Daniel Shays is living proof that one man can make a difference, provided that man is a veteran of warfare, has easy access to weaponry, and lives in a decentralized state.
Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87 Massachusetts is by now little more than a sidebar in the formation of America. After all, the rebellion failed, and as we all know, history is written by the winners. But Shays’ influence extends far beyond the Berkshire Hills where his rebellion began. The brief backstory: Shays was a war vet and a farmer. Like most men with that twin designation, he had very little money, and the newly established government had little pity for his situation.
So Shays and his fellow war vets/farmers got together, dragged along some of the militia, and made a run at Springfield, Mass.—future home of the Basketball Hall of Fame. As I mentioned like five lines ago, the rebellion failed, but not before they almost seized the Springfield Armory and, in the process, scared the bejesus out of a whole lot of high-ranking officials and provided one of the nation’s first great internal crises.
Shays’ Rebellion crystallized the precarious position the Founding Fathers were in after the Revolution. They themselves had revolted against a controlling state, in part due to what they perceived as improper taxation. In his mind, Daniel Shays was doing the same thing; he was acting in the same spirit he had years earlier when he fought against the Brits.
Samuel Adams suggested instituting martial law and a semantic law change that considered rebellion within a “republic” worthy of execution while rebellion within a “monarchy” “not only okay, but like, totally encouraged.” George Washington himself reacted very strongly to the news: “I feel infinitely more than I can express for the disorders which have arisen. Good God!”*
*Compare this to Thomas Jefferson’s more relaxed, “Wow, George. Chill out. Dude’s been put down. Sam’s got the whole thing under control.”**
**Jefferson, actually: “[A] little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Shays’ Rebellion came at a particularly unsteady time for America. By 1787, most had realized the limitations of the Articles of Confederation—even those beyond its Preamble. Change was already afoot, but Shays’ Rebellion certainly expedited the process. The endurance of the rebellion (it bridged two calendar years) revealed the severe limits of America’s heretofore decentralized state. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Constitutional Convention was held in May of 1787, and that Washington was among its eager (and most credible) attendants.
Furthermore, Shays did nothing short of reminding the Founding Fathers of a very important thing: This is what people were like. They bickered over any perceived unfairness, and when push came to shove, gathered arms and openly rebelled. When people like Daniel Shays are your citizenry, you start rethinking the wisdom of handing them any kind of power. As James Madison said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”*
*That’s my emphasis there because Madison structured his sentence improperly. It would have resonated more as, “Liberty may be endangered not only by the abuses of power, but also by the abuses of liberty!”
Shays’ Rebellion, then, is not just responsible for speeding up the “revision” of the Articles of Confederation, but also for much of the new Constitution’s content. By reminding the Founding Fathers how dangerous—and potentially deranged—poor war veterans could be, Shays helped make sure that citizens couldn’t directly vote for many of their “representatives.” In other words, Daniel Shays is why we have the Electoral College.