A Little Rebellion Now and Then

Daniel Shays wasn’t happy. After helping the Colonies win their independence as a Captain in the Continental Army ten years earlier, he returned to his farm and had hoped to live out his days peacefully with his family.

But Shays wasn’t happy. How could he be? The government of the new State of Massachusetts was behaving exactly as the hated British had. Their taxes were oppressive and when struggling farmers couldn’t pay, they were thrown into debtor’s prison.

Shays and his fellow farmers, all veterans of the Revolution, couldn’t believe the hypocrisy. When their pleas to the government went unanswered and, they feared, unheard, they did what they had done a decade ago: They rebelled.

As one of them put it:

I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war, been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates, and all rates ... been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables, and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth ... The great men are going to get all we have and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.

And they did. Shays led more than a thousand fellow farmers to occupy courthouses and open up debtors prisons across Massachusetts. Eventually, they made it to the Supreme Judicial Court of the state and occupied it as well.

The new federal government, which was largely disorganized and had spent all of its resources fighting the Revolution, was powerless to stop Shays and his men.

Terrified, the governor of Massachusetts hired former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln and raised a militia of roughly 3,000 men to put down the rebellion and recapture the courthouses. Shays knew that his men needed more firepower to combat the army that they now faced, so he ordered his men to raid the Federal Arsenal in Springfield.

Since his rebellion had inspired so many to join everywhere he marched, Shays assumed that the people of Springfield would hail them as heroes and help them break into the armory. Instead, a hastily-mustered militia confronted him with cannon fire, killing four of his “Shaysites” and injuring 20 others.

Shays’ forces retreated before a single musket could be fired, and Lincoln’s men caught up with them in nearby Pelham and forced their surrender. Many of the leaders, including Shays himself, had escaped, but the hundreds who were captured remained defiant, telling Lincoln that they were not criminals, but freedom fighters like they all had been during the Revolution.

“I earnestly stepped forth in defense of this country, and cheerfully fought to gain this prize, and liberty is still the object I have in view,” one rebel wrote in an open letter after his capture.

Recognizing that this was largely true—that most of these farmers had legitimate claims against a government that was perhaps becoming tyrannical—the Massachusetts government gave clemency to more than 4,000 people who signed confessions. 18 of the rebellion’s ringleaders were sentenced to death by hanging, but 16 were pardoned or had their sentences commuted. Only two were hanged, but only because they had looted various places that the Shaysites had occupied.

Shays himself had fled to the woods of Vermont, but returned to Massachusetts in 1788 when he was pardoned, eventually living the rest of his life in New York.

He and his men committed treason against the government, so why were they all let off the hook? Because the government was filled with men who had committed treason against Great Britain just ten years earlier.

“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,” the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in a letter to James Madison, the author of the Constitution. “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Still, Jefferson, Madison, and the other Framers of the Constitution knew that the federal government needed to have a swifter, more coordinated response to domestic incidents like Shays’ Rebellion.

As such, they decided that the federal government’s executive branch should have its power vested in one person.

In a very real way, Daniel Shays was responsible for creating the Presidency.

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