Did Farmers in Shays' Rebellion Protest the Constitution?
In 1786 and 1787, farmers in western Massachusetts rebelled against the state government in a series of uprisings known as Shays’ Rebellion. Led by Daniel Shays, the movement took place before the Philadelphia Convention had convened. Since the U.S. Constitution was a product of the Convention, Shays’ Rebellion did not protest the Constitution, but instead protested against tax enforcement during an economic crisis.
1 Economic Crisis
In the wake of the American Revolution, the United States faced enormous economic uncertainty. While the country had achieved political independence, its financial stability was precarious. Revolutionary War veterans returned home from the war unpaid by the Continental Congress, which was routinely low on money. States like Massachusetts, which had financed the Revolution through debt, were forced to raise taxes to pay off their debts. In 1786, these high taxes led to poor financial circumstances for western Massachusetts farmers. Lacking payment for years of service, the farmers were forced to take out debt or sell their homes. Most chose debt, and a debt bubble soon emerged in the region. Massachusetts, unlike many other "pro-debtor" states, did not issue new paper money or forgive debts; therefore, many farmers in the agricultural western half of the state fell into economic misfortune.
2 Daniel Shays
In response to the financial distress of western Massachusetts, numerous citizens in the area began to organize in protest of their government's tax policies. From this uprising rose a man named Daniel Shays who had served in Lexington and elsewhere during the Revolution. With debtors courts imprisoning indebted farmers, Daniel Shays became a leader of over 9,000 rebellious farmers. In the fall of 1786, these rebels raided and closed courts throughout western New England. The region was in a full-fledged rebellion against the young American government.
3 Governor Bowdoin
While the Shaysites -- as they called themselves -- succeeded in closing courts and bringing chaos to western Massachusetts, their rebellion ended quickly. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin, supported by Eastern merchants who opposed the rebels, organized an armed force to send to the Western region. The Bowdoin force quickly ended the Shaysites, but Shays’ Rebellion had a lasting impact. For one, Governor Bowdoin lost his bid for reelection and was replaced by a pro-debtor governor. This new government instituted policies that were more favorable to the indebted farmers.
4 Impact on Constitutional Convention
Shays’ Rebellion took place just months before the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia. Since the Convention’s purpose was producing a governing document, lawmakers were concerned about the events in western Massachusetts. The Articles of Confederation had created a notoriously weak central government. The delegates in Philadelphia intended to write a document that would strengthen the central government, and many scholars believe that Shays’ Rebellion only encouraged this intention. Many thought the new United States would devolve into perpetual revolution and that the new government needed to be able to effectively end further rebellions.