Today in history, on Jan. 25, 1787, the largest confrontation of Shays’ Rebellion, outside the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, resulted in the killing of four rebels and the wounding of twenty. It was the culmination of a financial conflict between veterans of the War for Independence and the republican government of Massachusetts.

A debt crisis, which was widespread throughout most of the states, sparked the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion. Many soldiers that served the patriot cause were paid in bonds that became near worthless by the war’s conclusion. Among them was Daniel Shays, who was wounded in action and retired only to find himself in court for the nonpayment of debts owed to creditors. Shays recruited a group of 4,000 followers, who refused to pay taxes to Massachusetts and staged and uprising against the government.

During the crisis, Massachusetts legislators were bombarded with requests to issue paper currency, widely seen as a gesture to assist debtors at the expense of creditors. Other states had done so, worsening the financial difficulties of their state through a debasement of the currency that left the creditor class furious. Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin resisted the urge to embrace fiat, believing it was a callous offense to the property of creditors and would only compound the financial issues facing his state.

Former Massachusetts patriots, such as Samuel Adams, did not sympathize with the rebel position on taxes whatsoever. While the patriots of 1765 and 1773 had premised their arguments upon the idea that individuals could only be taxed by the local representatives of the people, a republican government had been established that did just that. Adams even drew up a Riot Act, which would suspend habeas corpus, permitting the government to detain rebels indefinitely.

In the end, veteran of the late war Benjamin Lincoln raised a private army to confront the rebellion. Lincoln solicited the funds for the force himself, and raised 3,000 militia to challenge the rebels. The greatest stand was made at Springfield, where Shays had aimed gain control over the armaments. After the Massachusetts legislator passed a bill authorizing martial law and expanding the powers of Bowdoin, Shays’ cause collapsed at Sheffield. Shays and some of his top followers were convicted of treason and sentenced to death, but were later pardoned.

Shay’s Rebellion greatly inspired American nationalists of the day, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, to advocate for giving greater control over the militia to a central government. These individuals often argued that in dire circumstances, a central government should have the authority to intervene on behalf of the fledgling republican states. Republicanism in American would be threatened, they felt, if state governments remained unable to muster the militia forces necessary to deal with armed uprisings.

These opinions clashed with those wary of transferring any military power to a general authority. For instance, Elbridge Gerry, whose own state dealt with Shay’s Rebellion, argued in the Philadelphia Convention that increased central power over the state militias was unnecessary and that a central response to armed uprisings would be a worse affront to the dignity of a free state. Madison’s notes record that Gerry “had no such confidence” in the general government to act benevolently on behalf of the states to suppress insurrections.

Dave Benner
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