Constitution Daily

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On this day: Shays’ Rebellion was thwarted

January 25, 2019 by NCC Staff


On this day in 1787, Shays’ Rebellion effectively ended in Springfield, Mass., when its forces failed to capture a federal armory. The uprising was one of the major influences in the calling of a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

The tax protest showed the federal government, under the Articles of Confederation, couldn’t put down an internal rebellion. It had to rely on a state militia sponsored by private Boston business people. With no money, the central government couldn't act to protect a “perpetual union” guaranteed by the Articles.

The events leading to and including Shays’ rebellion alarmed Founders like George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to the point where delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786 to discuss changing the Articles of Confederation.

The group in Maryland included Madison, Hamilton and John Dickinson, and it recommended that a meeting of all 13 states be held the following May in Philadelphia. The Confederation Congress agreed and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 effectively ended the era of the Articles of Confederation.

Daniel Shays, a former Continental Army captain, led a group of upset western Massachusetts residents that clashed with the state government over the forgiveness of wartime debt and high taxes. In some cases, Army veterans who had never received pay for their service saw their property seized.

In August 1786, the protesters mobilized and seized several local courts after the state government refused to consider debt-relief provisions. Shays led a force of about 1,500 men in an attempted raid of the Springfield armory on January 26. The group was intercepted on the day before its planned attack; four protestors died in a brief conflict with the militia and the group dispersed.

When learning of the conflict, Washington remarked that it threatened “the tranquility of the Union.”

“If three years ago any person had told me that at this day, I should see such a formidable rebellion against the laws & constitutions of our own making as now appears I should have thought him a bedlamite - a fit subject for a mad house,” he wrote to Henry Knox.

At that time, Washington was leaning against attending the constitutional convention, but the impact of Shays’ rebellion and the influence of his friends led Washington to change his mind.


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