American Imperialism and the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786

American Imperialism

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.” – Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Stephens Smith, Paris, Nov. 13, 1787


After the American War for Independence, both Britain and the thirteen newly freed states felt the need to centralize their political power. Many in Congress, fearing that Britain or another European nation would take advantage of the fragile American governments, deeply in debt and without any means of protection, sought to form a stronger union than the one established under the Articles of Confederation. This shift from “thirteen independent sovereignties”[i] to united states has gone down into our popular mythos as an integral part of the American progression towards liberty, so it is not surprising that few people today are aware of the resistance that anti-nationalists had towards sealing such a union. While the nationalists were pushing for American centralization, there were many who perceived it as a grasping collaboration of politicians and businessmen, and violently resisted, as Daniel Shays and the Regulators would do in the autumn of 1786.

As the American War for Independence wound down in the early 1780s and victory became assured, the former colonies teetered on the brink of financial collapse. Particularly concerned about the rocking ship of state were the financiers of the new republic, located up and down the eastern seaboard in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. These men, represented at the Philadelphia conventions, were big city lawyers and men of wealth in land, slaves, manufacturing and shipping. According to the records of the Treasury Department, half of the men deciding the course of the country at Philadelphia had money loaned out at interest, and forty of the fifty-five held government bonds. Unsurprisingly, their personal financial interests lay in protecting the many diverse government economic holdings, a difficult juggling job considering the independent nature of the states.[ii]

Robert Morris

Robert Morris

Chief among those who stood to profit from the formation of a centralized economy was Robert Morris, the man who had helped financially hold up the Continental Congress throughout the American War for Independence. However, Morris also found the position extremely beneficial for his own private interests. As William Hogeland put it, Morris used Congressional funding for “dozens of personal speculations and had awarded his own and his partners’ firms and middlemen millions in congressional contracts, commissions, and outright disbursements. Morris and the revolution financed each other.”[iii] Having become the wealthiest merchant in the colonies, Robert Morris was elected superintendent of finance in an attempt to stem the post-war meltdown, brought on by runaway inflation and out-of-control debt. By 1781 he had complete economic control of Congress, with his people heading the Department of Finance, Foreign Affairs, and the Department of War.  Their goal was to consolidate the economy around a British-style mercantilist government based on national debt, a central bank, corporate welfare, and heavy taxation.[iv] Yet it soon became apparent that if they were to achieve financial independence for Congress, they would need more economic control over the states than was provided under the Articles of Confederation.[v]

The war had left Congress with virtually no money. Morris was forced to choose between paying the government creditors and bondholders, and paying the men who had served in the military for years without compensation.[vi] Morris chose the former. He suspended military pay, prohibited state legislatures from paying their own soldiers, and demanded instead that all states send their money to Congress to be redistributed at his discretion.[vii] The obvious one-sided nature of this system was bound to face opposition. As the states tried to simultaneously pay for their own expenses and ward off Federal creditors, they found themselves strapped for cash, attempting to squeeze what they could from their own people. Particularly hurt were the backcountry poor, who murmured their discontent up and down the Appalachians and throughout rural regions, from South Carolina to Vermont.

The situation came to a head when, in 1780, Massachusetts raised the property requirements for voting, and since most Massachusetts citizens were deeply debt ridden from the war, few outside of the metropolitan areas had the ability to have a say in their government. In protest, extralegal conventions sprang up across the countryside, run by locals calling themselves the Regulators. Most of the people who filled these meetings were farmers who had fought in the war, given years of their lives and all of their personal wealth, and yet had not been paid a cent for their service. These people found themselves being over-taxed and under-represented within their own state governments. State officials began seizing harvestable farm land and livestock to pay off the farmers’ debts. As one farmer, Plough Jogger, complained at an illegal convention:


