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3.5: Shays’s Rebellion

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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In 1881, the colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation—a document that bound them into the United States of America. Since the colonists were fighting to free themselves from monarchical rule, they created a very weak central government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government could not tax, could not make laws that would be binding in all states, had no executive branch, and could not raise a national army.

Shays’s Rebellion was a violent protest held by farmers in western Massachusetts. You will learn more about it by reading the first document below, an excerpt from a recent U.S. History textbook. According to the textbook, Shays’s Rebellion made Americans realize that they needed a stronger government. As you read that documents that follow, try to understand the connection between Shays’s Rebellion and the Articles of Confederation and then determine whether all Americans drew the same lessons from the Rebellion.

Shays’s Rebellion – The American Vision

Source: An account of Shays’s Rebellion excerpted from The American Vision, a high school U.S. History textbook published in 2003.

Shay’s Rebellion

The property owners’ fears seemed justified when a full-scale rebellion, known as Shays’s Rebellion, erupted in Massachusetts in 1786. The rebellion started when the government of Massachusetts decided to raise taxes instead of issuing paper money to pay off its debts. The taxes fell most heavily on farmers, particularly poor farmers in the western part of the state. As the recession grew worse, many found it impossible to pay their taxes as well as their mortgages and other debts. Those who could not pay often faced the loss of their farms.

Angry at the legislature’s indifference to their plight, in late August 1786, farmers in western Massachusetts rebelled. They closed down several county courthouses to prevent farm foreclosures, and then marched on the state supreme court. At this point, Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army who was now a bankrupt farmer, emerged as one of the rebellion’s leaders.

In January 1787, Shays and about farmers headed to a state arsenal intending to seize weapons before marching on Boston. In response, the governor sent more than volunteers under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln to defend the arsenal. Before they arrived, Shays attacked, and the militia defending the arsenal opened fire. Four farmers died in the fighting. The rest scattered. The next day Lincoln’s troops arrived and ended the rebellion. The fears the rebellion had raised, however, were harder to disperse.

A Call for Change

People with greater income and social status tended to see the rebellion, as well as inflation and an unstable currency, as signs that the republic itself was at risk. They feared that as state legislatures became more democratic and responsive to poor people, they would weaken property rights and vote to take property from the wealthy. As General Henry Knox, a close aide to George Washington, concluded: “What is to afford our security against the violence of lawless men? Our government must be braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property.”

These concerns were an important reason why many people, including merchants, artisans, and creditors, began to argue for a stronger central government, and several members of the Confederation Congress called on the states to correct “such defects as may be discovered to exist” in the present government. The confederation’s failure to deal with conditions that might lead to rebellion, as well as the problems with trade and diplomacy, only added fuel to their argument.


  1. Sourcing: What kind of document is this? When was it written?
  2. Close Reading: According to this document, how was Shays’s rebellion related to the Articles of Confederation?
  3. Close Reading: According to this document, how did people respond to Shays’s Rebellion?

Thomas Jefferson on Shays’ Rebellion

Source: Thomas Jefferson was in France during Shays’ Rebellion, but he wrote a letter to a friend about it.

The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat, and model into every form, lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honorably conducted? I say nothing of its motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion....

What country before, ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion ? And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance ? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them....

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. Our convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts; and on the spur of the moment, they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.


  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? What else do you know about his views on a strong central government?
  2. Contextualization: According to Jefferson, have the colonies been peaceful or chaotic? Support your answer with evidence from the document.
  3. Close Reading: What does Jefferson mean when he says “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants?”

Section Questions

  1. Opening Up the Textbook: How does this document challenge or expand the information you read in the textbook?

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