A Brief History
On August 29, 1786, disgruntled Massachusetts farmers disgusted by high taxes, economic hardships and civil rights violations formed an organized force of protesters and shut down the county court at Northampton, the beginning of an insurrection known as Shays’s Rebellion, 4,000 rebels under the leadership of Daniel Shays with the goal of overthrowing the government.
If you were not aware of American History in the years immediately following the American Revolution (1776-1783), you might not realize everything was not ideal and universally agreed upon by all Americans. The farmers in Massachusetts had been trampled economically by the rich merchant class that dominated the government and had clearly had enough of the injustices they perceived. Farmers were losing their land and going broke, while merchants got wealthy. This uneven prosperity brought matters to a boil, and Shays and his ‘Shaysites’ set about to change things.
Shays rebels spread their court blocking activity to other counties in Massachusetts and in neighboring Rhode Island, and government officials responded by calling up militia. Many militiamen refuse to march against the rebels and many court were shut down. The governor of Massachusetts managed to raise a private militia and had state militia armed from weapons at the Federal Armory at Springfield, without Federal permission. In 1787 Shays and his rebels marched on the US Army Armory at Springfield in an attempt to seize weapons and overthrow the government, but were defeated by the militia manning the armory who used cannons firing grapeshot to disperse the rebels. Various skirmishes and battles that followed went badly for the out gunned rebels, and by June of 1787 the rebellion was over.
Shays escaped to Vermont and New Hampshire, and was later pardoned, living until 1825 when he died in New York at about the age of 78. Shays had moved to New York to avoid the vilification he found in Massachusetts. Around 4000 rebels signed confessions and were pardoned, but 18 rebels were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Only 2 rebels actually were hanged, while the others were pardoned, had sentences commuted, or were exonerated on appeal.
The Shays rebellion of course failed, as we know the State of Massachusetts and the United States continued to exist, but the rebellion did have a major impact on the formation of what the United States would become, by triggering the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which produced the US Constitution, a document, along with its amendments, that is revered in America and envied throughout the world. The shocking events of Shays’s Rebellion also spurred George Washington back into public life, and of course his impact on the early years of the United States as our first President was a major influence on the history that followed. The exact influences on the formation of the US Constitution by Shays’s Rebellion is debated among scholars, but certainly there had to be at least some consequences.
The History of the United States has other instances of civil unrest and violence resulting in events referred to as uprisings, rebellions, riots, and other names. Some notable events include the Pennsylvania Mutiny, the Whiskey Rebellion, Fries Rebellion, Nat Turner’s Slave Revolt, Toledo War, John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, The US Civil War, New York City Draft Riots, Bonus Army March, along with various major labor strikes and numerous race related and prison riots, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. We as Americans generally denounce violence and the threat of violence, and yet our history is replete with instances where large amounts of Americans unite in a cause and use violence or the threat of violence to attempt to get their way.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is violence or the threat of violence ever justified? Do Americans have the right to revolt when they disagree with the government? Under what circumstances do you personally condone violence or the threat of violence? Is the use of nominally non-violent protest that disrupts business or government functions (sit ins, blocking roads, etc) a justified form of breaking the law? Please share your thoughts on various forms of civil disobedience in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Richards, Leonard L. Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
The featured image in this article, portraits of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, leaders of the Massachusetts “Regulators,” is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.