Thursday, February 17, 2011

Shays' Rebellion

A historical event transpired in the year 1786 which eludes the memories of many Americans. The History Channel aired a one hour documentary entitled Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America: Shays' RebellionAmerica's First Civil War” in 2006. This historical marker could arguably be the single most important event in all of American legal history. The event was dubbed “Shays’ Rebellion” due to the fact that one of the key figures involved was Daniel Shays, a former captain during the Revolutionary War (Richards, 2002). The ramifications of this rebellion located in the western counties of Massachusetts would reverberate throughout American history.

The Rebellion exemplifies the fact that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate to provide a national government under which all Americans would unite. Under the Articles of Confederation the federal government was nearly powerless. The founding fathers so hated the monarchical rule of England that they formed a government whose limitations prevented it from functioning properly. In legal history the Articles of Confederation were the first official legal documents governing this newly formed nation. The extreme limitations the articles placed on the federal government reveal themselves in this example from Article IX: “The united States in congress assembled shall never engage in a war, nor grant letters of marque or reprisal in time of peace, nor enter into any treaties or alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value thereof, nor ascertain the sums and expenses necessary for the defense and welfare of the United States . . . unless nine States assent to the same”.

The second reason why Shays’ Rebellion remains significant to American legal history is exemplified by the fact that “habeas corpus” was suspended for the very first time ever (Minot, 1786). In order to quell the uprising among those farmers, the governor of the State, seeking help from the Federal government, suspended habeas corpus and arrested the rebels, two of which, “John Bly and Charles Rose” were executed (Phillips, 2007, p.17ff). During this time peace officers were given broad, sweeping powers to capture and arrest the individuals causing the social upheaval (Minot, 1786). The rebels prevented many debtor courts from opening and holding trials due to the fact that many of those trials would be judgments against them for taxes and monies owed to lenders in which the “courts ordered their land taken in payment” (Peet, 1996, p.21ff).

Lastly, Daniel Shays and his rag-tag band affected legal history because their insurrection was the lynchpin which influenced the already planned Philadelphia Convention three months later, which would eventually produce the United States Constitution. Szatmary (1980) observes George Washington’s thoughts regarding the rebellion’s influence on the meeting in Philadelphia, saying “the revolutionary war hero attributed his own presence at the Constitutional Convention in May to the Massachusetts troubles”. The single most important legal document in American history birthed from the actions of individuals who refused to be taxed unfairly, despised the wasteful spending and debt of the government, and refused to have their natural rights denied.

In conclusion, little doubt exists pertaining to the significance of Shays’ rebellion and its effect on the minds of the framers of the Constitution. Clearly one must view this historical event with reverence, because it solidified the founders resolve to produce a document which would not only protect its citizen’s natural rights, but bring about a form of government which could hold the nation together and function with broader, yet limited powers. The result being every public official from the President of the United States to the city Mayor must take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” (Armed Forces Oath of Office). If there be any who doubt the significance of this rebellion, remember that the Constitution remains to this day the supreme law of the land.

by William Tolp


Armed Forces Oath of Enlistment. (2010).

Articles of Confederation. (1777).

Cutler, R. (Producer). (2006). Shays’ Rebellion---America’s First Civil War [Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America]. South Burlington, VT: The History Channel

Minot, G.R. (1786). History of the Insurrection in Massachusetts.

Mary, E. (2000, June). Shays’ Rebellion and the Constitution in American History. School Library Journal. 167.

Peet, R. (1996). A Sign Taken for History: Daniel Shays’ Memorial n Petersham, Massachusetts. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 21-43.

Phillips, C. (2007, Feb). A Day to Remember. American History. 17-18.

Richards, L. (2002). Shays’ Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Szatmary, D. (1980). Shays’ Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection. University of Massachusetts Press.

1 comment:

  1. Shays' Rebellion was just one of many such incidents, though perhaps the more important. But we should not forget the Philadelphia Mutiny that was actually a greater threat to the United States than Shays. The Newburgh Conspiracy was also a serious threat to the nation. And let's not forget the Fort Wilson Riot or the Hospital Riot.

    I also disagree with calling Shays' Rebellion "America's First Civil War." The entire American Revolution was a civil war between American Patriots and Loyalists. Many battles were fought between Americans with little or no British involvement.

    Michael E. Newton
    Author and Political historian
    Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution
    The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society's Descent into Tyranny