Impact Of Shays Rebellion On The Constitution

Shays Rebellion was important not so much for the acts of rebellion itself as for pointing out the need for a stronger central government.

The first ruling document of the United States was not the Constitution with which we are familiar with today but the Articles Of Confederation. This latter document provided for a weaker central government than the Constitution. Among the prohibitions on Congress in the Articles of Confederation was that it did not provide Congress with the power to raise revenue through taxes. This power of taxation was left only to the States. In fact, the Congress had to rely solely on the goodwill of the states to provide revenue to the central government. So weak was this form of government that it was called merely a league of friendship among the states. In contrast to the weakness of the central government, the states were free to raise revenue in manners that could be often heavy-handed. This is what led to the Shays Rebellion.

Following the Revolutionary War, the United States faced severe economic hardships. One reason, in addition to war debt, was that the new nation was cut off from the commercial ties of the British Empire. Especially hard hit was Massachusetts because England cut off trade between the United States and the British West Indies. This severely harmed several businesses of that state such as shipbuilding, distilling, and lumber, which depended on the West Indies trade.

Because of the economic hard times in Massachusetts, many farms heavily in debt were seized by their creditors and often sold for a fraction of their value. The farmers and working men of Massachusetts who were unable to pay their debts were sent to debtor prisons and would not be released until their debts were paid. The state legislature of Massachusetts responded to this economic crisis in a very inadequate manner such as increasing court costs and raising taxes.

As a result, mobs of farmers and workers took matters into their own hands in August 1786 and barred access to the courts of several towns such as Pittsfield and Northampton. Among the important leaders of this rebellion was Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran from Pelham, and the rebellion came to be known as Shays Rebellion

Most of the acts by the rebels during Shays Rebellion were non-violent. In Great Barrington, the rebels released prisoners from jail and in Worcester they drafted a resolution stating their grievances. The only violence occurred on January 25, 1787 when Daniel Shays and his men attempted to seize a federal arsenal in Springfield to capture the weapons. The defending state militia in Springfield killed three of the rebels with cannon shot and caused them to quickly disperse. The rebels were captured in February and sentenced to death for treason but were subsequently pardoned.

The importance of Shays Rebellion was not so much the acts of rebellion themselves but how it pointed out the weakness of the Articles of Confederation for governing the United States. In order to prevent such anarchy in the future and to strengthen the central government, the Philadelphia Convention convened to draft the Constitution in the spring of 1787, just a short time after the end of Shays Rebellion.

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