“Never let a good crisis go to waste” isn’t just some modern invention by people who want to expand government power. It seems to be an approach used to convince people of the need to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution in 1787.

Even James Madison admitted as much later in life.

Shays’ Rebellion was one of the most prominent reasons given for a system of government more “energetic” than the one formed under the Articles. Federalists, who had for years failed to expand congressional power under the Articles, repeatedly cited the Shays’ crisis as a glaring example of the weakness and insufficiency of the system – and a reason for a new one.

For instance, in a 1787 letter to William Carmichael, John Jay asserted that the rebellion and the federal government’s inability to fund troops to put down the uprising made “the Inefficiency of the fœderal government [become] more and more manifest.”

In a 1786 letter to Henry Lee, George Washington described the rebellion as “clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country.”

“You talk, my good Sir, of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found; and if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no Government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured; or let us know the worst at once.”

However, as prominent Anti-Federalists warned, there is evidence that supporters of a strong centralized government were merely using and even hyping Shays’ Rebellion in order to achieve their goals of more centralized power. 


Shays’ Rebellion was a violent insurrection in the western Massachusetts countryside spurred by anger over state taxes on individuals and their trades. It was brought about by a monetary and debt crisis in the wake of the American Revolution.

With hard currency scarce, the rural farming population in the western part of the state struggled to pay taxes imposed by the state government. Some fell into debt, eventually losing their land and possessions. 

Many of the “rebels” were Revolutionary War veterans like Daniel Shays who were never paid for their service. By August 1786, Shays was leading organized protests at county court hearings, effectively blocking the work of debt collectors. 

Local militias were less than enthusiastic about getting involved, and Congress was unable to raise a militia to quell the escalating violence. Ultimately, Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin raised money to fund a private militia. Things boiled over in January 1787 when a force of about 1,500 men went to the Springfield armory hoping to capture weapons and possibly even overthrow the Massachusetts government. In the ensuing fight, four rebels died, and about 20 suffered wounds. Shays’ men fled and were eventually tracked down by Bowdoin’s militia, effectively ending the rebellion.

Federalists seized upon the inability of Congress to pay war veterans, and later raise a militia to quell the violence, as evidence that the federal government had insufficient power. 

A panicked-sounding letter from Secretary of War Henry Knox to George Washington in October 1786 provides a good example of how some federalists hyped the uprising. He warned of a “formidable rebellion against reason, the principles of all government, and the very name of liberty.” He went on to lament, “This dreadful situation has alarmed every man of principle and property in New England.

In his response, Washington noted “In both your letters you intimate, that the men of reflection, principle & property in New England feeling the inefficacy of their present government, are contemplating a change.

Many Anti-Federalists, as shown below – took the position that while the federal government wasn’t able to get the job done – the state did. To them, that showed the system was working as intended, even in the most difficult of situations after a long and costly war.


The debate over whether the United States needed a stronger central authority was already going on before the rebellion, with federalists repeatedly pushing for revisions of the Articles of Confederation, which required unanimous consent of the states.

For example, in 1781, there was a proposal to amend the Articles and grant direct taxing power to Congress, but Rhode Island refused to ratify the amendment and Virginia later rescinded its ratification vote. 

A 1783 proposal to grant Congress power to regulate commerce for 15 years also failed to get the support of all the states. 

These were just two of several attempts that ultimately failed to expand the power of the general government.

As Shays’ Rebellion picked up steam, a convention of delegates from five states convened in Annapolis, Maryland. The meeting that kicked off on September 11, 1786, was formally called “A Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government.”

The stated purpose of the Annapolis Convention was to address issues of trade and commerce, but the delegates concluded that additional steps to reform the system and further empower the central authority were necessary. The convention report recommended a future convention to address a wider range of concerns. 

Meanwhile, supporters of expanding federal power seized on Shays’ Rebellion to highlight what they viewed as the deficiencies of the Articles. 

After the Annapolis Convention, a letter from Washington to Knox in February 1787 indicated the intention was to expand government power and that the rebellion provided a pretext to push forward. 

“The legallity of th[e] [Constitutional] Convention I do not mean to discuss—nor how problematical the issue of it may be. That powers are wanting, none can deny. Through what medium they are to be derived, will, like other matters, engage public attention.”

Washington went on to assert that “the energetic wants of the federal government are well known—publickly & privately.

The System on which you seem disposed to build a national government is certainly more energetic, and I dare say, in every point of view is more desirable than the present one; which, from experience, we find is not only slow—debilitated—and liable to be thwarted by every breath.

The views expressed by Washington and Knox were shared by other federalists. Historian David Szatmary wrote that the timing of the rebellion “convinced the elites of sovereign states that the proposed gathering at Philadelphia must take place”

Meanwhile, federalists pushing for a stronger central government ramped up their efforts as delegates were being chosen for the Philadelphia Convention. 

