Why didn't more rebellions like Shays's break out?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the wake of the American Revolution, Shay's Rebellion was an uprising of rural Massachusetts farmers against the new American confederation government, particularly judicial courts and others involved with tax and debt collection. In many ways, it paralleled the recent grievances of colonists against their distant rulers, the British, which...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In the wake of the American Revolution, Shay's Rebellion was an uprising of rural Massachusetts farmers against the new American confederation government, particularly judicial courts and others involved with tax and debt collection. In many ways, it paralleled the recent grievances of colonists against their distant rulers, the British, which resulted in the Revolutionary War.

Many of the farmers had served in the Revolutionary War but were not fully or properly compensated. Furthermore, there was a wide shortage of hard currency, which was increasingly demanded by their creditors. The lack of military service compensation and lack of access to currency gave the farmers grievance against the federal government.

In Massachusetts, Boston merchant James Bowdoin was finally able to be elected Governor over John Hancock, only because Hancock resigned for health reasons. Bowdoin was particularly harsh on the rural farmers regarding debt collection: the farmers were taxed higher than when under British rule, collection efforts were more aggressive, and farmers in default were arrested and their farms repossessed. They were also politically disenfranchised by biased voting requirements. They were overtaxed and underrepresented—these facts gave the particular rebels of Shay's Rebellion grievance against the government of Massachusetts.

There were several reasons that similar rebellions didn't occur:

Shay's Rebellion was a rather specific case incited by an overzealous Massachusetts government. Though much of the country was in economic stress, Shay's Rebellion had much to do with their specific state's greedy and unforgiving government, including a big business-involved governor, James Bowdoin.

Discontents were discouraged from uprising by harsh punishments imposed on rebels. Samuel Adams was one of many who called for the Shay's rebels' executions. At least one bill prescribed the death penalty for all rebellion militiamen. Basic civil liberties and protections were stripped in Massachusetts. A bill was passed giving amnesty for sheriffs who killed insurgents, and habeas corpus—the doctrine that demands legal justification for imprisonment—was suspended. Massachusetts' Disqualification Act politically and socially disenfranchised those who took part in the rebellion. For three years, they were forbidden to vote, serve on juries, hold public office, or work as a schoolmaster, innkeeper, or liquor salesman.

Reasons for rebellion were being addressed and resolved. In Massachusetts, John Hancock was elected back to the office of governor, as Bowdoin's actions made him too unpopular. Hancock was much more lenient: he did not enforce hard currency payment of debts, taxes were cut, collections of old debts were not pursued, and other policies were enacted to help the common people at the cost of big business and Massachusetts governmental investments. Many rebels were also pardoned for their crimes or had their sentences commuted.

On the federal front, Shay's Rebellion was cited as a reason to create a stronger federal government. The federal government, as it was at the time under the Articles of Confederation, was unable to respond to the rebellion largely due to an inability to raise funds to pay an army—and also for other reasons inherent with a weak, inefficient government. Some argue that Shay's Rebellion was a big catalyst for the dismantling of the Articles of Confederation and the drafting and adoption of the new Constitution, which then allowed for a stronger federal government. This new government contained a stronger central executive figure to more quickly and decisively respond to crises, a means to tax and otherwise raise funds to pay for a military, and set into motion a plan for centralized federal banking and universal currency. The biggest reason similar rebellions didn't arise was that the new federal government could better deal with rebellions, as evidenced by President Washington's squashing of the Whiskey Rebellion soon after.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team