I’ve labored hard all my days and fared hard. I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates, and all rates . . . been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables, and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth. I have been obliged to pay and nobody will pay me. I have lost a great deal by this man and that man and t’other man, and the great men are all going to get all we have, and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers, and I know that we are the biggest party, let them say what they will. . . . We’ve come to relieve the distresses of the people. There will be no court until they have redress of their grievances.[viii]


The state, however, made some attempt to pacify the farmers by accepting goods instead of the near-worthless issued money, but this did little to help the situation. For the next several years, farmers petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for tax and debt relief, while protesters harassed state tax collectors, shut down courts, and prevented debt collection. Violence was averted for several years, but the state militias were called out numerous times to stand threateningly in front of large gatherings of increasingly desperate Regulators, and it quickly became apparent that one of these standoffs would lead to bloodshed. The situation was eerily reminiscent of the protests and threats that had been made against those who had enforced the British tax policies before the war, a connection that was not lost on either side.


Daniel Shays, like most veterans of the American War for Independence, had personally experienced the hardships being foisted upon the poor of Massachusetts. Upon resigning from the army he soon found himself in court for his inability to pay off the debts he had accrued during the war years. Realizing that he was not alone, he worked to organize a debt relief. In September of 1786, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts indicted several leaders of what was now being condemned as a rebellion of traitors. Seven hundred former war veterans and shaysbattle1farmers, led by Shays, marched on Springfield, gathering more and more to their ranks. In Boston, the judges, realizing that the situation had begun to get out of hand, postponed the hearings and adjourned. The state governor loudly denounced the rebels, and Samuel Adams called the Regulators traitors working for the British government. Adams also assisted in passing the Riot Act, which suspended habeas corpus and allowed the government of Massachusetts to hold people in prison without trial. As Samuel Adams saw it, the difference between what he had done in the war for independence and what the Regulators were now doing, was the difference between rebelling against a tyrant and rebelling against the common good of the people. “In monarchies,” he said, “the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”[ix] The state, completely strapped for cash, had difficulty finding anyone willing to face the rebels. Finally, in January of 1787, Governor James Bowdoin sent militia, financed by Boston merchants and led by former Generals Benjamin Lincoln and William Shepard to enforce the tax and property confiscation. Nine hundred of the local militia were sent to the Springfield court and scattered the Regulators, arresting over a thousand of them and restoring order.

Daniel Shays responded by sending a force to seize the Springfield armoury, as he heard that four thousand troops under General Shepard would soon be approaching. However, Shepard arrived at the armoury first and caught Shays’ Regulators unawares. A warning shot was given by Shepard, and then the two cannons were fired into the Regulators, killing four and wounding twenty of them. Shocked that they had been fired upon by fellow veterans and neighbours, the Regulators fled. The resistance soon collapsed as the militia continued scattering the rebels in small engagements, until by March the Regulators had ceased to exist as an armed body. Despite having been sentenced to death, all the rebels were pardoned with the exception of two who were hanged in December of that year.[x] Shays was pardoned in 1788, and he eventually returned to his home.


Shepard orders his men to fire into the Regulators

In itself, the rebellion was a minor event. Massachusetts had managed to quell the Shays’ Rebellion by the end of winter of ’87, but both sides saw it as evidence that they were right, either in pushing for or opposing the increasing centralization. The nationalist pointed to the uprising as proof that the states were incapable of enforcing their own tax laws. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton urged for a stronger national government, one that would be better equipped for putting down future insurrections and that could effectively unite the government. George Washington wrote to Henry Lee about the suppression of the Shays’ rebellion:


You talk, my good sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or, if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.[xi]


And it was to that end that a Constitutional Convention was called to meet in Philadelphia that summer of 1787.[xii]


Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787The issue of the Shays’ Rebellion was brought up by anti-nationalists in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut as a reason, first to not send delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, and then to oppose ratification.[xiii] Jefferson wrote a letter glowingly speaking of the refreshing effects of rebellion on government, and then added that in order to maintain liberty, it was essential that domestic affairs be kept out of the hands of a central government.[xiv] Later, in a letter to Washington, he would echo the concerns of many participants in the Shays’ Rebellion by warning that the excesses of the powerful within the Federal Government naturally leaned towards replacing the republic with monarchy. In fact, more than one nationalist had openly voiced affections for monarchy, as well as hope that some form of it would be implemented in America.[xv] This desire to return to British mercantilism married to British government was denounced by its opponents as a system built on enriching the favoured at the expense of the poor.[xvi]

Fortunately, nationalists such as Madison and Hamilton did not totally achieve the centralized government they had hoped for. However there was enough that they actually did attain in the new Constitutional government that would enable them to pave the road towards dreams of further Federal expansion. After adoption of the Constitution, the  economic causes that had led to the Shays’ Rebellion, and the governmental military response to it, would in future be in Federal hands, not the states’. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton managed to achieve the goal of a national bank, enabling him to start lending Federal money to big businesses, expressly excluding farmers and smaller merchants.[xvii] He was granted the ability to mint a national coinage and print paper money, forcing all states to pay their Federal debts in inflated currency.[xviii] And national excise taxes and direct taxes were used to enforce large-scale business monopolies, again at the expense of the rural and agricultural poor, eventually leading to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and the Fries Rebellion of 1799. But unlike the Shays’ Rebellion, this time the rebels would be facing the combined might of the Federal Government, not a half-hearted local militia. The Federal Government had now been granted the ability to call upon the states’ militias in the event of an uprising, and even more menacingly, had been granted a standing army under direct Federal control.[xix] Despite the efforts to oppose the marriage of big business to big government, the formation of the nationalist, Federalist Party in 1789 effectively sealed the door on any attempts at maintaining decentralized rule. The national economy and national military were now firmly held in the same iron fist.

This monument marks the spot of the final battle of Shays' Rebellion, in Sheffield, Massachusetts.

Monument marking the spot of the final battle of Shays’ Rebellion, in Sheffield, Massachusetts





[i] Henry Knox in a letter to George Washington, October 23, 1786.

[ii] When the government was finally unified in the Constitution, at least five-sixths of those who ratified it were directly benefited financially (Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States [New York: Dover, reprinted 2004], 149-152).

[iii] William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion (New York: Scribner, 2006), 32; Curtis P. Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy, 1775–1815 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962), 23–34.

[iv] Thomas Dilorenzo, Hamilton’s Curse (New York: Random House, 2008), 59.

[v] Robert A. Feer, “Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution: A Study in Causation,” The New England Quarterly 42 no. 3 Sep., 1969, 390-393.

[vi] Thomas Dilorenzo, Hamilton’s Curse, 45.

[vii] As Morris put it, it was his intent to see that wealth flowed “into those hands which could render it most productive,” (E. James Ferguson, Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790 [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961], 124); William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion, 32.

[viii] As quoted in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, 104.

[ix] Quoted in William Pencak, “Samuel Adams and Shays’s Rebellion,” The New England Quarterly 62, no. 1 March 1989, 65.

[x] Leonard L. Richards.  Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 41.

[xi] George Washington in a letter to Henry Lee, October 31, 1786.

[xii] Ever since 1781 the nationalists had been pushing hard for amendments to the Articles of Confederation to tighten the bonds of statehood. Union had long been in peoples’ minds, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1787 that things were finally brought to a convention in Philadelphia (Robert A. Feer, “Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution,” 393).

[xiii] Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, 308-309; Robert A. Feer, “Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution,” 394-396.

[xiv] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 148.

[xv] Thomas Jefferson in a letter to George Washington, May 23, 1792; Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 54.

[xvi] John Taylor, New Views of the Constitution of the United States (Union, New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd, reprinted 2005), 46.

[xvii] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 99.

[xviii] Murray Rothbard, A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Inst., 2002), 65-72.

[xix] Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802 (New York: Free Press, 1975), 76, 88.

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