Support for Shays' Rebellion in the Declaration of Independence
"Healthy and Essentially Harmless Expression"
The early administration of the federal government under the U.S. Constitution would look back on Shays’ Rebellion as a “healthy and essentially harmless expression of popular discontent by American farmers” which “prompted an excessive and unnecessary military response.” The American people wanted relief from what they saw as the financial pressure of an unstable and weak government. They did not see a reason why they should not march with arms to protest as it worked for them a few years earlier against the British.
The Need of the People
In the Declaration of Independence, the colonists listed out several transgressions that the farmers in Shays’ rebellion could see being repeated by the Massachusetts state government. After petitioning the state, the government ignored the pleas for relief. In the Declaration, the colonies noted how “Laws of immediate and pressing importance” were not passed when needed.
The farmers saw the immediate need for laws to be passed that would ease the financial burden also to save the lives of many families. This was not something that could be put off. The need of the people was there and like the King did to the colonists, the government of Massachusetts was ignoring the most basic of needs.
Taxation Without Consent
The Declaration also complained of “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” The state government was also imposing taxes that were proving excessive and burdening the public above and beyond their means. The people attempted to peacefully address the problems by signing petitions and writing letters. Just as the Declaration stated in that the people “have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”
The state government ignored their pleas and continued prosecuting those who could not pay their debts and forcing the taxes on the citizens. The tyranny of the British government was resurrecting in the tyranny of the Massachusetts government. There was no other choice but a show of arms to deal with it in the eyes of the Revolution veterans.
In 1786, the Articles of Confederation were the foundation of the new government as the U.S. Constitution would not be in effect until the following year. The Articles allowed each state to keep “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence” including the right to tax its own citizens. Massachusetts saw this as the right to levy the taxes until the state debt was gone. It just never saw beyond its rights and the effect it would have upon the state as a whole and not just the treasury.
Even after Shays’ Rebellion, Governor Bowdoin could not see the protestors as being justified. He saw those that participated in the event as “taking advantage of a lenient government they believed unable to defend itself.” His petition of the courts to act against the participants and put into place measures for future rebellion did not sit well with the people of Massachusetts who felt the sting of every decision. He was not re-elected as governor. His replacement, Governor John Hancock, pardoned all those involved including Daniel Shays. The only ones that were not pardoned were hung due to their involvement in looting during the conflict.
Little Pebble; Big Wave
Shays’ Rebellion was a tsunami to the rest of the country. All the other states “were scared into action because Shays’ Rebellion occurred in the state thought to have the best constitution.” If it could happen in Massachusetts with such a strong government, it could happen anywhere in this fledgling nation. The Articles of Confederation were not enough as many had hoped. Something more had to be done. In this, the rebellion by fourteen hundred farmers achieved its goal.
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“Declaration of Independence.” Accessed February 18, 2012. http://www.ushistory.org/ declaration/document/.
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