The towns of central and western Massachusetts were mostly hilly and depended on subsistence farming during the American Revolutionary War.
The economy was based on a barter system as the rural people of Massachusetts had no assets apart from their lands.
On the other hand, the coastal areas of Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut River Valley were affluent and had a market economy.
The merchants conducted trade-in wholesale items with Europe and the West Indies giving rise to a powerful economy and increase in foreign money.
The people who conducted the lucrative trade were called the Merchant Class and had considerable control over the state government.
After the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783, trouble began to brew between the merchants and their European partners.
The Europeans did not want to give any credit to the American merchants and demanded that they pay for the goods with real hard money.
At the time, hard money was scarce in the United States of America. As a result, the American merchants made the same demand from their local business partners.
The cycle of demand for hard money continued from the local partners to the partners in the state’s interior and ultimately to the customers as well.
The rural population was not able to meet the demands of the merchants and were dragged to court where the judgment was ruled in the creditor’s favor.
Similarly, the tax collectors also accused the farmers of not paying taxes and were allowed by the court to seize their property.
The debt and tax imposed on the poorer people were intolerable and soon the farmers began losing their lands and other belongings.
This caused great hardship for the rural people who had also served during the war.
They had been given very little pay for their time in the military. It also was difficult to collect the payment owed to them by the state and the Congress of the Confederation.
A farmer called Plough Jogger conveyed the complaints of the rural population in a meeting attended by aggrieved commoners.
Several petitions and proposals were drafted by people to seek help from the state government.
Major Events and Key Figures
John Hancock the governor of Massachusetts was sympathetic about the limitations the farmers had and did not want to actively summon the collection of unpaid taxes.
In 1780, Daniel Shays had returned home from his time in the military only to realize that he owes a debt to the government.
He had not received his pay for his service and hence was outraged to go to court for not paying taxes.
During the court proceedings, Daniel Shays understood that his situation is not unique and there are many more people who are going through the same problems.
Some soldiers had already raised their voices against the oppressive economic tactics. One of the first to do so was Job Shattuck.
Job Shattuck of Groton had been a British colonial soldier during the French and Indian War and he had also served in Massachusetts State Militia during the American Revolutionary War.
In 1782, he organized a protest against the state government of Massachusetts where residents prevented the process of tax collection by physically blocking the officers.
On February 3, 1783, a larger mob protested the seizure of a property in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. The group of protestors seized the property from the constable and gave it back to its owners.
These clashes between the protestors and government officers led Governor John Hancock to issue orders for their suppression.
The rural population had tried to persuade the government through the legislative process on several occasions.
Petitions and proposals were sent repeatedly to suggest measures appropriate to the situation of the poorer sections of the society.
It was even suggested that the state legislature should print more paper money to depreciate the currency. This will make it possible to pay the high-value debt with a low-value currency.
This was unacceptable to the wealthy merchants as it would mean great losses to their assets.
Printing more money meant that the wealth of the merchants will be devalued. This is why they rejected all proposals made by the farmers and the war veterans.
The discontent of the rural population widened due to the unresponsiveness of the state to their demands.
John Hancock sensed that the refusal of the wealthy merchants to empathize with the farmers would lead to a violent uprising and so he resigned early in 1785.
James Bowdoin finally got the chance to win the elections after losing several times to Hancock. His arrival in the office of the Governor was met by resistance.
The methods of James Bowdoin were severe and he allowed many civil actions against the people if they did not pay their back taxes.
He imposed another tax on property in order to generate revenue to pay the debts owed to foreign traders.
John Adams, one of the founding fathers and the second president of the USA had said at the time that the taxes were simply too unbearable for the people.
In August 1786, the state legislature again failed to take notice of the various petitions sent to Boston.
By now the protests were joined by many people and were fairly organized. This was witnessed on August 29 when the protestors successfully stopped the county court from sitting in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The protestors accused the corrupt practices of the judicial system and resented the long and burdensome process.
