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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Saturday, May 5, 1787

May 05, 2020 - 4 minute read

Shay's Rebellion

The winter of 1777 was bitter cold and hostile to the poorly provisioned Continental Army sequestered in makeshift shelters at Valley Forge.  General Washington lamented seeing “ men without clothes…without blankets…without shoes by which their marches might be traced by the blood from their feet.”  But it was there that Washington and his troops proved their mettle.

Ten years later, memories of those perilous months were surely in the thoughts of many insurgent rebels trudging through four feet of snow as they made their way to the Federal Arsenal at Springfield, the capitol of Massachusetts.  These were desperate men.  Everything was at stake. The promises of prosperity and bright hopes for the future had inspired thousands of patriots to join the revolution against British rule; but for these men, the War had brought confusion and economic distress.  

Trade has been stifled by the British. Making matters worse, the British had destroyed most of the American ships, further crippling the flow of trade.  Costs of the War had exhausted State treasuries. Public credit had collapsed.  Veterans, many unpaid, had returned home and borrowed heavily to establish farms and homes for their families, but were unable to make payments. The agricultural market was in a slump, exacerbating the plight of farmers.  

Attempting to resolve the public debt and protect creditors, the Massachusetts government increased taxes and issued paper currency. Interest rates shot up, and debtors were hauled into court. State and local governments began seizing land from farmers for payment of debts. Dominated by commercial interests and wealthy eastern creditors, the legislature had ignored the pleas and petitions of these despairing  farmers and ordered immediate and full payment of taxes.

In late August 1786, seeing no relief in sight, hundreds of small farmers prevented the county tax court from convening in Northampton.  In September, courts were blocked in Taunton, Worcester, Concord and elsewhere.  Among them was Daniel Shays, a veteran who had responded on April 19, 1775 to the alarm that the British were marching on Lexington to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams.  When the newly organized American army laid siege at Boston, he enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of Captain.  Later he fought at Bunker Hill, participated in the expedition against Ticonderoga and continued through the storming of Stoney Point and the battle of Saratoga.  For his service, General Lafayette presented him with an ornamental gold sword.

Shays was wounded during the War and served until he resigned, unpaid, in 1780. Returning home to take up farming he, like many others, was soon faced with debts and summoned to court. Now, as the rebellion escalated, he emerged as an important leader.

The rebellion soon spread to Connecticut and New Hampshire. Yet when asked by the States for help to quell the insurgency, the Confederation Congress refused - it had neither the authority nor the resources to do so.

By January,1787, the rebels targeted the Arsenal in Springfield.  Calling themselves “Regulators,” armed with pitchforks, clubs, swords, and muskets, they ignored warning shots and advanced toward the Arsenal, but were no match for a well-armed and coordinated militia paid for by private funds raised by Governor Bowdoin. Four rebels were killed and many wounded as they faced a volley of cannon.  Stunned, the rebels retreated.  Most simply went home; others went to Canada or Vermont, including Shays.  Although the assault failed, weakening the rebellion, incidents continued to break out sporadically throughout the summer. 

Henry Knox, a Bostonian and chief artillery officer in the Continental Congress during the War, kept Washington informed of events as they unfolded.  Responding to one of Knox’s letters, Washington wrote, “I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country.”

Observing the situation from the Confederation Congress in New York City, James Madison sent word to Thomas Jefferson, the country’s representative to France. Jefferson’s reaction was quite the opposite of Washington’s.  Downplaying the seriousness of the situation, he wrote to Williams Stephens Smith, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion…The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants; it is its natural manure.”

Despite the failure of the rebels to take the Arsenal, reform in Massachusetts was secured months later in the spring of 1787 when voters elected a new legislature more sympathetic to the issues raised by the rebels, including their demand to lower taxes.  Bowdoin was defeated for reelection by John Hancock. Eighteen rebels, including Shays, were sentenced to death for treason, but later pardoned.  Shays moved to Vermont where he lived in poverty until his death in 1825.  He had long since sold his gold sword to pay creditors.

Before Shay’s Rebellion, four States had already selected delegates to the proposed constitutional convention, but the potential for more unrest combined with an impotent central government heightened the urgency for change and the need to bring the nation together. Writing to a friend, George Washington warned, “Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other and tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole.”

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