Economic Distress Led to Rebellions in the Newly Independent Country
The newly independent country began the process of rebuilding after the successful conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, and prosperity began to gradually return to the war torn states. Nonetheless, the first few years after independence were rocky, and it was touch and go for a while whether the new country could survive its growing pains.
An economic crisis in the 1780s fell hard upon farmers, who found themselves drowning in debt as they tried to recover and rebuild following the devastations and disruptions of the war years. Many farms had ran up debts during the war, while their menfolk and breadwinners were away fighting to free their country. Many of those farmers, such as war veteran Daniel Shays of Massachusetts, were unable to pay their debts because the government had stiffed them by failing to pay their military wages in full.
The economic crisis struck particularly hard at rural and newly settled areas in western and central Massachusetts. Unlike other state legislatures, that of Massachusetts did not attempt to alleviate the economic suffering by pro debtor measures such printing more paper money or forgiving debts. As a result, local sheriffs in rural Massachusetts started foreclosing upon and seizing farms, as well as seizing the farmers themselves and throwing them into debtors’ prisons.
Understandably, that infuriated many, seeing as how they were in debt because they had opted to serve their country, and were then unable to pay off their debts because their country then failed to pay them for their service. Many in the affected communities were veterans of the recently concluded war, and the instinct to protest governmental injustices that had led them to take up arms in 1775 was still sharp. Once again, Americans of the Founding Fathers generation resisted high taxes and an unresponsive government by rising up in armed rebellion. This time against the Massachusetts government in Boston, rather than the British one in London.
After special meetings to decry conditions and coordinate their actions, the protesters coalesced under the leadership of Daniel Shays and turned into armed rebels, organizing themselves into regional regiments run by elected committees. In the fall of 1786, they started to forcibly close the courts in their communities, and to free their neighbors from debtor prisoners. The rebellion grew and spread, until the insurgents’ numbers eventually rose to about four thousand.
In January of 1787, about 1200 rebels, now called Shaysites, attacked the federal arsenal at Springfield in an attempt to seize its weapons and use them to overthrow the government. The attempt failed, and the rebels were forced to retreat, pursued by private militias paid for by merchants and bankers. The pursuers surprised the rebels with an early morning attack on February 4th, 1787, and scattered them, bringing the rebellion to an inglorious end.
While small in scale, and eventually easily suppressed, Shays’ Rebellion had a great impact, both in Massachusetts and on the United States as a whole. Within the state, the Massachusetts legislature hurried to pass new laws easing the debtors’ economic straits. Across the country, nationalists cited the rebellion as illustrating the weakness of the federal government as it then stood under the Articles of Confederation. Similar rebellions on a smaller scale, had also occurred in Maine, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, among other places. Those insurrections were used by nationalists to make a persuasive argument for a stronger national government. That contributed greatly to the movement for a Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia a few months after the collapse of Shays’ Rebellion.