We in Massachusetts
have a tradition to uphold!
The American Revolution ended in 1783,
but the young republic it created
faced a difficult time. Nowhere was
this more evident than to the farmers
of Western Massachusetts. A severe
economic depression forced people
unable to pay their debts first into
court, then into jail. These troubles
were viewed as arising from the mercantile
elite of Eastern Massachusetts, especially
Boston, who demanded hard currency
to pay foreign creditors. The farmers
of Western Massachusetts, after years
of frustration, reacted with an armed
uprising that lasted for six months
at the end of 1786 and start of 1787.
The Rebellion started with petitions
to the government for paper currency,
lower taxes, and judicial reform.
When this failed, the farmers took
more drastic measures. The first target
of the Rebellion was the Court of
Common Pleas at Northampton, which
an armed body of farmers kept from
sitting on August 29th.
Similar groups of insurgents stormed
the courts at Worcester, Concord,
Taunton, and Great Barrington in the
following weeks. They hoped to prevent
further trials and imprisonment of
The man who rose to lead the insurgents
was Captain Daniel Shays (1747?-1825),
a veteran of the Revolution and a
farmer from Pelham. The Supreme Judicial
Court had indicted eleven other leaders
for sedition, more would follow. Shays
and 1,500 followers, many wearing
their old Continental Army uniforms
with a sprig of hemlock in their hats,
occupied the Springfield Courthouse
from September 25th to 28th, preventing
the Supreme Judicial Court from sitting.
Governor James Bowdoin assembled 4,400
militiamen under the command of General
Benjamin Lincoln to defend the courts
and protect the Commonwealth.
Shays and the others insurgents chose
the Federal Arsenal in Springfield
to be the next target. General Lincoln
marched to defend the debtor court
in Worcester on January 20th. Shays,
with 2,000 farmers behind him, assaulted
the arsenal on January 25, 1787.
General William Shepard successfully
defended the arsenal with 1,200 local
militiamen. The rebels suffered four
dead and twenty wounded in the attack.
General Lincoln soon arrived in Springfield
and quickly chased Shays' army into
the neighboring towns.
The insurgents were taken completely
by surprise on the morning of February
3rd in Petersham. General Lincoln
had marched his troops through a snowstorm
the previous night. The farmers scattered,
and the rebellion was ended. Most
of the insurgents took advantage of
a general amnesty and surrendered.
Shays and a few other leaders escaped
for a while.
The Supreme Judicial Court soon sentenced
fourteen of the rebellion's leaders,
including Shays, to death for treason.
They were later pardoned by the newly
elected Governor John Hancock. Only
two men, John Bly and Charles Rose
of Berkshire County, were hung for
their part in the Rebellion. A new
Massachusetts Legislature in Boston
began to undertake the slow work of
That summer, the Federal Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia struggled
to create a stronger central government
that would "establish justice
and insure domestic tranquillity."
Shays' Rebellion is considered the
one of the leading causes in the formation
of the United States Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James
Madison, from Paris, Jan. 30, 1787
"I hold it that a little rebellion
now and then is a good thing, and
as necessary in the political world
as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful
rebellions, indeed, generally establish
the encroachments on the rights of
the people which have produced them.
An observation of this truth should
render honest republican governors
so mild in their punishment of rebellions
as not to discourage them too much.
It is a medicine necessary for the
sound health of the government."
George Washington, Letter to James
Madison, Nov. 5, 1786
"Let us look to our National
character, and to things beyond the
present period. 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
Chief Justice William Cushing, Supreme
Judicial Court, in the Hampshire Gazette,
June 6, 1787
"[I fear] evil minded persons,
leaders of the insurgents...[waging
war] against the Commonwealth, to
bring the whole government and all
the good people of this state, if
not continent, under absolute command
and subjugation to one or two ignorant,
unprincipled, bankrupt, desperate