Shays’ Rebellion: The Confrontation and the Aftermath

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

Governor James Bowdoin could not wait for the Confederation to come to his rescue in the wake of the violent uprising by the Shaysites. He raised a private militia that was commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln. The aim was to stop the Shaysites from attacking the Springfield arsenal. What happened when Lincoln’s men came face to face with the Shaysites?

A drawing of the Shaysites being dispersed by the government's militia.
Shays’s Rebellion touched a deep sense of unease about the stability, not only of Massachusetts, but of the entire Confederation. (Image: Shockabrah/CC BY-SA/4.0/Public domain)

The Shaysites Vs. Shepard’s militia

Daniel Shays acted at once to beat General Benjamin Lincoln to the punch, but when he arrived at Springfield with between 1,500 and 2,000 men, he discovered that vengeful old General William Shepard had been faster still, and had occupied the arsenal on his own authority with approximately 1,200 militiamen.

On January 25, 1787, Shays and his officers planned a three-pronged assault on the arsenal, which they hoped would bluff Shepard’s militiamen into surrender. But Shepard was in no mood to be bluffed.

He drew up his militia in line of battle in front of the arsenal, planting two artillery pieces along the line. Shepard ordered the artillery gunners to fire two warning shots over the Shaysites’ heads, but it had no effect on them. With the next discharge, Shepard’s artillerymen fired through the center of Shays’s column, and the next after that put the whole column into the utmost confusion. Shays struggled to rally them, but in vain.

Shepard was ready to charge, but he had done enough. Four of Shays’s men were dead.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Retreat of the Shaysites

Shays, and what he could retrieve of his army, retreated northward 20 miles to the village of Petersham, and there, on February 3, they were surprised by the appearance of Benjamin Lincoln and Governor Bowdoin’s private militia.

Lincoln captured 150 of them, but most of the others, including Shays, melted into the woods, heading for sanctuary in Vermont or New Hampshire. A few made it to Canada, where they appealed to the governor- general, Lord Dorchester, for arms and supplies. Dorchester was interested in anything that made trouble for the Americans, but the Foreign Office in London was not.

Shays’s Rebellion was over.

Consequences of Shays’ Rebellion

Shays’s Rebellion touched a deep sense of unease about the stability, not only of Massachusetts, but of the entire Confederation. Still, for all the terror Shays’s Rebellion had inspired, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts proved singularly cautious about turning any of the rebels into martyrs.

Two rebels, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged on December 6, 1787. Sixteen more were condemned to death, but pardoned, while 4,000 of the insurgents signed confessions and took an oath of  allegiance to the Commonwealth.

Shays himself petitioned successfully for a pardon from Vermont, which was granted in 1788, but he never returned to Massachusetts, and died in 1825 in Sparta, New York, finally able to draw on a military pension for his Revolutionary War service.

Learn more about the American Revolution and Howe’s war.

The Profound Impact of Shays’ Rebellion

Henry Knox, Washington’s former artillery chief and now the Confederation’s Secretary of War, wailed to Washington that Shays had sparked a pretty formidable rebellion, which had determined to overturn not only the forms but the principles of the present constitutions.

Washington’s old cavalry general, Henry Lee, known as Light-Horse Harry, was convinced that some of the Shaysite leaders:

Avow the subversion of the Confederation to be their object together with the abolition of debts, the division of property and reunion with Great Britain. In all the eastern states the same temper prevails more or less, and will certainly break forth whenever the opportune moment may arrive.

The one silver lining in the cloud, said Henry Knox, was that Shays’s near-success had:

Wrought prodigious changes in the minds of men in that state respecting the powers of government—everybody says they must be strengthened, and that unless this shall be effected, there is no security for liberty and property.

Governor James Bowdoin’s Loss

A painting depicting a farmer attacking a tax collector.
As depicted here, the harried farmers were left with no choice but to attack the tax collectors when Bowdoin was the governor of Massachusetts. (Image: Wmpetro/CC BY-SA/4.0/Public domain)

One of the big losers of Shays’s Rebellion was Governor James Bowdoin. When he came up for reelection in April of 1787, he lost by wide margins—especially in the western rural districts of Massachusetts—to John Hancock, whom we know mostly as the writer of the fancy signature on the Declaration of Independence, but who was known in Massachusetts at that point as something of a self-appointed tribune of the people.

Only 77 of the 203 members of the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature were reelected.

Learn more about creating the US Constitution.

More Consequences of Shays’ Rebellion

William Shepard was harassed for months afterward as the murderer of brethren, and he received death threats. The  legislature, at least, took the hint: it cut taxes and froze actions against debtors. It cost the Commonwealth of Massachusetts economically, since Massachusetts bonds and securities fell in value by 30 percent. But, politically, it brought at least a measure of peace.

George Minot, the first historian who wrote about Shays’s Rebellion in 1788, said:

Thus was a dangerous internal war finally suppressed, by the spirited use of constitutional power, without the shedding of blood by the civil magistrate; a circumstance, which it is the duty of every citizen to ascribe to its real cause, the lenity of government.

Henry Knox should have known that all this would be of small consolation to George Washington. The Shaysites were all the proof he needed that civic virtue was not what Americans were interested in.

If the Confederation Congress, if even the rock-ribbed Commonwealth of Massachusetts, turned out to be incapable of governing, then disgruntled people would find some other way of governing, and they might not necessarily follow John Locke’s path through the state of nature to the security of property. In that case, would liberty prove to be indistinguishable from suicide?

Common Questions about Shays’ Rebellion: The Confrontation and the Aftermath

Q: How did Shays’ rebellion affect the tenure of Governor James Bowdoin?

Governor James Bowdoin lost the elections in April 1787. This was the affect of his involvement in quelling Shays’ rebellion.

Q: What happened to Daniel Shays after the rebellion was over?

Daniel Shays petitioned for a pardon from Vermont, which was granted in 1788. He never returned to Massachusetts, and died in 1825 in Sparta, New York, finally able to draw on a military pension for his Revolutionary War service.

Q: What were the personal consequences of Shays’ rebellion for General William Shepard?

General William Shepard was harassed for months as the murderer of brethren, and he received death threats after Shays’s rebellion was over.

Keep Reading
Who Counts as a Founding Father of America?
The Constitution as the Guiding Principle of the United States
On Presidents’ Day, a Look at Washington’s Concerns for the Republic