But for us to fully learn the lessons from this rebellion we must first understand the causes that led these people to react as they did.
All wars are expensive to fight and that was just as true for the American Revolutionary war. The Continental Congress had promised to pay a salary to everyone who fought in the Continental army but the only way Congress had of getting money was to request it from the various states in the union. The state of Massachusetts did contribute money but they raised it by selling bonds. A bond is a promissory note which ordinary citizens of the state bought with cash with the promise that after the war was over the state of Massachusetts would repay them with interest.
However, after the war Congress was not only broke but deeply in debt. In fact they couldn't even pay the soldiers the money they had promised, let alone pay back the states the money they had contributed for the war effort. Without that reimbursement from Congress, Massachusetts had no money to pay back on the bonds they had sold. That meant that the soldiers returning to their homes after the war were penniless because they had not received any salary for four years of fighting and the bonds they held were worthless.
Bankers in the state of Massachusetts, seeing the desperate financial situations of these citizens, offered to buy the bonds for pennies on the dollar. Frantic for money, the citizens of Massachusetts readily agreed to the deal because it was better than nothing, which is what they would get if they didn't accept the offer.
However, after buying back all the bonds, the bankers pressured the Massachusetts legislature into making good on the bonds. To do this the legislature passed high tax laws and, as the tax money came into the state's treasury, it went to the bankers to pay off the war bonds they held. In this way the bankers got rich.
Understandably, many of the citizens of Massachusetts, especially those struggling to make ends meet, were highly irritated about all of this. For one reason, they had been duped into giving up their bonds for next to nothing, and secondly, now they were having to pay high taxes in order to pay for the bonds they had given to the bankers. Since many citizens felt this was an unfair tax they refused to pay it. However, since it was a law passed by a duly elected state legislature, those who refused to pay the tax were subject to the penalties of the law which, in some cases, for those who didn't have the money, meant that the state came in and confiscated their property.
It didn't take long before resentment and bitterness began to take root among the citizens of Massachusetts, especially those who had settled in the underdeveloped western part of the state. There, a man by the name of Daniel Shays, who had once been a captain in the Continental army, soon became the leader of the resistance to this law and so, when the tax collectors came, they would be run out of town by a mob. When the sheriff came to arrest those who weren't paying their taxes, the citizens of the county packed the courtroom and made such a racket that court could not be held.
The governor of the state then passed an order that those who did not pay their taxes were to be arrested and brought to Boston to stand trial, but Shay's mob decided that they too would go to Boston and continue to obstruct the courts. On one particular day, Shays men blocked the courthouse with their armed presence to prevent the judge from entering the building but their success was short lived when a large contingent of the state militia showed up with cannons along with heavily armed soldiers.
Shay's men chose to let the judge into the courthouse rather than fight but when witnesses were called, no one showed up, either because they were sympathetic to the rebels or because they were intimidated and frightened of reprisals. As a result the tax evader was let go.
The Governor realized that if something wasn't done to stop this rebellion it would not only spread but grow stronger. Even Samuel Adams was appalled by this rebellious behavior and expressed his opinion that when such treasonous acts are committed in a republican form of government that the punishment for such a crime should be execution by hanging. In November 1786 the State Supreme Court found the leaders of this rebellion guilty of sedition against the government and Governor Bodoin issued a warrant for the arrest of the rebel leaders.
On November 28, a posse of 300 men rode out of Boston and did manage to arrest one of the leaders but when Daniel Shays heard of this he decided to fight fire with fire and called his men to arms. His aim was to go to Boston and depose the governor and the legislature where he planned on "smashing the tyrannical government of Massachusetts."
When this news reached the governor's ears, he ordered the state militia to crush the rebellion and Shays knew that, in their current condition, his men were no match for General Benjamin Lincoln's force of 3,000 men. If they had any hope of their plan succeeding they needed more men and weapons so Shays plan was to attract more recruits as he marched towards the state's armory in Springfield where 7,000 guns along with its vast store of ammunitions were stored.
However that was where General Lincoln and his state militiamen were also heading so it was imperative to Shays small army that he and his men get there first. Having fought in the Revolutionary War, Shays no doubt felt that he and his men would be just as victorious against the Massachusetts militia as General Washington had been against the British army.
On January 25, 1787 Shays army of 1,500 men made their attack on the Springfield armory which was guarded by 1,200 militia men. Although slightly outnumbered, the militia had something the rebels did not have - two cannons. As Shays men approached, General Shepherd order cannonballs fired over the heads of the rebels to warn them off. At first Shays men stopped but when they continued their attack General Shepherd ordered two more cannonballs be fired directly into the advancing army. As a result of that order, four rebels were instantly killed and one was wounded so badly that he later died from his injuries.
Shocked by the actual sight of death, the rebels ran from the fight. A few days later, General Lincoln arrived with his 3,000 man militia army and, upon hearing of the attack on the Springfield armory, he chased after the rebels who, while fleeing northward, picked up the supplies they needed by raiding and looting stores and shops.
On the morning of February 4, General Lincoln made a surprise attack on the rebel's camp in Petersham, near the northern border of Massachusetts. Although many of the rebel leaders were able to escape into Vermont and New Hampshire, eventually they were all captured and brought to trial.
From his home in Mt. Vernon, retired General George Washington followed this uprising with intense interest even though it was happening more than 600 miles from his home. His greatest fear was that if this rebellion succeeded it would inspire similar uprisings throughout the country, which would then plunge America into a state of lawlessness and anarchy and destroy forever the idea that free men can govern themselves according to the rule of law.
