Instability during the Confederacy Period: Shays’s Rebellion

The Articles of Confederation, adopted during the War for Independence, established a system in which most power was held by the individual states rather than in a strong central government. By the mid-1780s, rebellions in several states–including one led by Daniel Shays in Massachusetts–illustrated the drawbacks of such limited government. This account of the Rebellion is from a dozen years after the fact.

On Shays’s Rebellion- William Manning

Unidentified Artist - Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck - Google Art Project

Daniel Shays and Jacob Shattuck by Unidentified Artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What most establishes me in the opinion that this plan will answer comes from my own observations of the operation of these causes in our own government, especially the causes, conduct, and final issue of the insurrection that happened in Massachusetts in 1785 and 1786. As I lived near the scene of action and received frowns from both sides for being opposed to their measures, it drew my closest attention and observation. And though I have been too lengthy already, yet I must here give a short history of it.


At the close of the British war, although our paper money died away and left the people greatly in debt by it, and a great public debt was on us by the war, yet there was a large quantity of hard money among us sufficient for a medium. But for want of the proper regulation of trade and with the prices of labor and produce being higher here than in other countries, our merchants shipped the hard money off, load after load, by the hundred thousand dollars together to Britain for trifling gewgaws and things that were of no service to us, until there was but little left. Taxes were extremely high. Some counties were two or three years behind. And with the prices of labor and produce falling very fast, creditors began calling for old debts and saying thatthey would not take payment in paper money. Those who had money demanded forty or fifty percent for it. And fee office officers demanded three or four times so much fees as the law a1lowed them, and were so crowded with business that sometimes it was hard to get any done. Property was selling almost every day by execution for less than half its value. The jails were crowded with debtors. And with the people being ignorant that all their help lay in being fully and fairly represented in the legislature, many small towns neglected to send representatives in order to save the cost—so that the Few only were represented at court [that is, the Massachusetts state legislature, known as the General Court], with an aristocratic Bowdoin as governor at their head.

Under all these circumstances, the people were driven to the greatest extremity. Many counties took to conventions remonstrances, and petitions to a court where they were not half represented. But not being heard, and in some instances charged with seditious meetings and intentions, under all these circumstances, some counties were so foolish as to stop the courts of justice by force of arms. This shook the government to its foundation. For instead of fatherly counsels and admonitions, the dog of war let loose upon them, and they were declared in a state of insurrection and rebellion.

In these circumstances, the Few were all alive for the support of the government, and all those who would not be continually crying, “Government, Government,” or who dared to say a word against their measures, were called Shaysites and rebels threatened with prosecutions, etc. But with a large majority of the people thinking that there was blame on both sides, or viewing one side as knaves and the other as fools, it was with great difficulty and delay before a sufficient number could be raised and sent to suppress those who had closed the courts.

But the suppression was done with the loss of but few lives. This put the people in the most zealous searches after a remedy for their grievances. Thousands and thousands of miles were ridden to consult each other on the affair, and they happily effected it in a few months only by using their privileges as electors. Bowdoin was turned out from being governor and Hancock was almost unanimously elected in his place. Many of the old representatives shared the same fate, and a full representation was from every part of the state, which soon found out means redress the grievances of the people, though they were attended with the most difficult circumstances, so that everything appeared like the clear and pleasant sunshine after a most tremendous storm.

This is a striking demonstration of the advantages of an elective government and shows how a people may run themselves into the greatest difficulties by inattention in elections, and how they can retrieve their circumstances by attending to them again. This Shays affair never would have happened if there had then been such a society as I now propose. Many people then would have sacrificed half their interest to have been possessed of such means of knowledge.

This affair, too, is a striking demonstration of the madness and folly of rising up against a government of our own choice when we have constitutional means of redress in our own hands. For although it was supposed by many that if Hancock had been governor at that time—even after the courts were stopped—that the whole affair might have been settled with less than a thousand dollars cost; yet it was so managed that it cost the state (in time and money) near a million dollars, and it almost entirely ruined hundreds of honest, well-meaning men that only needed the means of knowledge I have described.

Thus, my friends, I have freely given you my opinion of the causes that destroy free governments and of a remedy against them, not in the language and style of the learned (for I am not able), but in as plain a manner as I am capable. And I have done it from a conviction that it was my duty, and for the happiness of mankind. If I have misrepresented anything or used any unbecoming language, it is for the want of knowledge and learning. For I am a true friend to all orders of men and individuals I are friends to true liberty and the rights of man. The remedy I have described is not a costly one, for confident I am that penny laid out in it would soon save pounds in other needless expenses. Therefore, unless you see more difficulty in applying it, or less need of it than I do, you will immediately put it on foot and never give over until such a society is established on such a lasting foundation that the gates of hell will not prevail against it—which may the Almighty grant is the sincere desire of a laborer.

Questions for consideration:

  1. According to the author, what were the causes of the rebellion?
  2. What are “the causes that destroy free governments” according to the author?
  3. What “remedy” for this does he propose?