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Shay's Rebellion in Central Massachusetts

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Joseph Goguen

D Block

May 13, 2011

Shay's Rebellion in Central Massachusetts

In August 1786, ten years after the formation of the United States, farmers in Central Massachusetts, upset with taxing, began warlike preparations. During the past year, they had assembled and sent their grievances to the state government, while stating that they were still loyal to the state. When their pleas were ignored, the agrarians took matters into their own hands. Under the leadership of Adam Wheeler, they besieged and captured the Worcester Court House. Despite the use of force by the state, legislation was passed to ease tensions in the west (Stowe p. 57). The rebel's actions not only affected Massachusetts, but they also influenced the new Constitution.

After the American Revolution, the United States possessed a heavy debt. The national government, however, under the Articles of Confederation, lacked the ability to establish taxes, leaving the task to the states. The state governments after the revolution were generally along the coast, far from the western parts of the state. Not only were most of the politicians wealthy merchants who wrote the laws to exclude themselves from having to pay taxes while everyone else was forced to pay taxes with specie (gold or silver), due to the unreliable banks' currency, but under the 1780 Constitution in Massachusetts, it was nearly impossible for "regular folk" to enter the legislature. Along with farmers, Revolutionary veterans were upset with the state government because their pay had been pushed off for future redemption. These veterans helped the farmers organized into companies once the rebellion started (Zinn). Thomas Jefferson observed that the eastern states had "suffered by the stoppage of the channels of their commerce...This must render their money scarce and make the people uneasy" (A Letter From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison 1). This was especially true in Massachusetts, where "heavy taxation, massive indebtedness, and inflation caused by excessive printing of paper money" ran rampant. The farmers faced the most damage from the taxes and inflation, having their homes foreclosed or being sent to debtors' prison (Malloy p.39). Not only were the people upset over the high taxes, they also faced "more voracious tax collectors at home" than the British had been (Holton p.29). Many rural citizens felt that there was a Boston influence over the courts (Stowe p.55). They were upset with their feeling of underrepresentation and convened throughout the 1780's to try to communicate their grievances to the state (Malloy p.39). In April 1782, twenty-six towns met in Worcester. At this convention, the towns expressed their dissatisfaction with the wages of state officials and the costs of lawyers. Along with their hopes to lower those prices, the assembly also hoped to revive the confession of debt, to allow goods to be paid to the Continental Army instead of money, recommended that an account of expenditures be made public annually, and asked that the General Court be moved west, out of Boston. Similar conventions continued throughout central and western Massachusetts over the next four years, which added demands of the settlement of accounts with Congress, the creation of a Court of Common Pleas, a circulating system, and for the revenue of taxes to go towards the interest of State Securities (Stowe p.56). These conventions, however, were illegal under Massachusetts law and the people's pleas were ignored (Zinn). Even with their feeling of injustice, the citizens were split between peaceful and aggressive action (Stowe p.55-57).

In September 1786, Adam Wheeler gathered eighty agitated citizens - farmers and Revolutionary veterans - and led them to Worcester, where they occupied the court house for a few days, preventing the court's proceedings. During their possession of the court house, the insurgents' numbers grew to over one hundred; along with many unarmed citizens (Stowe p.57).

Wheeler, who was from Hubbardston, had performed heroically in both the French and Indian and during the Battle of Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War (Malloy p.41). However, he did not claim to be the leader of the rebels, but only that he was trying to prevent the "sittings of the court until they could obtain redress of grievances" (Stowe p.59)

The next court session was scheduled for November 21st, but the rebels gathered again and prevented the court from convening. This time, however, the government responded (Stowe p.57).

During the September incident, the state government began passing acts which relieved some of the tensions. Boston hoped that the men would quickly lay down their arms and return to their allegiance. When Wheeler and his troops returned in November, the state realized that they would need to raise troops to suppress the insurgents. However, not only did the state's actions compel more people to join the rebels, but also most of the militias refused to take up arms against the insurgents (Malloy p.42). Once state troops had assembled, however, the timid rebels retreated (Stowe p.60-61). It was at this point where Daniel Shays, whom the rebellion is named after, entered to lead the rebels west (Stowe p. 61).

Daniel Shays was also a veteran from the Continental Army. He fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga. After being wounded in battle, he returned home and found that he was not going to be paid for his service. Soon, Shays' house was threatened because of his debt, a theme he saw common throughout rural



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