Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle: 216 years ago – Shays’s Rebellion suppressed

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Daniel Shays was born in Northampton, Mass., in 1747, the son of Margaret Dempsey and Patrick Shay (spelled without the s at the end). The Shay family, perhaps even Patrick himself, was originally from County Kerry, where they spelled the last name as Shea. Somewhere along the line, Patrick began to spell his last name Shay. His son Daniel added to the confusion by appending the s at the end, a common practice in those days that derived from locals using the possessive form Shay’s when referring to the family farm.
Next to nothing is known about Daniel Shays’ childhood and upbringing except that he was raised on a farm in western Massachusetts. He first entered the public eye as a soldier in the Continental Army during the Revolution. Shays fought at the battles of Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Saratoga, and Stony Point, reaching the rank of captain by war’s end.
When peace came in 1783, 36-year-old Daniel Shays returned to his life as a farmer in Pelham, Mass. But military service had given him a taste of leadership and he soon won election to a series of local offices, including town warden. He also remained active in the local militia.
Had it not been for the severe economic depression that set in during the post-war years, Shays might have lived out his days as a respected citizen known by few people outside his county. The crisis had its origins in the form of national government established in the last years of the Revolution. Fearful of centralized power and protective of states’ rights, the framers of the original government — based on the Articles of Confederation — gave few powers to the Congress (there was no president or national judiciary). Congress had no power to tax, nor to regulate commerce among the states. It was this weakness of the government, coupled with the economic troubles that traditionally follow a war, that set in motion the events leading to Shays’ Rebellion.
The depressed economy of the 1780s hit all Americans hard, but most severely affected were farmers who saw faced plummeting crop prices, mounting tax bills, and a scarcity of hard money to pay them. In Massachusetts the government (dominated by eastern merchants) required that all citizens pay their taxes in hard money, or coin, rather than the notoriously unstable paper currency. Farmers in the western part of the state, with little access to hard money, soon found the state government foreclosing on their homes and farms for failure to pay their taxes. In protest, farmers petitioned the state government to cease foreclosures, lower taxes, and issue paper money that could be used to pay taxes. When the government refused in mid-1786, enraged farmers soon took matters into their own hands.
On Aug. 29, 1786, an armed group of farmers stormed the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton and prevented any hearings — most of them foreclosure proceedings — from taking place. When word of this act of civil disobedience spread, other groups of farmers likewise took up arms and disrupted proceedings at several courts in nearby towns. In Springfield they were led by Daniel Shays, who soon emerged as the leader of the movement as a whole. On September 26-27 he and his men prevented the sitting of the state’s supreme court. Confident that they now had the state government’s attention, the Shaysites reiterated their demands in another petition. When no relief came, Shays and his men struck a second time at Springfield (Dec. 26) and once again sent the state Supreme Court packing.
By now it was clear the state government planned to crush the Shaysites militarily, so Shays and another rebel farmer named Luke Day planned a raid on the state arsenal at Springfield to gain badly needed firearms and ammunition. But a letter outlining the plan was intercepted by a militia officer, allowing him to mass a force at Springfield in anticipation of the attack. Shays arrived at the head of 1,200 men on Jan. 25, but were routed by a much larger militia. Shays retreated to Chicopee, joined forces with another group of farmers, and made for his hometown of Pelham. Confronted by a large force of 4,400 militia led by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, he offered to lay down his arms if his men were granted a general amnesty and if Lincoln led the militia back to Boston. Lincoln refused and attacked on Feb. 4, routing Shays’s men a second and final time.
While Shays fled to Canada, his men went home and soon received a general amnesty. Shays was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. Two of his fellow leaders were hanged, while several more went to prison. But the state government was eager to put the matter to rest and in June 1788 Shays and the others received a pardon. Shays returned to Massachusetts briefly and then moved to upstate New York, where he lived 37 more years, dying in September 1825.
The real impact of Shays’s Rebellion was to spur onward a movement begun earlier in 1786 that called for a reconsideration of the Articles of Confederation. By the time Shays was defeated, several states had already consented to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia. In the immediate aftermath, five more agreed to send delegates. The turmoil of the depression and Shays’s uprising convinced many that a stronger federal government was necessary for the survival of the Union. All seemed to agree with Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames who argued that, “Every man of sense must be convinced that our disturbances have arisen more from the want of power than the abuse of it.” Within two years the young nation would have a Constitution.

Jan. 25, 1890: Nellie Bly returns to America a hero from her famous around the world trip.
Jan. 26, 1316: Edward Bruce of Scotland and his Irish allies battle the English at Ardscull, Ireland.
Jan. 28, 1986: 73 seconds after launch, the space shuttle Challenger explodes, killing seven astronauts, including New Hampshire teacher Christa Corrigan McAuliffe.

Jan. 25, 1691: Pioneer chemist Robert Boyl, is born in County Waterford.
Jan. 28, 1760: Philadelphia journalist and publisher Matthew Carey is born in Dublin.

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