Shays’ Rebellion was an uprising in Massachusetts that followed the Revolutionary War. The rebellion was spurred by high taxes and economic depression among rural farmers of the state. Shays’ Rebellion APUSH questions will likely focus on the effects the uprising had on the drafting of a new constitution.
What is Shays’ Rebellion?
Shays’ Rebellion was a series of protests and subversive acts, including an attempt to occupy a federal arsenal and overthrow the state government. The rebellion was named after its de facto leader, Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental army. The rebellion was sparked by the outrage of rural farmers who were losing their land due to their inability to pay high taxes. Seeing no relief, the farmers organized and began a series of protests that shut down the courts. Eventually, Shays organized an army of over a thousand rebels who marched on the arsenal in Springfield. They were run off by state militia. The militia pursued and eventually the rebellion was defeated, its actors fleeing to neighboring states.
A portrait Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck, another leader in the rebellion.
Important years to note for Shays’ Rebellion:
1786-1787: Shays’ rebels protest, shut down courts, and attack the Springfield arsenal
Why is Shays’ Rebellion so important?
While unsuccessful in its aim to overthrow the Massachusetts government, Shays’ Rebellion had a lasting effect on the nation. Already unsatisfied with the Articles of Confederation, national leaders were troubled by the rebellion, seeing it as further evidence of the confederation’s weakness. They worried that states were not powerful enough to maintain order and settle disruptive matters, and that there were no checks on the authority of state leaders. The next rebellion, they feared, might be successful, and they foresaw unrest and anarchy befalling the nation state-by-state. When delegates went to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, Shays’ Rebellion was on their mind. The Federalists argued for a stronger central government that could stabilize the country and contain civil unrest while holding state governments accountable for the life, liberty, and happiness of its citizens.
What are some historical people and events related to Shays’ Rebellion?
- Daniel Shays: The farmer and former soldier who led the rebellion
- James Bowdoin: Governor of Massachusetts whose tax burdens on poor farmers sparked the rebellion
- Articles of Confederation: first constitution of the newly-independent United States, ratified in 1781, establishing a government of loosely organized state governments
- Constitutional Convention: 1787 meeting in which delegates drafted the U.S. Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation which had proven to be ineffective, in part due to Shays’ Rebellion
What example question about Shays’ Rebellion might come up on the APUSH exam?
“‘Are we to have the goodly fabric, that eight years were spent in rearing, pulled over our heads?’ There is great danger that it will be so, I think; unless the tottering system shall be supported by arms, and even then a government which has no other basis than the point of the bayonet, should one be suspended thereon, is so totally different from the one established, at least in idea, by the different States that if we must have recourse to the sad experiment of arms it can hardly be said that we have supported ‘the goodly fabric.’ In this view of the matter it may be ‘pulled over our heads.’ This probably will be the case, for there doth not appear to be virtue enough among the people to preserve a perfect republican government.”
-Letter from Benjamin Lincoln, the general who put down Shays’ Rebellion, to George Washington (Source)
Shays’ Rebellion raised Washington’s concerns that
A) the country needed a new constitution strengthening the central government.
B) the Articles of Confederation gave too much power to the state governments.
C) adopting a new constitution would spark rebellion in states across the union.
D) wealthy national leaders were out of touch with the needs of the people.
The correct answer is (A). Washington and other national leaders were greatly concerned that Shays’ Rebellion was exposing a weakness in the Articles of Confederation— namely that they weakened the union by limiting the role of the central government. As expressed in the quote Lincoln provides in his letter, Washington worried that the work of the Revolution would be undone by the civil unrest in Massachusetts. Lincoln seems to confirm his fears by stating that the people seem to be motivated by self-interest over the preservation of a republic. Shortly after Shays’ Rebellion, leaders met at the Philadelphia Convention and debated a new constitution establishing a strong central government that would have supremacy over the states.