The conflict that became known as Shays’ Rebellion is most known for a bloody confrontation at the United States Arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, on January 25, 1787. Yet, it is the conflict as a whole that presents the most dramatic example of the social, political and economic struggles of the years following the American Revolution. Shays’ Rebellion and the Making of a Nation explores essential themes of the period leading up to the creation and ratification of the Constitution, and enhances understandings of our national identity and origins. The overarching theme is the transformation of the United States of America from a government founded on state authority into one based on the authority of the citizens themselves—“We the People.” The website exhibit illuminates a forgotten but crucial period in our nation’s founding, when the survival of the republican experiment in government was neither foreordained nor assured.
Shays’ Rebellion raised crucial questions regarding the relationship of citizens to their government. It thus affords an opportunity to help 21st century Americans better understand the nature of their Constitution and how it came to be. The “Rebellion” loomed large in the minds of delegates who came to Philadelphia to find a solution to the crises destabilizing the fledgling nation. It presented the most dramatic example of the unrest and dissension occurring throughout the new United States that alarmed people across a wide spectrum of post-revolutionary society. Citizens understood that the American Revolution would mean both greater economic opportunity as well as the end of political oppression. For many, expectations were dashed while others railed against the social and economic mobility the American Revolution had unleashed. Because it involved fundamental economic, social, and political issues, Shays’ Rebellion forced ordinary Americans no less than elite leaders like George Washington, to think about their understandings of the promises of the American Revolution and what kind of government would fulfill them.
While scholars debate the precise nature and degree of Shays’ Rebellion’s influence, it undeniably played a role in the creation of the Federal Constitution. Although all of the states experienced fiscal hardship, disorder and at least the threat of unrest, the failure of Massachusetts to maintain order proved especially shocking to observers. Thomas Jefferson’s famous response that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” notwithstanding, many more were concerned that if Massachusetts with its celebrated republican government and constitution fell prey to anarchy, could the rest of the states be far behind? States that had not bothered to send delegates to the Annapolis Convention the previous fall responded to the news of Shays’ Rebellion by choosing men to attend the Philadelphia Convention scheduled for spring 1787. The events of the winter of 1786-87 loomed large in the minds of the delegates, including George Washington, who wrote in despair that winter from Mount Vernon to his friend General Henry Knox: “I feel… infinitely more than I can express to you, for the disorders which have arisen in these States. Good God! who besides a tory could have foreseen, or a Briton predicted them!”
The US Constitution, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Shays’ Rebellion forced Washington and other Americans to rethink the Confederation system and the assumptions behind it.The events in Massachusetts fueled the desire among many political leaders to curb the excesses occurring in individual states. Political leaders reasoned that the people of the states, and, in some cases, the legislatures themselves, had proved unable to sustain their republican-based systems of government. This translated into a campaign to revise the Articles of Confederation and ultimately to discard them. The Articles were by design and intent weak; the real power in the loosely united confederation rested with the individual states. Rejecting a loose confederation, the delegates crafted the Constitution with a federal model of government immeasurably more powerful than that conceived under the Articles. Significantly, many of the powers denied the states in Article I, section 10 of the proposed Federal Constitution – such as the power to print currency and pass tender laws – were precisely those the authors felt had been abused by state legislatures.
With the opening words, “We the People …do ordain and establish this Constitution,” the Founders expressly stated that the authority rested not with the state legislatures, but with the people themselves. This was very different from the Articles which spoke of a “perpetual Union between the States.” This radical new conception of the foundation of government made possible a sharing of authority between strong central and state governments. At the same time, the Founders built in safeguards that they hoped would prevent individual, group or private interests from overwhelming the public good. The anarchy Shays’ Rebellion seemingly presaged, coupled with what many delegates perceived as state-sanctioned assaults on liberties and property, culminated in a federal plan of government unlike any ever before seen or imagined. Now commonplace to 21st century Americans, the Constitution offered an innovative solution to the most pressing political problem of the 18th century: how to sustain a permanent and expansive republic when the best political science of the day declared such a system inherently vulnerable and short-lived. Shays’ Rebellion and its implications loomed large in the minds of the framers as they struggled to create a free and stable government strong enough to survive among the most powerful monarchies in the world.
Daniel Shays, © 2008 Bryant White
Denounced as desperate debtors and insurgents, the Massachusetts Regulators and their sympathizers share a lasting legacy in the creation of the Constitution itself; it is thus we who are ultimately indebted to them. It is no surprise that Daniel Shays, whose name has come to represent the Rebellion, has been seized upon as a symbol by Americans across the political spectrum. In their actions and protests, the Regulators (as they preferred to be called) raised fundamental questions about the relation of people to the government, how citizens participate in that government and the accountability of those who govern. Shays’ Rebellion is a powerful reminder that such questions have always been and will remain at the heart of the American experiment.
Questions to consider as you explore this website
A second monument was erected in 1987 with this inscription:
"In this town on Sunday morning, February fourth, 1787, CAPTAIN DANIEL SHAYS and 150 of his followers who fought for the common people against the established powers and who tried to make real the vision of justice and equality embodied in our revolutionary declaration of independence, was surprised and routed, while enjoying the hospitality of Petersham, by General Benjamin Lincoln and an army financed by the wealthy merchants of Boston.
"True Liberty and Justice may require resistance to law."
What is similar in these inscriptions? What is different? What changed between the event itself, the period in which the first monument was erected, and the time in which the second monument appeared in Petersham? Is one interpretation more “true” than the other? What sort of inscription might you compose to describe this event?
 George Washington to Henry Knox, 26 December 1786, The George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
 See, for example, James Madison’s Vices of the Political System, in Jack P. Greene, ed. Colonies to Nation, 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 1975) pp. 514-19.