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An American Rebellion

Many of us who watched the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 were understandably shocked. It was only the second time the building has ever been attacked, and the first was more than two hundred years ago. Americans accustomed to the United States being among the world’s oldest and most stable democracies might be surprised to learn that its citizens have attacked their own government — or elements of it — before. There was the Civil War, of course, but aside from all-out war, there have been other attempts at rebellion, mainly when the nation was in its infancy.

In the early years of the republic, the country’s economy was nearly always in a precarious state. This was particularly true in the aftermath of the Revolution, when many states struggled to manage and pay their war debts. Even a few years after the war, many men who served in the Continental Army or state militias had not received compensation for their service and found themselves in dire circumstances. Merchants in America and Europe began to call in the substantial debts owed to them. They also began to demand that future purchases be paid for in cash, even though many Americans, especially impoverished farmers, were accustomed to paying on credit or even bartering for goods. Exacerbating the situation, there was a minimal amount of paper money in circulation and no gold or silver that could be accessed by indebted farmers.

While many farmers in the fledgling country faced mounting financial problems, Massachusetts’ new constitution increased taxes fivefold to pay down the state’s war debts. It was a higher rate of taxation than they had ever had to pay to the British, and the constitution required that the taxes be paid in hard currency, an impossible demand even for those of more substantial means. For these poor landowners, the struggle of trying to pay their debts as well as their taxes was virtually impossible.

When debt collectors began to seize rural farmers’ land in Massachusetts, tensions reached a boiling point, particularly among those who had not yet been paid for their military service during the Revolution. Attempts were made to resolve the issue peaceably, such as submitting petitions regarding debt relief to the state legislature, an action inspired by the political activity of the years leading to the Revolution. In August of 1786, after the state legislature failed to address any of the petitions, the embattled farmers began to escalate their efforts.

Several hundred men blocked judges from entering the courthouse where bankruptcy hearings were to take place in Northampton. In Worcester, a similar scene played out, with angry crowds preventing judges from holding court. The militia was called in, but rather than suppressing the rebellion, many militiamen joined the protesting farmers.

During the summer of 1786, Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolution who fought in several significant battles, became involved in the mounting protests. Like many men, Shays was wounded during the war and was never adequately compensated for his service. When he returned home at war’s end, he found that the state would take him to court for debts that went unpaid while serving in the army. As was the case with so many of his fellow war veterans, he had no way to pay those debts. He began leading protests at county courthouses, blocking the work of debt collectors. Shays and his followers saw themselves as continuing in the tradition of the Revolution, even placing pine twigs in their hats, as Continental soldiers had done.

Shays’ Rebellion, as it came to be known, was not so much an organized, cohesive rebellion as it was a series of actions in 1786 and 1787 carried out by a ragtag “army” of disgruntled farmers. Sometimes numbering in the hundreds, bands of Shays’ followers forced judges and sheriffs to stop seizing farms and cattle of indebted citizens. Just a few years removed from the American Revolution, a war spurred by British taxation, Shays and others like him felt that their state governments were betraying the Revolution’s principles by imposing significantly higher taxes than those put in place by the British.

In January of 1787, Shays led a group of more than a thousand protestors to the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, where more than 4,000 militiamen met them. The militia fired a single cannon shot that killed four of the insurrectionists, wounded many others, and sent the rest scattering into the countryside.

Although some of the rebels were arrested and two were hanged, the protestors achieved a victory of sorts when the legislature agreed to eliminate some of the new taxes. However, the greater significance of Shays’ Rebellion is in the way that it shaped Americans’ views of the new government.

At the time of the rebellion, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which were weak and gave the federal government minimal powers. The Confederation could not fund troops to suppress the rebellion or others like it, nor did it have the power to regulate commerce, which meant that it could do nothing to ease the rural poor’s economic woes. A new, fragile democracy could not withstand rebellions on its frontier or the economic crises that triggered them.

Spurred by Shays’ Rebellion, several of the Founders, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, began to urge that the Articles be revised, a move which would almost certainly strengthen the federal government. George Washington came out of retirement to encourage the young republic to adopt a stronger central government capable of dealing with such challenges. In a matter of months, delegates assembled at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, producing a document that granted significantly more powers to the federal government but granted states the power to suppress similar outbreaks of violence.

Faced with a threat like rebellions on the frontier, Americans of the early republic responded by strengthening their new government to ensure the success of their experiment with democracy. It is perhaps the most American of issues: how does a republic balance the power of government with the liberty of its citizens?