History Moment By William “Doc” Halliday

Shays’ Rebellion

shaysrebellionWhy does a country change its governing documents?  If the country is functioning well, there would be no reason to change the documents that govern that country.  With this in mind, what stimulated the United States to change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution that now governs us?

The Articles of Confederation were written between July of 1776 and November of 1777.  While the articles did not come into force until March of 1781, when they were ratified by the thirteen original states, they were used to guide business processes during the Revolutionary War.  Before the Articles were approved the Continental Congress had promised soldiers a pension of half pay for life.  These articles placed severe restrictions on the power of the federal government, including the ability to tax.  These restrictions led to their replacement.

Merchants that had funded the war wanted to be paid in hard currency.  These merchants were located in both the new United States and in Europe.  They demanded payment, and the government was forced to act as collectors.  Residents in Western Massachusetts were particularly hard hit as they were mostly subsistence farmers with little cash money.  The rural farming population was generally incapable of meeting the demands being made of them by merchants or the civil authorities.  People began to lose their land and other possessions when they were unable to satisfy their debt and tax obligations.

Daniel Shays had joined the militia during the Revolutionary War.  He served with honor and rose to the rank of Captain in the 5th Massachusetts Regiment.  He saw action on Bunker Hill and at the Battles of Lexington and Concord as well as others.  He had been wounded in battle and resigned from the army in 1780, without being paid.  He joined many of his veteran counterparts in this regard as they remained unpaid also.  Their protests over pay fell on deaf ears.  Meetings revealed that veterans were treated unfairly upon being discharged.  Merchants were trying to squeeze money out of small farmers and landholders in order to pay their own debts to European war investors.

Many small Massachusetts communities petitioned the courts for relief, but this was denied.  The courts were staffed with merchants or their appointees.  Even requests to issue paper currency were rejected because it would devalue the currency and hurt lenders.  Efforts to collect debts were escalated and an additional property tax was imposed to pay the state’s foreign debt.  The financial burden was so great that even John Adams noted that it was too much to bear.

In the summer of 1786 the protests turned into overt action.  Groups of men called Regulators formed.  They marched on the court in Northampton and prevented that court from sitting.  They successfully repeated this tactic a few times without gaining their objective.  In November of 1786 Shays took a leadership role in the group.

In January of 1787 Shays planned a raid on the armory in Springfield.  The group was divided in three sections.  One of the groups was delayed, but the message was not delivered in time.  Two hundred and thirty-one years ago, on January 25, 1787, the largest confrontation of Shays Rebellion occurred at the Springfield Armory.  Four of the rebels were killed and another twenty were wounded.  Over four thousand people signed confessions acknowledging participation in the rebellion in exchange for amnesty.  Several hundred participants were ultimately indicted on charges relating to the rebellion.  Most of these were pardoned under a general amnesty that only excluded a few ringleaders.  Shays, and seventeen others were convicted and sentenced to death.  Only two of those death sentences were carried out.  Shays was pardoned the next year, in 1788.  He was eventually given a pension for the five years he served in the militia without pay.

Beginning in May of 1787 a Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia.  On September 17, 1787 they delivered a new Constitution.  Fifty-five men attended the Convention and are considered the framers of the Constitution, although only thirty-nine actually signed the document.

Image is from www.authorstream.com

Mr. Halliday can be contacted at doc@william-halliday.com

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