Although this story in American history is interesting, it is certain that there are some who feel that it has no relevance to us today, however, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1785 the people of Massachusetts certainly had a legitimate complain about the corruption in their government and today we constantly hear and see of similar kinds of corruption taking place in our own federal government, but the way Daniel Shays and his men confronted this problem was not legitimate.
Today, as back then, we hear and read of people proposing that we correct our country's political problems by using the same tactics that Daniel Shays and his men did. There are those who feel that the only way to end the corruption in Washington is through civil disobedience and a show of military force. Not surprisingly, gun sales are soaring as more and more people prepare to defend themselves against a federal government that seems to be heading towards a dictatorship.
Many people are calling upon the states to employ a tactic called nullification where any law passed by the federal government that they consider to be unconstitutional is declared to be null and void. In other words, the term nullification is simply a fancy way of saying that people refuse to follow a law they don't like. That's what Daniel Shays and his men did.
And there are others who are advocating that the remedy for an out-of-control, oppressive federal government is for the states to secede from the Union. It is their contention that each state is sovereign, meaning that they have the right to govern themselves and that their only allegiance to the federal government is when the central government is exercising only those powers that the Constitution allows them to have. According to this viewpoint, when the federal government steps beyond its constitutional authority then the states have the right to sever the ties that have connected them to the federal government.
However, what we learn from Shays rebellion is that this kind of an approach doesn't solve the problem of corruption in government because Shays was not fighting against injustice in Washington D.C. He was fighting corruption in his own state of Massachusetts.
Those who talk about "states rights" and "state sovereignty" are advocating that the states have the power to do as they please without interference from any other government. In other words, those who promote the idea that the states are sovereign are saying that each state has the absolute right to pass whatever laws they want without any other form of government telling them what they can or cannot do.
However, Shays and his men were not rebelling against a large, autocratic central government. Instead, they rebelled against their state What we see then is that seceding from the union doesn't get rid of the problem of corruption, it only moves it to a different location. And for citizen to nullify their own state's laws, simply because they don't like them, violates the principle of state sovereignty.
But what about city governments? We know that they can become just as corrupt as the state and federal governments and such politicians can be just as difficult to eradicate as anything found in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical situation because we have seen several examples of this happening with such people as Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall machine in New York City during the mid-1800s, Richard Daley and his Chicago machine, and the string of corrupt mayors in Detroit.
In a republic, all men are governed by the same set of laws. Hence the saying, "No man is above the law." In 1785 a properly elected legislature enacted a tax law that all men were required to obey. The fact that there were those who didn't like this law didn't give them the right to arbitrarily decide that they didn't have to obey it, nor that they should to be punished for their disobedience to an unpopular law. As such, they became a law unto themselves, setting themselves up as having more authority than those who had been duly elected to congress to represent the people of that state.
Whenever people decide on their own what laws they will or will not obey, you no longer have a republic, you have anarchy. And what always happens in this kind of situation is that the strongest group will impose and enforce its will upon the weaker groups. In some countries such leaders are called war lords. Instead of freedom and liberty for all, you have militant mini dictators who compete with one another for dominance. In order for the ordinary person to survive, they have to decide (or have decided for them) which war lord they are willing to give obedience to.
Had Shays rebellion succeeded, it is extremely doubtful that he would have dealt fairly or mercifully to anyone who held a different opinion than his. More than that, success would have only strengthened Shays resolve that anyone who disagreed with him was an enemy who needed to be repressed or crushed. As such, for all practical intent, Shays would have become a war lord. This is exactly what happened during the French Revolution under Robespierre.
Shays idea was that he had to violate the rule of law in order to save the law and, unfortunately, we see too many people today who have that same philosophy. There are those who advocate saving the Constitution by violating the very principles in it that we cherish. Yet those same people will mock George W. Bush for saying that he had to abandon the free market system in order to save it while advocating using the same technique for solving our political problems.
And another lesson we can learn from Shays rebellion is how easy it is for people to become convinced in the rightness of their cause. Shays had a legitimate complaint about the tax laws but then when he allowed his emotions to rule his judgment he began to justify his illegal actions in his own mind. And as he did, his actions became more and more illegal as he used intimidation, contempt for the judicial system, theft, and violence to advance his cause while convincing himself that he was doing the right thing.
Daniel Shays thought he would have heaven's blessing upon his endeavors but obviously he didn't and the reason why is because, although his cause was just, his actions weren't. And, as in 1785, people today can become just as convinced in the rightness of their actions while traveling down the road to destruction. Even Thomas Jefferson, while serving as an ambassador to France, thought that Shays rebellion was a good thing and excusing their rebellious behavior by writing that the tree of liberty needs to be refreshed with the blood of patriots from time to time.
However his feelings were contrary to those of other great American patriots such as Washington, Adams, Hancock, and other founding fathers, and history bears evidence that Jefferson was on the wrong side of this issue. Shays rebellion ended in defeat for both himself and his cause.
More than that, Shays rebellion was one of the important reasons that convinced certain influential Americans of the need for a strong central government. This rebellion troubled Washington so much that it was one of the major motivating factors that led him to support the writing of the Constitution. It also set the stage for President Washington taking action to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. So we see that Jefferson's remarks were even contrary to history itself. (As a side note, Jefferson also supported the French Revolution and he was wrong about that as well.)
Yet, there are times when it is necessary to take a stand and fight. Then how do we know when to obey the law and when to disobey laws that need to be opposed? The overriding principle is to follow the Constitution. The First Amendment allows the people the right to peaceable assemble and petition their government. It has set up the Supreme Court with the power judge the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and the conduct of government officials. It also gives the people to vote out of office those who are abusing their power.
What the Constitution does not do is allow the people to break the law in the name of supporting the law and it doesn't allow violence as the means for correcting injustice. This was the mistake made by the people who participated in Shay's rebellion.
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