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Dirtied, weary, and cold, he prepared himself to lead his forces into battle. In a few minutes, this group of untrained men would begin trudging through four feet of snow for thirty minutes, advancing on the federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts. The odds were at best slim, maybe even nonexistent; Shays was about to go into battle against a superior force armed with cannons and howitzers. His men, on the contrary, were mostly armed with old muskets, while others carried only swords or bludgeons (Richards 29). Shays knew there was not much hope, but he had decided to fight anyway. With one last look at his men, he gave the signal to move out. The Springfield assault marked the climax of Shays’ Rebellion. While it wasn’t the only important event in the uprising, it was and is perhaps the best-remembered one. Shays’ Rebellion itself was only one of many rebellions that occurred in the United States. It was, however, the first major insurrection in the young nation of America and certainly proved to be an influential one. For example, Shays’ Rebellion provided the fuel to spark a movement for a stronger national government and the revising of the Articles of Confederation (Richards 125). Other such uprisings each had its own effects on politics. Combined, these rebellions left a lasting impact on the United States. The American political system was influenced widely and significantly by the occurrence of domestic resistance movements and the varying responses of the government to such movements. The first of these rebellions, Shays’ Rebellion, was vital in the foundation of America’s politics, since it served as a large reminder to the citizens of America that the current federal government operating under the Articles of Confederation was largely inefficient and incompetent. Also, the response of the government was considered highly important, as this was the first major rebellion to have occurred in the fledgling nation. The rebellion started off when discontent western Massachusetts citizens became infuriated at the news that the Massachusetts legislature had just decided its work for the year was done and adjourned. This was the last straw for many of these citizens, since, as Leonard Richards aptly summarizes, “the legislature had flouted the will of the people” once again (6). Not only was the economy having trouble, but farmers in the area were being required to pay debts and taxes with hard money, when no hard money was available. For the past four years, the Massachusetts legislature had received hundreds of pleas from small western communities to address their concerns. The petitions had been “polite, deferential, sometimes even groveling,”
Cheng 2 but yet the new state government continued to ignore the needs of the people and make matters worse. Mainly, the problems seemed to revolve around taxes, debts, the shortage of legal tender, and the inefficient structure of the government (Richards 6-7). The people of western Massachusetts apparently had grown tired of waiting, year after year, for the legislature to fix these problems, and they took the responsibility upon themselves to bring about action. The backcountry economy was in horrible shape, and the government was only making matters worse with their current policies. The government was simply trying to “enrich the few at the expense of the many.” Richards declares that apart from this, the one other source of frustration that triggered the rebellion was the new state government and its tyrannical and elitist structure (63). Therefore, fueled by these provocations, the people of western Massachusetts called for county-wide conventions to discuss the best course of action. At the conventions, it was decided that the discontent would begin closing down courts in a gesture of discontent and thus draw the attention of the government. A week later, on August 29, 1786, Shays’ Rebellion officially kicked off, with hundreds of rebels marching upon and closing down a Northampton court (Richards 89). Meanwhile, the Massachusetts authorities, upon learning of the rebellion, acted quickly and called out the local militias to suppress the rebellion. Much to their surprise, most of the members of the militia refused to heed the call to action. Many troops actually joined the insurgents. Government officials were bewildered; these men, obligated to respond in times of emergencies, were not only refusing to budge but were also joining the enemy. As time passed, more courts continued to be shut down or seized, while judges who were expecting help from the militia did not get it (Richards 11). The Continental Congress tried to help—in vain. Thus, Massachusetts was left to deal with its problem without external help. In January of 1787, the Massachusetts government decided to authorize a 4,400-men army to put down the rebellion. This army was to be under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. However, volunteers were fewer than expected, and Lincoln eventually wound up with an army consisting of approximately 3,000 men (Richards 23, 25). By this time, Shays and the other leaders had already learned of Lincoln’s army, and they certainly had no intention of submitting to his well-armed army without a fight. To level the playing field, the rebels decided to seize the federal arsenal in Springfield, which housed almost
Cheng 3 all of the federal government’s weapons that were stationed in the New England area. If the insurgents managed to capture the arsenal and its weapons, they would be better armed than the state. Unfortunately for Shays, twelve hundred militiamen managed to get to the arsenal first. Shays still decided to attack, however, and formulated a plan with the other leaders. The rebels had power in numbers, but due to a mix of miscommunication and lack of firepower, Shays and his men were beaten easily to the retreat (see fig. 1) (Richards 27-29). Shays’ defeat at Springfield came to be regarded as the end of Shays’ Rebellion. A few more skirmishes were, of course, fought here and there, but no more real battles ensued. With a whimper, Shays’ Rebellion died away. Much of the steam simply ran out, and Shays’ Rebellion ended quietly without a climax (Richards 32-35; Stuckey 236).
