Key Figures of Shays' Rebellion of 1786 and Its Impact on Articles of Confederation

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America in the late 1700s was still developing as a nation and was governed under the Articles of Confederation which greatly restricted powers of Congress. Rebellions against new unfair state policies were on the rise, and one of the most important rebellions of this time was located in western Massachusetts lead by a famed farmer named Daniel Shays. Moreover, Massachusetts’ governor, James Bowdoin, was left in a tough position after Massachusetts incurred a vast amount of debt from the Revolutionary War, as a result, Governor Bowdoin raised taxes while taking immediate and harsh action against protestors like Daniel Shays. Ultimately, Shays’ Rebellion failed to accomplish its goals, however, it brought attention to weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and convinced George Washington to reenter the political landscape, leading to his two-term presidency. When Washington, along with other important leaders influenced by Shays’ Rebellion, convened to strengthen the existing government, they proposed the U.S. Constitution that provided the basis for our current government. Unquestionably Shays’ Rebellion played a major role in the creation of our strong central government.

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Daniel Shays born in 1747, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, worked as a “landless farm laborer” before the Revolutionary War, then not long after it started he joined a local militia and rose through the ranks while fighting in many important battles such as the battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Lexington, eventually in 1780 he went home to Brookfield injured and without pay (Getchell 2016). Upon returning home he was taken to court for debts accumulated before the war. He discovered that many other rural residents and veterans were in a similar situation, this lead to him participating in and leading some of the tax protests like the one in Northampton on August 29, 1786, where the goal was to “stop the county court from convening” and prevent taxes from being collected (Getchell 2016). Later in 1787, Shays led upwards of 1,400 Regulators (fellow protestors) to the federal armory at Springfield, unfortunately, Governor James Bowdoin had set up a private militia that ended up disbanding the Regulators and sending Shays into hiding (Longley 2018). While Shays’ Rebellion failed in some ways, it succeeded in pointing out how under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was powerless to help resolve the economic issues that lead to the rebellion. With the formulation of the U.S. Constitution Shays’ Rebellion played a major role in the creation of our strong central government.

General George Washington, well known first president of the United States, born February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, VA, also played a key role in the events after Shays’ Rebellion. During the Revolutionary War, he served as commander in chief of the Continental Army, granting him the status of a national hero after his service in the war. According to an article published by Springfield Technical Community College “By 1786, General George Washington had enjoyed almost 3 years of retirement and hoped he had stepped out of the public eye for good.” However, Washington became concerned when news of Shays’ Rebellion reached him, so he started writing letters to his old comrades to become more informed. In a letter catalogued by Digital History, he wrote to General Henry Knox saying in regards to congressional powers, “If the powers are inadequate amend or alter them, but do not let us sink into the lowest state of humiliation and contempt, and become a byword in all the earth.” He believed that the rebellion happened due to the lack of a strong central government. Therefore in the spring of 1787 Washington came out of retirement to attend the convention held in Philadelphia, during which the constitution was proposed setting in motion the events leading to his presidency. The reason Washington supported the constitution for a strong central government was Shays’ Rebellion.

Though perhaps the most important person involved with Shays’ Rebellion was Governor James Bowdoin, who raised taxes and vigorously took action against rebels like Daniel Shays. He was born August 7, 1726, in Boston, MA and is known for being a political and intellectual leader of the period, along with being the governor of Massachusetts. After John Hancock, the previous Massachusetts governor resigned, Bowdoin took a more confrontational approach to collecting taxes, as opposed to Hancock’s method of not prosecuting debtors for their back taxes, Bowdoin massively increased taxes in an attempt to resolve state debt from the war. When Regulators took up arms and began shutting down judicial court sessions, Bowdoin made a declaration “denouncing the disruption of the court as an attack on the government of Massachusetts” (Springfield Technical Community College). In December, Bowdoin raised a private militia of around 1,200 men, specifically to quash Shays and his Regulators (Longley 2018). By January Shays arrived at the Springfield armory, where Bowdoin crushed the rebellion and received praise for his handling of the situation from people such as Benjamin Franklin who was, at the time, the president of Pennsylvania. Even though Bowdoin stopped a potentially dangerous rebellion and helped the monetary situation of the state, public opinion of him was very low, resulting in a landslide win of John Hancock as the next governor. Later, Bowdoin went on to attend the convention to ratify the constitution, where he voted to accept it, due to his belief that a strong central government is necessary to help prevent rebellions and maintain internal stability.

In summation, Shays’ Rebellion caused many weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation to be pointed out in different ways. Overall the failure of the rebellion was a great success for the nation as a whole, because it resulted in the creation of the U.S. Constitution. George Washington, James Bowdoin, and other influential leaders were affected by Shays’ Rebellion it resulted in the commencement of the process to build a strong central government. It became clear through Shays’ Rebellion, that letting the states have that much power could become detrimental to the economy and social order. Basically the strong central government in use today came about due to Shays’ Rebellion.

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