The popular account of Shays’ Rebellion does not always coincide with the facts. The winners in any conflict, after all, get to write the histories, and the portrayal of the losing side often gets distorted. Nonetheless, in some ways, the misinformation about these events was even more significant than the facts, because it was the false reports and rumors that had the more important role in shaping the lead up to the Constitutional Convention.
The facts of the case, as we know them, are that a number of farmers, primarily in western Massachusetts, became desperate because of a combination of forces that threatened their livelihood. An economic depression contributed to their woes, and their financial circumstances were exacerbated by (as they saw it) unwise and unfair public policies, indifferent political elites, and a state constitution that favored wealthy merchants in the East over middle-class farmers in the West. Historians often characterize the rebels as debtors, but in reality they were suffering much more from a tight monetary policy and high taxes than excessive debt. By and large, these farmers owned much more than they owed. But a hefty amount of taxation, a small amount of debt, and an even smaller amount of ready money meant that large numbers of hardworking farmers were being hauled into debtors’ prison or losing their properties to foreclosure. The aggrieved farmers had tried first to seek redress through ordinary constitutional means. Only when their petitions and votes proved futile did they demand satisfaction by taking up arms.
Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War hero, was chosen to lead one contingent of the uprising. Although his name would be immortalized, the uprising had no single leader; it was truly a decentralized movement. Many of the rebels’ demands were economic: they sought a lighter tax burden and the sort of debtor relief policies and paper tender laws that were beginning to gain favor within several states. Some states were alleviating the burden of debtors by issuing paper money that could be used to pay off debts, even though the new currency was not worth its face value (these paper tender laws were the sort of policies that struck terror into the hearts of creditors at the time). But the farmers were also demanding broader constitutional reforms. Eastern elites, they believed, held an unfair advantage because the state constitution gave them more representation in the Massachusetts legislature. If the western counties could be better represented in the state legislature, then laws would not be so heavily skewed against them. They wanted to lower the property requirements for suffrage, and they wanted to reapportion representation throughout the state so that it better reflected the actual distribution of the population—a population that was steadily drifting westward. These sorts of reform movements were common throughout the states in the early republic; the very same issues would precipitate Virginia’s constitutional Convention in 1829. The difference in Massachusetts in 1786, however, was that the reformers finally resorted to violence to achieve their aims.
The ruling classes of Massachusetts certainly had some legitimate concerns about some of the reforms that the rebels sought, but many of them also whipped up the fears of distant onlookers by mischaracterizing the rebels and making exaggerated claims about their demands. They downplayed the rebels’ political grievances and embellished their most radical economic demands. They portrayed them as deadbeat debtors who were trying to soak the rich. Onlookers came to see Shays’ Rebellion as proof that dangerous democratic excesses had come to their own shores. When James Madison later wrote in Federalist No. 10 about the urgent need to establish political protections against “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project,” he demonstrated that and his peers had come to believe that horrors of mob rule were already making their appearance in America. And if swift action were not taken, then the United States would go the way of so many popular governments before them: they would be “as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Men like Washington and Madison were not only afraid of the anarchy into which popular governments so often descended. They feared much more that such democratic turbulence would be followed by a reactionary craze toward monarchy. It may seem far-fetched to us today that newly independent American citizens might return to a monarchical government, but there were some sound reasons for the anxiety. During the darkest days of the Revolution, several officers of the Continental Army had begun plotting a coup to overthrow Congress and crown George Washington King of America. (Washington himself summarily quashed that idea.) Only a few years later, in the midst of the upheaval in Massachusetts, Prince Henry of Prussia actually received a letter begging him to accept the monarchy that was being offered to him in America. Some historians believe that the originator of that invitation was none other than Nathanial Gorham of Massachusetts. Gorham was President of the Confederation Congress at the time and a future delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
Americans were certainly not ready to welcome a king on their shores—arriving with crown, scepter, and ermine robes stuffed into his portmanteau—but it was true that several prominent men were openly advocating that Americans adopt a constitution that more closely resembled that of Great Britain. During the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton and a few other delegates urged their fellows to adopt a constitution with a “higher tone” than what they were contemplating—one that included a president with a lifetime appointment, and perhaps a senate that looked more like a House of Lords. Given a few more years of violence and political instability, Americans might have become more receptive to these suggestions.
As if the political and economic concerns about Shays’ Rebellion were not enough, the embarrassing failures at every level of government while trying to suppress the uprising added to the alarm. When Governor Bowdoin tried to call forth the Massachusetts militia, the response was lackluster, to say the least. Some of the militia even joined forces with the rebels. When the state appealed to the Confederation Congress for help, the response was not much better. Only Virginia provided any funding for troops; other states simply ignored the request. If Americans wished to prove that republican government could survive in the modern world, then their performance on this, their first real test of the republican experiment after the Revolution, did not bode well that both good order and liberty could be maintained.
For those patriots who were passionately dedicated to republicanism, the apparent anarchy in Massachusetts was no less alarming than the slight inclinations toward monarchy they thought they perceived just around the corner. Several times during the crisis, leading men claimed that what was at stake in their endeavors was nothing less than the cause of popular government itself. If they could not find a solution to their problems, then America would go the way of many republics before it: a tumble into anarchy before seeking salvation in the waiting arms of tyranny. These fears may have lain under the surface even before Shays’ Rebellion, but the uprising in Massachusetts seemed a confirmation of the most pessimistic forecasts for American government. Rumors were rife that the ruling elite in Massachusetts were ready to give up on popular forms of government. Shortly after the Constitutional Convention opened for business, George Mason wrote to his son that he was relieved to find there “many men of fine republican principles.” After Shays’ Rebellion and its aftermath, he didn’t feel he could take that sentiment for granted.
Despite the terrors it inspired, the uprising itself met with a rather pathetic and undistinguished end. The rebels were crushed and their leaders fled the state. Still, the rebels’ actions did finally attract serious attention to their grievances. In the election of 1787, Governor Bowdoin lost in a landslide, and the new administration made several concessions to the western farmers. Taxes were cut and most of the rebels received pardons. In short, the farmers in western Massachusetts were better off in the years following the uprising, and very little blood was spilled in the pursuit of their aims.
The more important impact of the uprisings, however, extended beyond the borders of Massachusetts. Men who had previously opposed making any serious alterations to the Articles of Confederation were now leading the charge to call a general convention. Indeed, the governing elite in Massachusetts had been largely deaf to criticisms about the Confederacy before this crisis, but no more. Suddenly, a more powerful central government seemed more like an added security than a menace to the sovereignty of their state. And men in other states began to see the situation in the same light. Shays’ Rebellion might have been nothing more than a minor local skirmish – a footnote in our country’s history – if not for the effect it had on the success of the Constitutional Convention. It shook leading men out of their complacency and apathy and fueled the drive to amend the Articles. And for men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton – who had been leading that drive all along – they took full advantage of the added impetus to push the states toward reform.