In the summer of 1786, just several years after the end of the Revolutionary War, Shays’ Rebellion unfolded in Massachusetts. Many Merchants who had donated money to the Continental Congress started to call in their debts and demand upon payment in cash for future goods and services. As William Manning’s writing reveals, though the rebellion was not successful, it brought significant changes to the Article of Confederation, which in turn changed the way the government operated.
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To begin with, the credit of the newly founded United States was in great peril. With no officials under the Articles of Confederation to regulate trade or collect taxes, the federal government was made to turn to the states. They were the ones to repay their foreign debts as well as their share of the significant war debt. The states raised taxes drastically so that they could fulfill their obligations. Meanwhile, farmers throughout the country, many of whom had served in the Revolutionary War, had never been fully paid for their services. They were scuffling their financial hardships in the post-war economy. As Manning describes it, “the jails were crowded with debtors” (164). They did not have the paper money to pay the taxes being forced upon them, but the state governments were apathetic. Debt collectors took the ones unable to pay the taxes to court, and many were jailed, losing everything they had.
Furthermore, in August 1786, a large number of farmers in western Massachusetts, led by Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, began an uprising. They believed they were challenging what they thought was unfair taxation and an apathetic government. The latter, instead, under the leadership of James Bowdoin, continued to ignore and oppress the rebels. As a result, in January 1787, the rebels were dispersed and scattered, ending Shays Rebellion.
Though the Shays Rebellion was not successful, it symbolized the destructive weaknesses of the government under the Articles of Confederation that were in dire need of change. As Congress had no power or way to raise money, it could not aid the states in paying off their large war debts, which in turn forced the states to tax their citizens dramatically. Foner’s words prove this idea: “when they assembled in May 1787, they decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation entirely and draft a new constitution for the United States” (202). Congress could not raise a national army without the united consent of the states, thus, it was incapable of acting in time to assist Massachusetts. According to Manning, “although it was supposed by many that if Hancock had been a governor at that time … that the whole affair might have been settled with less than a thousand dollars cost” (166). The realization of this weakness helped prompt the events of the summer of 1787 when the members of the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia wrote laws that defined a stronger, united and more capable federal government.
To conclude, Shay’s Rebellion was vital in the termination of the Articles of the Confederation and creation of the United States Constitution, which is still the framework for the United States government. Under the Articles of the Confederation, the states were a detached, decentralized mass of mostly independent states. Meanwhile, Shay’s Rebellion demonstrated the need for some central and united governing authority to hold the burgeoning country together.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Manning, William. The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, “a Laborer,” 1799.
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