In a March 19, 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison outlined his plan for a much more centralized system. Madison went as far as to propose the federal government should have veto power over all state legislation, or as Madison put it, “to arm the federal head with a negative in all cases whatsoever on the local Legislatures.

In the same letter, Madison offered a summary of recent events surrounding Shays’ Rebellion, writing, “The expedition under General Lincoln agst. the insurgents has effectually succeeded in dispersing them. Whether the calm which he has restored will be durable or not is uncertain.

A month later, Madison published Vices of the Political System of the United States. This laid a foundation for a proposal for a new, more centralized government known as the Virginia Plan.

Several of the vices listed by Madison allude to the situation in Massachusetts, including “encroachments by the state on federal authority” by “troops raised and to be kept up by Massts.” in response to Shays’ Rebellion and “want of Guaranty to the States of their Constitutions & laws against internal violence.”

Although the Virginia Plan was rejected by the Philadelphia Convention, some aspects of Madison’s plan made their way into the Constitution, and Shays’ Rebellion was still cited often during debates as the reason for new federal powers.

Shays’ Rebellion was mentioned numerous times in the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton specifically referenced it in Federalist #6, arguing that a weak central government and its inability to collect taxes to pay veterans of the American Revolution what they were owed led to the conflict:

If Shays had not been a DESPERATE DEBTOR, it is much to be doubted whether Massachusetts would have been plunged into a civil war.

Other supporters of the Constitution referenced Shays during the push for ratification. 

Henry Lee made an argument similar to Hamilton’s during the Virginia ratifying convention, saying that the lack of a strong central authority and Congress’s inability to pay veterans of the Revolution sparked the rebellion, and he warned, “Had Shays been possessed of abilities, he might have established that favorite system of the gentleman — king, lords, and commons. Nothing was wanting to bring about a revolution but a great man to head the insurgents; but, fortunately, he was a worthless captain.”

In A Landholder V, Oliver Ellsworth argued that additional federal power was “necessary to restrain the violence of seditious citizens” and warned, “a concurrence of circumstances, frequently enables a few disaffected persons to make great revolutions, unless government is vested with the most extensive powers of self-defence.” [emphasis added]

Ellsworth called Shays “the malcontent of Massachusetts“ and warned that had he “been a man of genius, fortune and address, he might have conquered that state, and by the aid of a little sedition in the other states, and an army proud by victory, became the monarch and tyrant of America.

In even more hyperbolic terms, Ellsworth continued his warning, writing, “But should jealousy prevent vesting these powers, in the hands of men chosen by yourselves, and who are under every constitutional restraint, accident or design will in all probability raise up some future Shays to be the tyrant of your children.

In other words, grant these new powers under this totally new system, or you’ll end up under total tyranny.

Hamilton took the same hyperbolic approach in Federalist #21, warning that without further central power, a tyrant would arise from the ashes of the next rebellion:

“The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged, evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative. Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts, would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York?”

In Federalist #25, Hamilton went so far as to cite Shays’ as a reason for the federal government to keep a standing army in peacetime, a policy that virtually the entire founding generation referred to as “the bane of liberty.” 


Anti-federalists, including those who opposed Shays’ Rebellion, argued that it didn’t justify the expansion and centralization of power proposed by the Constitution. They often made the case that the events were overblown and that Massachusetts did, in fact, put down the rebellion in a relatively short time, despite whatever obstacles the Articles created. 

For instance, in his tenth essay, Brutus directly challenged Hamilton’s assertions in Federalist #25, arguing that the case was “totally foreign” to Hamilton’s purpose – justifying a standing army.

Brutus pointed out, “Massachusetts raised a body of troops for six months, at the expiration of which they were to disband of course; this looks very little like a standing army.”

Furthermore, he noted that Massachusetts wasn’t at peace at the time. It was “in the most violent commotions and contents, and their legislature had formally declared that an unnatural rebellion existed within the state.” 

In short, Brutus saw that the system worked out as it was supposed to. When the rebellion needed to be stopped, it was – by the state.

William Grayson made a very similar argument during the Virginia ratifying convention, noting that Shays’ Rebellion “was crushed.”

“A vote of that august body for 1500 men, aided by the exertions of the State, silenced all opposition, and shortly restored the public tranquility. Massachusetts was satisfied that these internal commotions were so happily settled.”

Agrippa was in Massachusetts, and he argued that the points being made about the Rebellion were overblown. He reiterated the fact that Massachusetts successfully put down the insurrection in relatively short order with little to no lasting damage.

“Damage done to individuals, during the tumults, has been repaired, by judgment of the courts of law, and the award has been carried into effect. This is the present state of affairs, when we are asked to relinquish that freedom which produces such happy effects.“

He added that in many cases, those charged with crimes received pardons from Governor Hancock. This seems to indicate these individuals posed little threat to the stability of the government. 

“This is the present state of affairs, when we are asked to relinquish that freedom which produces such happy effects.” 

Agrippa then worried that fear was being used as a “pitiful trick“ to move people to accept a more centralized consolidated system.

