities into their domains.

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