1786 Two Hundred Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The citizens of Worcester County, Massachusetts, had little idea they were on the road to rebellion when they met on August 15 to discuss the economic crisis. Inflation plagued them, and business suffered from England’s vengeful obstruction of American commerce with the British West Indies. Men had returned home from fighting the Revolutionary War with worthless Continental currency in their pockets and, for back pay, certificates they were obliged to sell at a discount. During recent prosperous years, farmers and tradesmen had incurred debts that were impossible to repay now that hard money was scarce. For many in Massachusetts, the final blow had come the previous spring, when the state legislature levied grossly inequitable poll and property taxes that amounted to a staggering one-third of the people’s total income.

But hard times these men could weather; it was the fate awaiting debtors that made them desperate. In compliance with the law, courts were ordering debtors’ property seized and sold at auction. Yet because of the extreme scarcity of currency, valuable property went at a sore loss, failing to raise sufficient funds to cover the debts. The consequences were grim: debtors were thrown into crowded, rotting prisons, where they were kept at a small charge to the creditor for as long as he pleased. In essence, they were enslaved. Those imprisoned for debt in Worcester County leaped from seven in 1785 to seventy-two in 1786, when they outnumbered all other jailed criminals in the county 3 to 1.

A temperate spirit somehow prevailed at the Worcester convention, but similar gatherings held that month in other Massachusetts counties gave way to violence. Determined to protect debtors’ property, armed men forcibly closed the county courthouse at Northampton on August 29. Over the next few months, courts at Worcester, Great Barrington, Springfield, and Concord were shut down by mobs. Word of what came to be called Shays’ Rebellion—named for its reluctant leader, Capt. Daniel Shays—spread throughout the colonies, and with it, a fear that the victory gained so recently in the Revolution might be lost to domestic strife.

Yet the rebellion died quite suddenly on January 25 when Shays led a charge against the federal arsenal in Springfield. Three cannon were fired upon his men, and they fled, pursued by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s forces through a heavy snowstorm. In Petersham 150 rebels were captured, and the remainder escaped northward.

Despite the undistinguished demise of Shays’ Rebellion, its impact was great. The April elections in Massachusetts seated legislators sympathetic to the cause; soon reforms were instituted, former rebels pardoned, and most debtors released from prison. And then, just four months after the encounter in Springfield, the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia. With the rebellion in mind, delegates formed a stronger central government, and resolutions concerning currency, debts and contracts, and the means to avoid other insurrections were likewise affected. In fact, upon reading the Constitution for the first time, Thomas Jefferson commented that “our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts.” He granted, however, that revolt could be beneficial. “I like a little rebellion now and then,” he said. “It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”

•September 11: Twelve commissioners from five states meet to discuss easing restrictions upon interstate commerce. They suggest that a major convention be held the following May in Philadelphia.

•September: The Columbian Magazine begins publishing in Philadelphia. It becomes one of America’s best magazines.