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An uproar emerged during the 1780s, which caused a huge controversy over the government’s ability to maintain civil order. Many farmers were being affected by the high taxes being placed on them by the government. This taxation was supposed to relieve state debt from the Revolution. Instead, it led to hundreds of armed insurgents protesting at the courthouse near the New Hampshire capitol. Protesting farmers were not happy about the high tax which put them in debt. Many poor farmers were imprisoned, and others were furious about the situation. Daniel Shay, a former farmer, led the rebels to protest courts, which forced the government to remove this tax and release the farmers from jail.
Initially, farmers in Springfield, Massachusetts were infuriated by the fact that the government was imposing absurd amounts of taxation upon them. Many of these farmers had to pay the taxes in cash, and if they were not able to pay in full the collector was allowed to take anything in sight. Most of the items acquired was sold for absurd rates for profit. These farmers organized special meeting to see how they could deal with the problem. The people (farmers) of Massachusetts agreed to formally protest the courts, and “In 1786, two hundred armed insurgents surrounded the New Hampshire capitol to protest the taxes but were driven off by an armed militia” (Roark et.al 215). The armed protestors took the court by surprise and slowed the haul of overdue taxpayers. Three states (Rhode Island, North Carolina & Georgia) avoided protesters by producing more paper money, which caused the value of currency to drop. The outcome was the ability for farmers to pay their taxes with the devalued currency. This restrained protestors for some time, but tensions started to increase a few years later following the hard taxation imposed by legislatures. In March 1786, a formal federal requisition for higher taxation was put officially onto a bill. This sparked outrage amongst farmers in south Massachusetts, causing them to again form an alliance to rebel against the government.
Afterwards, months went by, and there was still no action being taken by the Massachusetts legislature to lower taxes. The people once again held a series of meetings to discuss the possible outcomes if they took action. They requested that the courts review and revise the state constitution which would provide democracy for more people including farmers. This would allow the farmers, or anyone being affected by over taxation and other laws to rebel against the government. The protest efforts were not enough for the authorities within the court system in place to change or consider removing the high tax on farmers. It was not until the fall that hundreds of armed men marched down to the courthouse (Northampton) to shut it down in an effort for farmers and others to be heard. The goal was to avoid trials in which farmers were imprisoned for not paying their taxes and free them. Local authorities did not take action as they were in favor with the farmers and wanted the court to remove high taxation. Many of these brave armed men who took part in this form of protest were not poor farmers or the general public. Instead, it was wealthy, elite, and veteran soldiers who had participated in the Continental army. One of the prime examples of why economic crisis can cause people to do in effort to change something so big affecting thousands. This can be seen as an instance where right to bear arms is huge and plays a vital role in our rights’. The second amendment is seen in part to take action against the government, which is ironic considering this is such a sensitive topic in our current society. “Some thought of the SHAYSITES (named after their military leader) as heroes in the direct tradition of the American Revolution, while many others saw them as dangerous rebels whose actions might topple the young experiment in republican government(Shay’s Rebellion)” Many saw these rebels as saviors and praised them for their bravery, while others simply saw them as outcasts.
Until, James Bowdoin ( the governor of Massachusetts), identified these protestors as illegal rebels. This is ironic considering he was against high taxation and took part in protesting. Daniel Shay was put under leadership of the rebels, a former militia officer. The newspaper outlet claimed that his intentions were to burn Boston and get rid of the unresponsive government. This was a bit overly exaggerated considering he could only do so much. The rebels questioned whether popular elected officials would be civil and honorable. Everything seemed to be spiraling out of control, but sir James would have an answer. He attempted to increase the size of the army, but many were against this and did not enlist. In response to Shay’s rebellion, Governor James Bowdoin gathered up a private army worthy to challenge the rebels. The army was sponsored by wealthy Boston residents, since no one would enlist into the army as a form of rebelling.
In 1787, farmers in debt followed Daniel Shay’s order to march to Springfield armory in attempts to gain more firepower. This would allow them to gain more political power over the Boston government. According to Khan Academy, “Bowdoin’s private militia was waiting for them, and the resulting skirmish left four of Shay’s followers dead and 20 wounded”(Shay’s Rebellion). Bowdoin’s men beat them to the armory, which resulted in major casualties. Shay’s army quickly started to fall apart after met with gunpower from an organized private militia. Another encounter occurred in Petersham, where they surprised the rebels taking hundreds to prison for rebelling against the government. All of these events prove to be a force to be reckon with after the governments ability to maintain civil order. Two men were killed, and others sentenced to hanging. These people were given leniency considering everything that was done by the rebels. It’s surprising to see these people not executed on the spot for their actions. During this time period it was not uncommon for this to take place especially for something this serious. Around 4,000 men were forgiven by swearing an oath to the state, and also confessing to their wrong doings. As a result, they were banned from voting, holding office, serving as juries, and working at schools. This would last for around three years, and would be called the Disqualification act.
This outrage showed just how vulnerable the government really was once its people rebelled against a foreign policy. These events proved to spark a mixture of fear and hope. According to the article “The Depression of 1785 and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion”, the main causes of this were:
1st– The absence of a strong national government, commanding the confidence and obedience of the people
2nd-The issue by the Confederation, and by the state government, commanding the confidence and obedience of the people
3rd– The extreme poverty of the people, resulting from the long war of the Revolution, the total absence of manufacturing industries, the ruin of American commerce, and the crushing burdens of public and private indebtedness. (Smith 78)
Fear was induced because of the governments inability to contain civil order showing just how weak the government was. The government under the Articles of government was an utter complete joke and this just showed the public just how exposed we were. Many Massachusetts newspapers were publishing about the angry mobs and their affect on other states. The newspaper exaggerated the situation and published that they were spreading to other states. The government was losing grip on its power and this was evident based on the chain of events that occurred. After this, they would call for a meeting that would review and revise the Articles of Confederation.
Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation was only an agreements of union between the 13 independent states. Congress could declare war, but the states did not have to enlist or support the military. Congress could place a set number for revenue, but once again it was up to the states to collect them. They were also able to place foreign policies, but the states did not have to technically follow them. There was no punishment if they broke or violated these policies. The states had the power to regulate its own laws and if it intervened with the congress policies there was nothing they could do. It was not until a French elite brought it to light that the United States had no government or figure of authority. As stated in the article “The Depression of 1785 and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion”, “… there was now no general government in the United States, neither congress, president, nor head of any administrative department”( Smith 79). It was political turmoil, and chaos to say the least. The Constitution issued a number of solution to fix the flaws of the Articles of Confederation. One of which was enumerated powers, which are specific powers granted to the congress. Federalism and the supremacy clause are issued, one stating supreme law of the land, and the other dividing the power between the federal, national, and state governments. Three branches of power are created Executive, Judicial, and Legislative, each branch has its own function and not too much power over the others. Each branch has an effect over the other, which can be seen as checks and balances. The power to limit or check over another branch is given so no one branch can have power over the other.
- “Shay’s Rebellion.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2019, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/road-to-revolution/creating-a-nation/a/shayss-rebellion. Accessed 6 October 2019
- “Shays’ Rebellion.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, 2019, www.ushistory.org/us/15a.asp. Accessed 6 October 2019
- Jonathan Smith. “The Depression of 1785 and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 1, 1948, p. 78. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/1920948. Accessed 7 October 2019
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