University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Shadow of Shays’ Rebellion

In the years following the American Revolution many states had to deal with many uncertainties relating to taxation, debt, and contracts. Various policies such as issuing paper money, making property and agricultural produce legal tender, providing for installment payments, and delaying collections were all attempted to relieve the effects of the postwar depression. When state legislatures failed to provide relief, sporadic and isolated acts of violence erupted when authorities attempted to collect taxes. Connecticut, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia all saw the disruption of legal proceedings in and around county courthouses. The most prominent event centered in the western counties of Massachusetts where debtors led by Daniel Shays shut down the civil courts to stop foreclosures on tax delinquent property when the state legislature refused to enact debtor relief to alleviate its harsh tax code. During and after the rebellion the fallout rippled throughout the nation. Henry Knox and Henry Lee both expressed alarmist accounts with Lee suggesting that these events were the “beginning of anarchy with all its calamity.” An army raised by the state suppressed the rebellion. Shays and his followers fled Massachusetts. In the end, after harsh retributions, pardons were enacted by the legislature and then issued by Governor John Hancock for all of the insurgents. Agrarian Unrest and the Constitution (pdf) taken from Commentaries on the Constitution, Vol. XIII will give you ample information regarding the role of rural discontent in the mid-1780s. Our selections will give you a sense of the impact of these uprisings in the minds of many troubled not only by the events in Massachusetts but other rural areas of the country.

Correspondence with George Washington About the Rebellion

Correspondence During the Rebellion

Public Commentary After the Rebellion Ended