Shays’s Rebellion

Though many national leaders were optimistic about the long-term prospects of the United States, postwar economic conditions were grim. The Revolution had crippled American shipping and cut exports of tobacco, rice, and wheat. The British Navigation Acts, which had nurtured colonial commerce, now barred Americans from legal trade with the British West Indies. Moreover, low-priced British manufactures (and some from India as well) were flooding American markets, driving urban artisans and wartime textile firms out of business.

The fiscal condition of the state governments was dire, primarily because of war debts. Well-to-do merchants and landowners (including Abigail Adams) had invested in state bonds during the war; others had speculated in debt certificates, buying them on the cheap from hard-pressed farmers and soldiers. Now creditors and speculators demanded that the state governments redeem the bonds and certificates quickly and at full value, a policy that would require tax increases and a decrease in the amount of paper currency. Most legislatures — now including substantial numbers of middling farmers and artisans — refused. Instead they authorized new issues of paper currency and allowed debtors to pay private creditors in installments. Although wealthy men deplored these measures as “intoxicating Draughts of Liberty” that destroyed “the just rights of creditors,” such political intervention prevented social upheaval.

In Massachusetts, however, the new constitution placed power in the hands of a mercantile elite that owned the bulk of the state’s war bonds. Ignoring the interests of ordinary citizens, the legislature increased taxes fivefold to pay off wartime debts — and it stipulated that they be paid in hard currency. Even for substantial farmers, this was a crushing burden. When cash-strapped farmers could not pay both their taxes and their debts, creditors threatened lawsuits. Debtor Ephraim Wetmore heard a rumor that merchant Stephan Salisbury “would have my Body Dead or Alive in case I did not pay.” To protect their livelihoods, farmers called extralegal conventions to protest high taxes and property seizures. Then mobs of angry farmers, including men of high status, closed the courts by force. “[I] had no Intensions to Destroy the Publick Government,” declared Captain Adam Wheeler, a former town selectman; his goal was simply to prevent “Valuable and Industrious members of Society [being] dragged from their families to prison” because of their debts. These crowd actions grew into a full-scale revolt led by Captain Daniel Shays, a Continental army veteran.

As a revolt against taxes imposed by an unresponsive government, Shays’s Rebellion resembled American resistance to the British Stamp Act. Consciously linking themselves to the Patriot movement, Shays’s men placed pine twigs in their hats just as Continental troops had done. “The people have turned against their teachers the doctrines which were inculcated to effect the late revolution,” complained Fisher Ames, a conservative Massachusetts lawmaker. Some of the radical Patriots of 1776 likewise condemned the Shaysites: “[Men who] would lessen the Weight of Government lawfully exercised must be Enemies to our happy Revolution and Common Liberty,” charged Samuel Adams. To put down the rebellion, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Riot Act, and wealthy bondholders equipped a formidable fighting force, which Governor James Bowdoin used to disperse Shays’s ragtag army during the winter of 1786–1787.

Although Shays’s Rebellion failed, it showed that many middling Patriot families felt that American oppressors had replaced British tyrants. Massachusetts voters turned Governor Bowdoin out of office, and debt-ridden farmers in New York, northern Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Hampshire closed courthouses and forced their governments to provide economic relief. British officials in Canada predicted the imminent demise of the United States; and American leaders urged purposeful action to save their republican experiment. Events in Massachusetts, declared nationalist Henry Knox, formed “the strongest arguments possible” for the creation of “a strong general government.”