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Shays` Rebellion

A wave of farm foreclosures in western Massachusetts swept the young republic to its first episode in class struggle. Demonstrators and rioters protested high taxation, the governor`s high salary, high court costs and the assembly`s refusal to issue paper money (an inflationary measure highly favored by the debtor class).

Opposition had coalesced around Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran. At first, the activity was limited to meetings and petitions to Massachusetts government in Boston. The matter escalated when the Massachusetts Supreme Court indicated eleven leaders of the movement as disorderly, riotous, and seditious. Shays responded by raising a militia of 700 men, many unpaid veterans of the Continental Army. They marched first for Worcester where they closed down the commonwealth`s supreme court, then turned west to Springfield where they broke into the jail to free imprisoned debtors. The barns of some government officials were burned. Wealthy Bostonians, who feared the rebellion in the west, contributed money for soldiers under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln.

The rebels were routed in a skirmish in January 1787. Shays escaped to Vermont and was later pardoned. Others were not so fortunate - 150 were captured and several sentenced to death. George Washington and others urged compassionate treatment of the rebels and pardons were eventually granted.

It is interesting to note the role reversal of such people as Samuel Adams. In early revolutionary times, Adams was among the most vocal and radical critics of the existing government. By the 1780s, however, Adams had become an establishment figure and urged death sentences for the leading Shays rebels.

Abigail Adams also had no compunctions with regard to the rebels. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, while she was in London late 1787 and he was in Paris, she described the uprising: "Ignorant, restless deperadoes, without conscience or principles, have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretense of grievances which have no existence but in their imaginations." She lauded the firm steps taken to put down the rebellion.

The next statewide election in Massachusetts altered the assembly`s complexion and led to passage of a number of measures designed to improve the farmers` conditions. However, conservative forces were deeply disturbed by the anarchy in the west and became increasingly committed to strengthening the central government.