Fig. 1. Shays Rebellion: “We the People: Chaos under the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution.” U.S. Coin Values Advisor. 2005. 3 Feb. 2006. <http://www.us-coin-values-advisor.com/we-the-people.html>
As the rebellion faded away, the Massachusetts government had the task of putting the state back together again. The government adopted a relatively lenient policy toward the arrested rebels. It granted the vast majority of rebels possible pardon if they would make amends. Specifically, they were required to surrender their arms, admit that they had rebelled, take an oath of allegiance, and pay a fee of nine pence. They were then disqualified from several privileges for some years. After a set date, they could have these restrictions lifted. By accepting these punishments, most rebels escaped prosecution and thus would not be whipped, fined, or hanged. In addition, the newly-elected Governor Hancock pardoned many because of the fear of repercussions. Hancock’s administration was loath to perpetuate the policies of the previous administration. It feared that more bloodshed would galvanize the rebels into acts of vengeance.
Cheng 4 With these thoughts in mind, the administration decided to spare the lives of most of the rebels who were sentenced to death. Only those who had committed some of the more violent crimes were sentenced to death. In the end, the rebellion resulted in eighteen death sentences, two actual hangings, several hundred indictments, and some four thousands confessions of wrongdoing (Richards 36-43; Stuckey 236). The effects of the rebellion were far-reaching. While the rebels are often cast as the losers, they were actually victorious in some ways. Indeed, after the rebellion, the legislature cut back direct taxes considerably. Over the period of four years after the rebellion, direct taxes fell to about 10% of what they had previously been. The backcountry citizens were no longer being taxed outrageous amounts of money (Richards 119). Massachusetts’ government was radically altered. The former corrupt system was fixed, and the legislature would never dare to overtax its citizens again. The real focus, however, is on the federal government. Up until the rebellion, numerous people throughout the country had been chorusing for a change to the Articles of Confederation. There had been attempts made to revise it, but there was no real fuel for the fire. That is, until Shays’ Rebellion came along. Shays’ Rebellion provided the exact weapon that the nationalists needed. They would often refer to Shays’ Rebellion as a blatant example that the current setup of the government was not working. Furthermore, they were able to play on the fears of others because of the insurrection. In the end, Shays’ Rebellion proved to be the stepping stone that initiated a sweeping change in America’s government (Richards 125-127; Stuckey 237). If it weren’t for the rebellion, there would probably be no constitution of America. Who knows what would’ve happened to the country if it had continued operating under the inexpedient Articles? Perhaps one can even go to such lengths as to say that the country might’ve died in its early youth. As it was, Shays’ Rebellion spurred the making of the Constitution and essentially saved the new government from an untimely death. In addition to Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion was another momentous insurrection that significantly altered the complexion of America’s political system and challenged America as never before. The rebellion evolved due to a new excise on taxes by the federal government. The United States was looking to pay off their debts, and Alexander Hamilton proposed a series of plans, one of which called for a duty on alcoholic spirits distilled within the United States. The proposal of the internal tax on whiskey was met with much debate, controversy, and opposition. Numerous petitions from throughout the frontier asked the
Cheng 5 government to reject Hamilton’s idea. Internal taxes had never been popular with the American people, and the vast majority of normal citizens opposed this proposal. In the end, however, the whiskey tax managed to pass by a narrow vote and went into effect (Slaughter 95-98; Stuckey 317-318). The hardest-hit people by these new taxes were the farmers who produced small quantities of whiskey as a basic trade exchange standard. Large producers of spirits were taxed six cents per gallon, while smaller producers were taxed nine cents per gallon. Furthermore, this tax was only payable in cash, which was rare on the western frontier (“The Whiskey Rebellion,” pars. 2-3). The aforementioned farmers were furious with this excise, as whiskey was something that they depended on for barter and trade. Whiskey could be said to be the basis of some of the local economies in western Pennsylvania, and an excise on it would undoubtedly cause problems. In response, angry mobs insulted and tormented tax collectors by cropping their hair, tarring and feathering them, stealing their horses, and threatening attacks if they didn’t leave (see fig. 2). They tortured and humiliated the tax collectors endlessly. These mobs were so terrifying that many tax collectors refused to do their jobs, and some politicians actually considered having military escort the tax collectors so they could collect. (“Whiskey Rebellion,” par. 3; Slaughter 11-12).
