Two hundred twenty-five years ago this week Thomas Jefferson wrote to his more conservative friend, James Madison: “I hold it, that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical world.”
The 1787 rebellion Jefferson referred to occurred in Massachusetts and came to be called Shays’ Rebellion.
Daniel Shays, a second generation Irish-American, volunteered for duty with the 5th Massachusetts Regiment during the Revolutionary War. He rose quickly from private to captain, serving five years without pay, fighting in several battles, including Bunker Hill.
On his return to his farm at the end of the war, Shays fell into debt along with many other farmers in central and western Massachusetts. One of the results of the Revolutionary War involved European business interests calling in debts from American merchants along the Eastern seaboard. Subsequently, merchants in cities and towns, like Boston, called in the debts of farmers who, for the most part in Massachusetts, lived at a subsistence level, bartering for most necessary goods. In the hardest of times the farmers bought on credit from the town merchants, with the land they farmed as their only means of collateral. As any reader might guess, business interests dominated the Massachusetts legislature. That lawmaking body passed bill after bill raising property taxes on small farmers. Add to this the fact that most of the farmer-soldiers of the Revolutionary War had received little of the back pay owed them by the Congress of the Confederation. The original thirteen colonies were governed by the Articles of Confederation in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War.
Shays led a group of veterans in organized protests at courthouses throughout the rural counties of Massachusetts. When the legislature failed to act to relieve the oppressive taxes on farmers, in the late summer of 1786, Shays’ protestors took over several courthouses and shut them down. The matter came to a head when a band of farmers’ militia faced off against a government organized militia at the Springfield, Massachusetts, armory in late January of 1787. The government militia held the day and, along with another government victory at Sheffield a month later, the rebellion was effectively put down.
Before Shays’ Rebellion turned bloody there were calls for a new constitutional convention throughout the former British colonies. Shays’ Rebellion galvanized the merchant class in support of a stronger federal government.
The Constitutional Convention that began in Philadelphia during May, 1787 may well have been influenced by Shays’ Rebellion. Article IV, Section 4 of our Constitution guarantees state governments the right to put down domestic violence. Shays and many of the leaders of the rebellion had fled to other states. Article IV, Section 1 provides for the return of anyone accused of a crime from one state to another (what we think of today as extradition). Government militia and the militia of the protestors ultimately decided the outcome of Shays’ Rebellion. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, added in 1791, states: A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Read in the context of the times in which it was written, one can easily argue that a person’s right to keep arms is contingent on that individual’s willingness to bear arms as part of a state-led militia.
It is instructive to note that James Madison played an enormous role at the Constitutional Convention while Jefferson served overseas as ambassador to France.