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Essay on the Daniel Shays Rebellion

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University of Richmond
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Daniel Shays Rebellion (also known as the Shays Rebellion) was a violent and armed insurrection which was directed at the federal government just a few years after the end of the Revolutionary War of Independence. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary captain who, alongside Job Shattuck, led a group of four thousand men to rebel against the young Republic in protest of what they described as economic injustices and lack of civil liberties ( The rebellion brought to the surface the negative perceptions of the citizens towards the governments ability to protect their economic interests.

Although the violent confrontations took place in many states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts was the epicenter of the insurrection. The main reason for the start of the rebellion was taxation and debt defaults ( It was an economic crisis which was caused by years of economic stagnation due to the consequences of the revolutionary war. In particular, the closure of the British West Indies to US ships and the dumping of British goods in the US led to stagnation of trade. Also, strict monetary policy and heavy taxes imposed by the federal government laid a heavy burden on farmers especially in the rural areas (Riley 119).

Economic conditions in the rural areas had worsened after the revolution. Farmers in these areas had borrowed money to stock their new farms. Due to trade stagnation as a result of the exit of the British, their economic fortunes tumbled. With little money available to pay their debts, they became disillusioned (Riley 120). The governments insensitiveness to their plight created dissent hence the revolt.

The rebellion began in1786 as a protest from the farmers, but the situation escalated when they took up arms and launched an uprising against the federal government. The rebels marched on to courts and stopped proceedings as they attempted to prevent seizures, debt collections, and foreclosures. In January 1787, they tried to acquire arms from a federal but were repulsed by federal militia. However, the James Bowdoin, then governor of Massachusetts, mobilized state army who crushed the rebellion in 1787(, the message was clear that there were issues that needed attention from the government.

Despite lasting for a short period, the Shays Rebellion brought to the fore a number of issues in the young Republic. For instance, the insurrection led to the widespread view that the Articles of Association had some flaws and, therefore, revisions were needed. Prominent individuals like retired president George Washington and prosperous merchants such as Stephen Higginson held the view that there was an urgent need for constitutional reform to keep the Union intact (Feer 388-89). It was the voice of the mentioned figures, politicians and other influential Americans that called for discussions which culminated in the Philadelphia convention where constitutional reforms were discussed and ratified. The new constitution gave the federal government more control over trade and national security. Majority of the delegates at the convention sought to consolidate the unity of the young Republic.

Thomas Jefferson took a soft stance towards the Shays Rebellion. In the text, he appears to acknowledge dissent and opines that it is essential that rebellions occur in a nation because they keep the government of the day in check. The views expressed in his letter to Senator Adam Smith suggest that in any given society people would have different opinions regarding a specific matter of public concern. His opinion that there should be cases of citizens revolts appear to suggest that such uprisings are vital for democracy to thrive. In other words, rulers are likely to abuse their powers if citizens do not rise up time and again to protest against decisions that they feel encroach on their rights and freedoms. According to Jefferson, it is political confrontations which promote the expansion and protection of civil liberties in a democracy. In a nutshell, Jefferson suggests that rebellions and other forms dissent against authority are useful because they promote progress. When such incidents happen, Jefferson advocates that they be pacified, an acknowledgment that when people protest, they often have genuine grievances that the state needs to listen to and address. That way, he considers Shay Rebellion participants patriots because they had gathered the courage to speak out. Indeed, it after this rebellion that civil liberties were strengthened in the new constitution.

On the Contrary, Abigail Adams sees the members of the Shays Rebellion as traitors who are out to stall progress in the new Republic. According to Adams, those individuals involved in the Shays rebellion did not know what constituted human rights. In her view, she sees liberty as originating from the state rather than the people standing up and claiming it. She advocates for harshest measures to be taken against the members of the rebellion. Additionally, she appears to consider the rebels as enemies of the young democracy and, therefore, should be suppressed as military action could allow. This view is wrong because when a state is left unchecked, it could erode the rights of citizens in favor of the interests of the political elite. Besides, Adams ignores the fact that citizens protests and armed groups often have genuine grievances which require state attention. As seen in the previous paragraphs, the members of the Shays Rebellion had genuine economic grievances the state need to address.

Bankruptcy Prevention Abuse and Consumer Protection Act meant to create conditions for a better assessment of the ability of debtors to settle their debts. It makes it difficult for consumers and business organizations to file for bankruptcy. These reforms were brought before Congress in the wake of various cases of abuse of the Act. The law provides that only those debtors whose monthly incomes were higher than that of the state could be found to have abused the Act. If such laws existed at the time of independence, insurrections such as the Shays Rebellion would have been avoided because the farmers experienced genuine economic conditions that made it difficult for them to settle their debts. The law enforcement agencies should have considered this situation as excusable for debt settlement.

Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 aimed at protecting homeowners who would have owed taxes in the face of foreclosure. This is meant to prevent taxation on individuals who are already having a burden as a result of unfavorable economic conditions. Before the outbreak of the Shays Rebellion, there were inadequate harvests and trade was crippled because of the exit of the British (Riley 119). Yet heavy taxes were imposed on the borrowers. Under this law, the borrower and the lender can come together and discuss viable ways of making the settlement. On the contrary, the legal environment that existed immediately after independence allowed lenders to recover their money regardless of the economic circumstances of the borrower.

Works Cited

Feer, Robert A. "Shay's Rebellion and the Constitution: A study in Causation." The New England Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3, 1969, pp. 388-410.

Riley, Stephen T. "Dr. William Whiting and Shay Rebellion." American Antiquarian Society, 1956, pp. 119-166.

US history. "Shays' Rebellion." US History, 2018,





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