Fig. 2. Perils: Kauffman, Bruce. “The Whiskey Rebellion: Taxing ‘Sin’—Then and Now.” The Early America Review. 1996. 3 Feb. 2006. <http://earlyamerica.com/review/fall96/ whiskey.html>
The government did not like the stories it was hearing. Washington and Hamilton decided to take dramatic action and end this rebellion once and for all. Washington saw the rebellion as an opportunity to test out the power of the United States in responding to an uprising on the frontier. He also saw it as a danger to the nation and thus called for a 12,950-man army to be
Cheng 6 assembled under Governor Henry Lee of Virginia (see fig. 3). The army, once assembled, marched west to Pennsylvania. As it moved, it disbanded several rebellions throughout the backcountry. Rebels often scattered at the mere sight of the army and begged for mercy or fled into the wilderness, scared by the sight of a professional army. Therefore, rebellion was quelled not by a single decisive battle, but rather by a series of disbandments in which there really was no fighting (Slaughter 198-213).
Fig. 3. The Whiskey Rebellion by Neary, Donna: “…To Execute the Laws of the Union…” The National Guard. 2005. National Guard Bureau. 3 Feb. 2006. <http:// www.ngb.army.mil/ gallery/heritage/images/lawsunion.asp>
In the aftermath of this rebellion, large numbers of disaffected frontiersmen decided to move even farther west to escape from the clutches of the central government. They opposed a federalist government greatly and thus attempted to move away from the source of trouble. Perhaps the larger and more important consequence, however, was that the rebellion marked the first time that the federal government used a large military force in order to control disruptive citizens and exert control (“Whiskey Rebellion,” pars. 7-8). The new constitution had been established not long before, and with the Whiskey Rebellion came a test for the nation. Indeed, Washington managed to prove, through the Whiskey Rebellion, that the nation needed an army that was ready to be deployed at all times. Furthermore, he showed that the United States did have sufficient power and the necessary resources to put down a rebellion in the western frontier.
Cheng 7 The rebellion therefore proved to be a milestone for the government and would become of the best-remembered rebellions in American history. In retrospect, these two rebellions, Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, had considerable effects on the political future of America. Without Shays’ Rebellion, the nation might not even be existent today, because it ultimately resulted in the replacement of the hugely inefficient Articles of Confederation by the Constitution. If it weren’t for the Whiskey Rebellion, Americans wouldn’t enjoy the same amount of freedom as they do today, for the rebellion taught Americans to stand up and resist actions of the government that they disagreed with. Both rebellions demonstrated that problems could be rectified through uprisings and, despite the risks of arrest and punishment, people could pursue change by revolting. The effects upon the political infrastructure and philosophy of America made by rebellions such as these cannot be underestimated. In particular, Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion molded the majority of political thought in early America and paved the way for future politics. Thanks to those who were valiant and brave enough to rise and challenge the government, today’s America is what it is: the most powerful nation in the entire world. They, the noble men who sacrificed so much for a cause—a rebellion—that they believed in, will forever be remembered in American memory for what they did for the nation and its politics.
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