“The attempt has been made to deprive us of such a beneficial system, and to substitute a rigid one in its stead, by criminally alarming our fears.”

Several Anti-federalists seized upon the position that supporters of the Constitution relied on unjustified fear to advance a more powerful central government.

Melancton Smith writing as “A Plebeian” challenged the Federalist characterization of a country in chaos that would “not to admit of a delay in forming a new government, or of time sufficient to deliberate and agree upon the amendments which are proper, without involving ourselves in a state of anarchy and confusion.

Smith responded to this accusation with a rhetorical question. “Does not every man sit under his own vine and under his own fig-tree, having none to make him afraid?” And he pointed out that everyone follows his calling “without impediments.” 

“Neither the hand of private violence, nor the more to be dreaded hand of legal oppression, are reached out to distress us.”

During the Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry pushed back against the fear narrative surrounding Shays’ Rebellion and other events the Federalists referenced to push for more centralized power. 

“I know no danger awaiting us. Public and private security are to be found here in the highest degree. Sir, it is the fortune of a free people not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers. Fear is the passion of slaves.”

He went on to say, “To hastily adopt the new constitution without properly determining its long-term consequences out of a false perception of emergency would be reckless.

In Centinel XVIII, Samuel Bryan specifically said the Massachusetts convention ratified the Constitution when they otherwise would have rejected it because of Shays’ Rebellion:

“The new constitution was viewed in Massachusetts through the medium of a SHAYS, the terrors of HIS insurrection had not subsided; a government that would have been execrated at another time was embraced by many as a refuge from anarchy, and thus liberty deformed by mad riot and dissention, lost her ablest advocates.”

Federal Farmer challenged the notion that an insufficiently energetic government caused the deteriorating financial situation that sparked Shays’ Rebellion. He pinned the blame on the cost of the American Revolution.

The Farmer admitted that “our federal government does not possess sufficient powers to give life and vigor to the political system; and that we experience disappointments, and several inconveniencies,” but he said it was crucial to differentiate problems that stemmed from those weaknesses from those “which are merely the consequences of a severe and tedious war.

“Our people are like a man just recovering from a severe fit of sickness. It was the war that disturbed the course of commerce, introduced floods of paper money, the stagnation of credit, and threw many valuable men out of steady business. From these sources our greatest evils arise; men of knowledge and reflection must perceive it.”

Like many Anti-federalists, Federal Farmer believed that supporters of the Constitution were magnifying problems to foist a stronger central government on the country. He called the “deficits” of the confederation “greatly magnified.”

“Hence it is inferred, there must be a total change of the principles, as well as forms of government: and in the main point, touching the federal powers, we rest all on a logical inference, totally inconsistent with experience and sound political reasoning.”


Thomas Jefferson asserted that he was neither a Federalist nor an Anti-federalist, but he generally came down on the side of expanding federal power. Nevertheless, he downplayed the “great danger” of Shays’ Rebellion, writing in a letter to James Madison in early 1787 that, “So far as I have yet seen, [the troubles] do not appear to threaten serious consequences.

Jefferson went as far as to say, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” adding that “It is a medecine necessary for the sound health of government.

Later that year, after the Constitution was complete, Jefferson wrote a letter to William Stephens Smith and worried that Shays’ Rebellion was being used in a push for unwarranted expansion of centralized power. 

Jefferson pointed out, “We have had thirteen states independent eleven years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state.

He concluded, “Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts, and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.


In 1821, James Madison went so far as to admit that Shays’ Rebellion was overblown and resulted in a more powerful government than what was “warranted.”

In a letter to John G. Jackson, Madison wrote, “most of us carried into the Convention profound impressions, produced by the experienced inadequacy of the old Confederation, & by the monitory examples of all similar ones antient and modern, as to the necessity of binding the States together by a strong Constitution.” 

Madison specifically mentioned the “alarming insurrection” led by Shays, writing that it had “a very sensible influence on the public mind.

“Such indeed was the aspect of things, that in the eyes of the best friends of liberty, a crisis had arrived.”

But Madison went on to admit that, “This view of the crisis made it natural for many in the Convention to lean to a higher toned system than was perhaps in strictness warranted by a proper distinction between causes temporary as some of them doubtless were, and causes permanently inherent in popular frames of Government.” [Emphasis added]


Did a “little rebellion” truly necessitate a whole new system of government? Or was Shays’ Rebellion just a convenient and over-blown excuse to usher in a more powerful central government that would have been completely rejected? 

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

James Madison’s later admission that the urgency surrounding Shays’ Rebellion might have been overstated underscores the complexity of the event’s legacy. While Thomas Jefferson believed occasional rebellions were healthy, Patrick Henry and others warned against hasty decisions based on fear. 

Shays’ Rebellion serves as a microcosm of the competing philosophies at play during the ratification debates, a valuable reminder of the sometimes messy birth of the Constitution.

Mike Maharrey