Governor Bowdoin was angry and denounced the actions of the protestors in a proclamation issued on September 2.
Another protest of the same nature took place in Worcester Massachusetts on September 5.
Even though the county militia was commanded to arrest the protestors, they refused to do so since they shared the concerns of the farmers.
The governors of the neighboring states felt concerned with the protests and ordered their militia to hunt down the leaders of the resistance movement in their jurisdiction.
In Rhode Island, matters were differently resolved as the Country Party got control of the legislature in 1786.
The measures suggested by the Country Party forced the merchants to exchange debt instruments for devalued currency.
James Bowdoin and other merchants of Boston felt threatened by these measures as they held a considerable amount of money in Massachusetts notes.
Daniel Shays had become an active participant in the uprising since the Northampton protest held on August 29, 1786.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held the leaders responsible for being riotous, seditious and disorderly.
11 leaders were indicted, however, Shay remained free as he vehemently denied being the leader of the rebellion.
On September 26, the court was supposed to convene in Springfield, Massachusetts. Daniel Shays and Luke Day had planned to protest and try to stop the court sitting.
However, news of their arrival was received by William Shepherd and he made arrangements to prevent any mob actions.
Though Shays and Day had a similar number of people as William Shepherd, they chose to protest calmly since the militia had weapons and the protestors did not.
After a few more protests, many members of the government had become hostile to the farmers.
Samuel Adams passed the Riot Act which allowed the state to arrest and imprison any person without a trial. He also suggested death by execution for any person found to be guilty of rebelling against the state.
At the same time, the legislature tried to address the needs of the farmers and recommended that they pay their taxes in farm goods if they don’t have money.
They also told the farmers that speaking against the government is not allowed and the state will forgive their crimes if they pledge their allegiance by taking an oath.
This did not solve the issues of the farmers and they refused to comply. The state then began chasing down and arresting the leaders of the movement including Job Shattuck. They sentenced 18 men to death.
These developments had outraged the rural population of Massachusetts and they officially began their rebellion against the ‘tyrannical government of Massachusetts.
The federal government was unable to finance troops, hence James Bowdoin and Benjamin Lincoln raised close to $6000 from 125 merchants in Boston. On January 19, 1787, they had 3000 militiamen marching toward Worcester.
Daniel Shays and Luke Day were in a similar preparation. They organized 4000 men to march on Springfield Armory.
With the permission of Bowdoin, William Shepherd took control of the armory. However, he did not have the permission from Secretary at War Henry Knox to arm the militiamen with the weapons therein.
The attack was planned on three sides led by Daniel Shays on the east of Springfield, Day on the west, and Elias Parsons on the north..
The date of the assault was planned on January 25th when the forces from all three sides would engage in an armed rebellion and seize the armory.
However, a delay in Luke Day’s plan led him to move the date of the attack to the 26th. The message about the delay in the plan was intercepted by William Shepherd and he prevented the news from reaching the other two groups.
As a result, when Daniel Shays and Elias Parsons charged on the Springfield Armory, they were met by William Shepherd and his heavily armed militiamen.
The warning shots were followed by grape shots from two cannons which killed 4 Shaysites and injured 20 more.
The forces led by Shays and Parsons were surprised and fled immediately to Amherst, Massachusetts.
Benjamin Lincoln pursued them with his 3000 militiamen all the way to Petersham and on the eve of February 4th many of them were captured and some fled farther away.
Most of the Shaysites confessed their participation and were pardoned eventually. Some were indicted however, they too were pardoned if they pledged their allegiance to the state. 18 were sentenced to death, however, only two were executed.
Daniel Shays went into hiding in the Vermont woods until he too was pardoned in 1788.
The Boston press had painted him as an anarchist and a rebel which made his life difficult in Massachusetts and drove him to Conesus in New York. There he died in obscurity and poverty in 1825.
Though the state of Massachusetts was successful in suppressing Shays’ Rebellion, the event is said to have played a significant role in the formation of the United States Constitution.