Domestic Insurrections

The Problem

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After the American Revolution, life in the United States was not easy for the ordinary citizen. Faced with devastating amounts of debt, common men banded together to rise up in protest against their State governments. These citizens of the United States presented significant challenges to their own governments, and these protests were called domesticDomestic adjective Existing or occurring inside a particular country; not foreign or international. insurrectionsInsurrection noun A violent uprising against an authority or government..

Since the Articles of Confederation denied Congress the authority to raise a national army, Congress was unable to deal with domestic insurrections. One insurrection that occurred from 1786-1787, known as Shays' Rebellion, highlighted the weaknesses of the Articles.1

A veteran of the Revolutionary War and a farmer in Massachusetts, Daniel Shays was in debt and faced with high taxes, along with thousands of other men throughout the state.2 In 1786, these veteran-farmers formed militia-like squads under the leadership of Shays and became known as the New England Regulation, or the Regulators. The Regulators led peaceful protests at courthouses throughout the state in order to prevent foreclosures and debt related imprisonments.3 However, their peaceful protests turned violent when the Regulators decided to take control of Springfield Armory, and four of Shays’ followers were killed.4

Shays' Rebellion represented a turning point in the post-Revolutionary United States, and it attracted a great deal of attention throughout the country.5


Overview

Life under the Articles of Confederation

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had “the sole and exclusive right and power of determining on peace and war.”6 However, the Articles did not grant Congress the authority to raise a national army, and instead dictated that it was up to each state to “keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia.”7 This lack of Congressional power proved problematic when popular unrest spread throughout the states as a result of economic depression.8

The post-war economic depression in the 1780s threatened to undermine the system of government created by the Articles of Confederation. Since Congress could not levy taxes, coin money, or regulate the value of currency, it was the responsibility of the individual state governments to institute policies for paying their war debts and requisitionsRequisition noun An official order laying claim to the use of property or matierals..9 The states increased taxes in order to pay off these debts, and “depended primarily on regressive taxesRegressive adjective (Of a tax) taking a proportionally greater amount from those on lower incomes. on persons and property, which caused widespread discontent.”10 These harsh tax policies, in combination with a shortage of specieSpecie noun Money in the form of coins rather than notes., meant that local authorities confiscated the lands of many American farmers in order to pay off growing debts.11

Under these crippling economic circumstances, various insurrections occurred throughout the United States. In Massachusetts in 1786, debtors under the leadership of Daniel Shays armed themselves and prevented the sitting of county courts to stop the foreclosuresForeclosure noun The process of taking possession of a mortgaged property as a result of the mortgagor’s failure to keep up mortgage payments. of their homes and farms.12 This insurrection became known as Shays' Rebellion.

Many wealthy Americans feared that the insurgentsInsurgent noun A rebel or revolutionary. threatened private property and order and were disappointed when “the Confederation Congress proved glacially slow and ineffectual in mobilizing against it.”13 For instance, Henry Knox warned George Washington about Shays and his followers in a letter to Washington. The only way Congress could call for troops to put down this rebellion was to pretend that they would be used against Indians because under the Articles, States could only engage in war if they were invaded by enemies or in danger of an Indian attack.14 As a result, rich merchants took matters into their own hands and funded a militia to put down the rebellion. By January of 1787, this privately funded militia put down the rebellion with little difficulty and loss of life.15

Consequences of Shays' Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion had a huge impact on the development of American government because it exposed the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation and the states' inability to deal with problems on their own. Congress’s inability to respond to the rebellion proved that "the existing federal government had neither the power nor the capacity to deal” with such problems.16

During the Constitutional ConventionA meeting of delegates in 1787 Philadelphia to address the problems of government under the Articles of Confederation., many of the Founding Fathers cited the events in Massachusetts as evidence for the need to establish a strong national government.17 For example, during the Convention, Alexander Hamilton alluded to Shays’ Rebellion in a speech on his views of the proposed plans for government.

However, some Founding Fathers were not concerned by domestic insurrection. In a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1787, Jefferson asserted that the Convention was overly worried by Shays' Rebellion.

Ultimately, Shays’ Rebellion made it evident that “The Articles of Confederation did not give it [Congress] a clear and indisputable power to suppress domestic insurrections.”18

Questions for Further Discussion

  • Why did the Founding Fathers not give Congress the power to commission a national army under the Articles of Confederation?
  • What would have been the result had Shays’ Rebellion been suppressed more violently?
  • To what extent do you think the experience of Shays’ Rebellion shaped differences between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution?

Bibliography

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