The Beginning of Daniel Shays’ Rebellion

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

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

The new taxation policy in Massachusetts was a disaster for the farming community. In 1782, Samuel Ely had led a public outburst on tax hike in western Massachusetts’s Hampshire County. Four years later, another outburst occurred. This time, even the Confederation Congress had to take notice of it.

A vintage drawing showing a scene from Northampton.
In 1786, Northampton was one of the places where the angry crowd of men had stopped the proceedings of the courthouse. (Image: Scan by NYPL/Public domain)

The Problem in Hampshire County

It began in Hampshire County, when the county court of general sessions opened in the county seat of Northampton at the end of August 1786. When the court’s three judges arrived at the courthouse door, they were stopped by an angry crowd of several hundred men led by Captain Joseph Hines, Captain Joel Billings, and Deacon John Thompson.

The judges tried opening the court session at the house of Captain Samuel Clark, innholder in Northampton, but there, the judges announced that all cases would be continued to the next session in November.

The next week, the county court in Worcester, less than 50 miles from Boston, was closed down by another angry, armed mob. A mob of 300 men and upwards took possession of the courthouse.

And, as in Northampton, so in Worcester: The Court of Common Pleas adjourned sine die and the Court of Sessions to the 21st of November.

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More Trouble for the Courts

When the Middlesex County court of General Sessions tried to open in Concord, only 20 miles from Boston, on September 11, 1786, Captain Job Shattuck with several hundred men prevented a session of the courts in Middlesex County.

The judges called for the assistance of the local militia, but the militia balked, and the judges were eventually advised to leave town for their own good.

Two weeks later, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts tried to open its session in Springfield, Massachusetts, it took the precaution of having the Hampshire County militia turned out in force under its commander, General William Shepard of Westfield. The troops began to assemble on the 23rd, when about 120 of them took possession of the courthouse, and before the session of the court commenced, 1,000 or more were on the ground.

But this time their opponents had acquired still greater numbers, and a leader in the form of Captain Daniel Shays.

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Daniel Shays: The Patriot

A vintage portrait of Daniel Shays.
Daniel Shays had served in the Massachusetts militia at Bunker Hill and Ticonderoga in 1775. (Image: Richard Miller Devens/Public domain)

Born in 1747 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, Shays had served in the Massachusetts militia at Bunker Hill and Ticonderoga in 1775, and was then commissioned as a captain in the 5th Massachusetts Regiment, and fought under General Horatio Gates at the battle of Saratoga.

He was singled out for recognition by the Marquis de Lafayette with the award of a presentation sword. But, like so many of his fellow officers, Shays was paid only fitfully, and in 1780, he was forced to pawn Lafayette’s  sword and resign his commission.

He simply lacked the money to keep up appearances as an officer and a gentleman. He moved to Pelham, Massachusetts, where he managed to eke out a living as a small farmer on 251 rocky and unproductive acres.

Financial Problems of Daniel Shays

By 1785, Shays was in debt to 10 different lenders. By 1786, he was already under threat of suit for taxes. He evidently did not think of himself as an insurgent, as a King Ludd or Captain Swing, and he turned down an appeal from his Pelham neighbors to join in the closure of the Northampton court.

But by the end of September, he could not withstand the importunity of his neighbors, and Shays was presently at the head of great numbers of people descending on Springfield with sprigs of hemlock in their hats to identify themselves.

Daniel Shays Vs. General William Shepard

Finding that the government party were acting on the defensive, Shays sent an insolent demand to William Shepard’s protective cordon of militiamen that no civil cases should be tried except where both parties were willing. Shepherd refused, and Shays had some difficulty restraining his own men from attacking the courthouse directly.

But General Shepard was actually on the short end of this stick, since Shays’s rebels prevented anyone from entering the courthouse and thus deprived the court of jurors, and at length the court helplessly adjourned. Without a court to protect, William Shepard irritably dismissed his militia.

General Court’s Response to the Insurgents

Alarmed, Governor James Bowdoin called the Massachusetts legislature into special session on September 27 in Boston. The General Court passed three different laws for easing the burdens of the people, especially for making real and personal estate a tender in discharge of executions and an act for rendering law processes less expensive.

When the Worcester county court attempted to reopen its sessions on November 21, another mob of Shaysites closed them down again.

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The Panic within the Confederation Congress

By now, Governor Bowdoin was in a panic, and so for that matter was the Confederation Congress. The Confederation maintained an arsenal at Springfield. Their worry was that if Shays got his hands on the weapons in the arsenal, then his rebellion might begin to assume larger proportions than just a western Massachusetts hissy fit.

Thus, Congress hastily authorized the recruitment of 1,340 troops, although it disguised the real purpose behind the flimsy excuse that the new recruits were needed to deal with Indian troubles in the Ohio River Valley.

Governor Bowdoin’s Firm Decisions

A portrait of General Benjamin Lincoln.
General Benjamin Lincoln was given the responsibility of securing the Springfield arsenal. (Image: National Archives at College Park/Public domain)

On November 28, Governor Bowdoin issued arrest warrants for five of the Shaysite leaders closest to Boston, including Job Shattuck.

On January 4, he called for the recruitment of 4,400 volunteers to put down the insurrection—privately funded by 153 wealthy Bostonians to the tune of some £6,000—and commanded by the doughty old Revolutionary War hero, General Benjamin Lincoln.

In two weeks, Lincoln had managed to whip his little army into presentable shape, and on January 19 they all set out westward to secure the Springfield arsenal and bring Daniel Shays to bay.

Common Questions about the Beginning of Daniel Shays’ Rebellion

Q: Why was the Confederation Congress worried about the arsenal at Springfield?

Their worry was that if Daniel Shays got his hands on those weapons in the arsenal at Springfield, then his rebellion might begin to assume larger proportions.

Q: What did Daniel Shays do after he resigned from his commission?

Daniel Shays moved to Pelham, Massachusetts, where he managed to eke out a living as a small farmer on 251 rocky and unproductive acres.

Q: What award did the Marquis de Lafayette give to Daniel Shays?

Daniel Shays was singled out for recognition by the Marquis de Lafayette with the award of a presentation sword.

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