What Did the Continental Congress Decide to Do About the Shays Rebellion?

Many historians believe the Shays Rebellion was a significant catalyst to the framing of the Constitution.
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The Shays Rebellion was a series of armed uprisings of farmers in central and western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. Although the uprisings were quelled fairly easily by the state militia, they called Congress' attention to the national government's inability to deal with such insurrections. This was one of many causes that led congressional delegates to call for a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, ultimately leading to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

1 Causes of the Rebellion

Many of the rebelling farmers, including their leader, Daniel Shays, were veterans of the American Revolution. Most of them had been paid in valueless paper money for their service, which plunged many of them into debt. The insurgents objected to what they deemed unfair tax practices and the confiscation of property of those who were unable to pay their taxes and debts.

2 Congressional Response

The Shays Rebellion was one of the leading reasons cited by politicians of the day as proof that the Articles of Confederation needed to be overhauled to allow for a stronger central government. Much of the call for change came from wealthy landowners such as Henry Knox and George Washington, who expressed concern that property rights could become endangered as state legislatures gave in to the demands of poorer citizens. Ultimately, the Congress of the Confederation called for a convention to address the defects in the national government under the Articles of Confederation.

3 Voice of Dissent

Some politicians disagreed with the idea that the Articles of Confederation needed to be overhauled or replaced. Thomas Jefferson, who had written the Declaration of Independence while a member of the Continental Congress, gave voice to those who opposed revising the Articles of Confederation. Jefferson expressed concern that the Constitutional Convention was an overreaction to the Shays rebellion. He was of the opinion that occasional uprisings like the Shays Rebellion were healthy for the country because they reminded government of the people's will to resist.

4 Mention at Constitutional Convention

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were divided in their opinions about what should be done to prevent further insurrection. Some delegates, such as Oliver Ellsworth and Elbridge Gerry, felt that a strong central government would only make it more difficult for the individual states to deal with situations like the Shays Rebellion. Some of the delegates who used the insurrection as justification for stronger federal government had expressed the desire for a stronger central government before the rebellion took place. The degree to which the Shays Rebellion affected Americans' appetite for a stronger federal government is a matter of debate. What is known for certain is that the event was significant enough that no fewer than nine delegates mentioned it during the convention.

Dell Markey is a full-time journalist. When he isn't writing business spotlights for local community papers, he writes and has owned and operated a small business.