<Standard 5.20..........................................................................................................................Standard 5.22>

Describe Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-1789 and explain why it was one of the crucial events leading to the Constitutional Convention

Focus Question: Why was Shays’ Rebellion one of the crucial events leading to the Constitutional Convention?

Topics on the Page

Background and Causes
Course of the Rebellion
Effects of the Rebellion
The Constitutional Convention

external image Daniel_Shays_%28Shays%27_Rebellion%29.jpg
rotating gif.gifGo to United States History I.6 for more information on the adoption and failure of the Articles of Confederation.

Multimedia.pngFor an overview, go to Shays' Rebellion & the Making of a Nation, a website developed by Springfield Technical Community College.

primary_sources.PNGFor documents and other sources, go to Shays' Rebellion and the Attack on the Springfield Arsenal, January 25, 1787.
Massachusetts_state_seal.pngShays’ Rebellion was an armed uprising by farmers in western Massachusetts that lasted from August of 1786 to June of 1787 against the government of that state.

Monument to Shays' Rebellion
Monument to Shays' Rebellion

Background and Causes

After the America Revolution, the United States went into a severe economic depression.
European war investors and others demanded payment in specie (gold or silver) which was not accessible in large quantities.
  • Wealthy urban businessmen thus oppressed rural farmers by attempting to receive the largest payments possible.
  • When poor farmers such as Daniel Shays could not pay the requested amounts he and others like him were sentenced to debtors prison and/or their land and possessions were taken.
  • Daniel Shays and others attempted to solve this issue and present a form of protest by attempting to shut down court houses in Western Massachusetts.

Legislation against debtors was aggressive. State governments passed laws preventing public assembly and penalizing anti-government violence by death, frequently calling in local militias to quell rebellion.

The Course of the Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion began in Massachusetts in 1786. Daniel Shays was a former revolutionary war captain who led about 1200 men, most of whom were angry farmers, on an attack against the government.

During the course of the Rebellion, farmers shut down debtor courts and stopped property auctions.
  • In December of 1786, Shays and his 1200 men set toward a federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts.
  • The Governor quickly called for the support of about 4,000 men to defend the arsenal, as well as the state militia.
  • The attack was actualized in late January, but was put to a quick halt by the death of four farmers by artillery fire, forcing Shays to flee to Vermont.
  • By the end of February, the Massachusetts militia had crushed the rebellion. (Note: other estimates suggest that up to 9,000 rebels participated in Shays' uprising.)

However, the main attack on the arsenal at Springfield did not end the rebellions. During the next four months small bands raided market towns such as Stockbridge and Great Barrington, kidnapping and terrorizing lawyers, merchants, military leaders, and politicians. Shays was pardoned in June of 1788.
Stockbridge, MA
Stockbridge, MA

Great Barrington, MA
Great Barrington, MA

Effects of the Rebellion

Economic & Political Flaws
Under the Articles of Confederation, several financial struggles remained unresolved.
  • The Revolution incurred massive debt that was not able to be payed. Nearly a decade after the war, war debts to France were still unpaid.
  • The central government had no way to directly tax. In times of financial need, the Articles required the central government to apply to the states for aid. In addition specie (gold and silver) was requested from foreign countries, which was not readily available in the newly formed nation.
  • States had the majority of the power under the Articles, thus the states acted as adjacent countries as opposed to states. Financial struggle during this time is showcased by the frustration in this rebellion.Articles of Confederation
  • The rebellion raised concerns about the effectiveness of the American government under the Articles of Confederation, at both the state and national levels. Fearing similar uprisings. Some statesmen and government officials now saw a need for revision of the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention was conceived of in the fall of 1786 and brought to fruition in the spring of 1787. Shays' rebellion helped Federalists gain the upper hand in the Constitutional Convention. The delegates, who were convinced that the rule of the people and a weak national government led to such uprisings, wrote a constitution that weakened the most radical revolutionary reforms by providing for an elected president, an indirect senate, and appointed judges.

primary_sources.PNGThe Federalist Papers were an effort by the Federalist delegates at the Convention to convince all states to vote for a stronger federal government. Federalist #10 deals with the suppression of future rebellion, a direct response to Shays' Rebellion and others like it.

The ratification of the constitution showed that the government had the final word over law. It also showed that people had some power in the government that ruled over them. This was the first step toward a democratic government.

Signing of the Constitution
Signing of the Constitution


1. Calliope Film Resources, (2007, March, 27). Calliope. Retrieved April 4, 2007, from Shays' rebellion nad constitution Web site: http://www.calliope.org/shays/shays2.html
2. American Social History Productions, Inc., (2006, March, 31). William manning, "A Laborer," explains Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts. Retrieved April 4, 2007, from History Matters Web site: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5836/ http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5836/
3. Person Education, (2007). Shay's Rebellion. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from Infoplease Web site: http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0844765.html
4. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc., (2007). Shays’ Rebellion. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shays'_Rebellion
5. Answers corporation, (2007). Shays’ Rebellion. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from answers.com Web site: http://www.answers.com/topic/shays-rebellion
6. Answers corporation, (2007). Philadelphia convention. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from answers.com Web site: http://www.answers.com/topic/philadelphia-convention

Image IDs from left to right

1. Shays' Rebellion Memorial Wikimedia Commons, "Monument to shays rebellion".
2. Map Depicting Stockbridge, MA Wikimedia Commons, "Stockbridge ma highlight".
3. Map Depicting Great Barrington, MA Wikimedia Commons, "Great Barrington ma highlight".
4. Signing of the Constitution Wikimedia Commons, "Thomas P. Rossiter, Signing of the Constitution".