Sept. 26, 2022

Daniel Shays Shuts Down the Courts

Daniel Shays Shuts Down the Courts

September 26, 1786. American farmer Daniel Shays leads a militia of debt-ridden citizens to protest high taxes and shut down Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in what will come to be known as Shays’ Rebellion.


Cold Open

It’s November 25th, 1783, two months after the end of the American Revolution.

On horseback, General George Washington leads a procession of 800 Continental troops into New York City for a victory march. For seven years, the city remained firmly under British control. But just minutes ago, the last of the British army boarded their vessels and left.

As Washington and his men get closer to the city, throngs of citizens come out to cheer relieved from British rule. Washington waves at the spectators as they crane their necks to get a look at the now-famous general.

But just before they make it inside New York City limits, Washington halts the procession. He motions for his men to head toward a tavern on a nearby street corner where they can celebrate alongside the residents.

The spectators cheer as the commander and several of his officers hop off their horses, and hitch them outside the stable.

Together, the men walk inside and ask for a round of drinks. As the bartender pours, a throng of soldiers and citizens from the street outside form around the general.

With glass in hand, Washington turns to the crowd. A hush falls over the room. And then, cheers erupt as Washington and his men lift their drinks in the air and toast to liberty and freedom.

In September of 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Revolutionary War officially came to an end. Two months after that, on November 25th, Washington led his troops on a victory march through New York City as the final remaining British troops left American soil on what will become known as Evacuation Day.

After Washington’s pit stop at the Bull’s Head Tavern, the rest of the day and the months to follow will be full of festivities and celebration. In December, Washington will retire to Mount Vernon in high spirits, excited to finally retreat from public life and enjoy the solitude of the countryside.

But soon harsh post-war realities will interrupt his retirement. Eventually, the debts of the war will come due and put America in crisis. Three short years after leading the American revolution to victory, Washington will watch a new insurgency grow on American soil. Soon, tax-burdened farmers will rise up against their government, forming an armed militia and storming the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on September 26th, 1786.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is September 26th, 1786:Daniel Shays Leads a Rebellion.

Act One: The Rebellion Begins

It’s the summer of 1786 at Conkey’s Tavern in Pelham, Massachusetts; three years after the end of the Revolutionary War.

Outside, Daniel Shays hurries up the path to the large, two-story bar running late for a meeting. He throws open the tavern’s front door and heads straight for its barroom.

Inside wait a legion of poor, local farmers like himself. As Daniel steps into the room, they turn to greet him. And then, they get down to business, ready to air their latest grievances against a government they believe has turned its back on them.

Since winning the Revolutionary War, life for many Americans has not improved. The new US government - defined by the Articles of Confederation - is hanging on by a thread. Under these Articles, America is less a country and more a loose league of independent nation-states. Without a uniform currency, a military force, or the power to regulate trade or collect taxes, the national government has little power, and states are largely left to fend for themselves.

But the war for independence has left these states deeply in debt. But nowhere is the pain greater than in Massachusetts, and no group feels it more than its farmers.

To pay off its war debts, the Massachusetts increased land taxes. From 1776 to 1786, taxes increased 1000%. Now, the average Massachusetts farmer is required to pay about one-third of his annual income to the state, and because inflation has rendered paper money worthless, both creditors and the government are demanding repayment in gold or silver. Hard currency is in short supply, especially for debt-burdened farmers like Daniel Shays.

Daniel is a former Captain in the Continental Army. But like many soldiers, Daniel never received the payment he was promised for his service in the American Revolution. And without that income, Daniel has been unable to pay his debts. For months, creditors and tax collectors have hounded him. And now, Daniel is broke and deeply anxious that his small farm is about to be seized. But Daniel is not the only one.

For months, farmers like him have been meeting at Conkey’s Tavern to vent similar frustrations. And as Daniel takes his seat inside the barroom today, he listens to complaints about a recent wave of foreclosures.

One farmer suggests that in response, they send a petition to the Massachusetts government. And Daniel just sighs at this. He wishes a simple petition could solve their problems. But he knows it won’t. Many farmers have already tried petitioning, and all have been unsuccessful.

Daniel takes a swig of his drink and then stands to his feet. He tells the farmers that the time for petitions is over. Too many men have lost their land and possessions. Local jails are filled to the brim with debtors. This is not the liberty that he fought for. And they need to take action, now.

A hush falls over the room as the men contemplate what Daniel is suggesting. But soon, he and his fellow farmers have hatched a plan for rebellion: judges can’t seize and sell their property if they can’t make it inside the courthouse; if the farmers take up arms and surround the county courthouse, they can halt the seizures.

So for weeks, the men wait for the right moment to take their stand. In August, the moment comes when the state legislature adjourns without considering the petitions sent by rural workers. For the aggrieved farmers, this is the final straw proving that their diplomatic efforts will never work. So on August 29th, 1786, farmers put their plan into action.

On the morning of their planned uprising, Daniel Shays walks to his closet and fishes out his old military uniform form. He never expected to wear it again so soon. Let alone in a revolt against the American government he had fought so hard for.

But Daniel sees no other way out of this relentless taxation. So without another thought, he dons his old, revolutionary war uniform, picks up his gun, and heads to the county courthouse in Northampton. 

There, Daniel joins several hundred other protestors, mostly farmers. In their hands are guns, swords, and other weapons. And like Daniel, many wear their old military uniforms forms.

With drums beating and fifes playing, they march in formation to the county courthouse. As judges attempt to enter, the men band together and surround the building blocking their entrance. For hours, they hold their positions, successfully preventing judges from approving any further property seizures, debt collections, and foreclosures. Then at midnight, the men finally leave.

The protest will stump the Massachusetts government. Four days after in Northampton, Governor James Bowdoin will denounce the mob action and warn of an armed response to future incidents. But just two days later, protesters will shut down another court in Worcester, Massachusetts. This time, Governor Bowdoin will send in the county militia. But it will be no use. 

Sympathetic to the protestors’ cause, many of the militias' men will refuse to turn up; some will even join forces with the demonstrators. And without military assistance from the federal government, Governor Bowdoin will find himself powerless. But while the governor will struggle to control a growing rebellion, Daniel Shays will come to develop a firm grip over the protestors. And soon, he’ll prepare to lead the charge in their most daring venture to date.

Act Two: The Rebellion Escalates

It’s the morning of September 26th, 1786 near Springfield, Massachusetts.

On the city’s outskirts, a force of several hundred protestors march toward town. At their head is Daniel Shays, the man in charge of today’s mission to shut down the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. 

One week ago, the court indicted eleven leaders of the state’s recent rebellions, claiming their behavior was "disorderly, riotous, and seditious.” Three of the men were Daniel's friends. And when he learned of their indictments, he decided to take action.

For the past week, rumors have circulated that the state's Supreme Court will indict more leaders during a session scheduled for today. Like they did in Northampton, Daniel, and other protestors, now known as the Regulators, want to shut down the court and prevent further indictments. 

But Daniel knows it will be far more dangerous to take a stand at the state’s highest court than to shut down a mere county courthouse. In Springfield, they won’t have to deal with a county militia, they’ll have to face off with the state militia. And Daniel worries they won’t be as sympathetic as the local militias have been.

Daniel has done his best to raise as many men as possible in Northampton. And in Springfield, he plans to converge with the city’s own force of rebelling farmers. Together, he hopes they can hold their line and successfully shut down the courthouse.

But as he and his men draw closer to town, Daniel realizes his plan is already going wrong. Outside the courthouse, the state militia is waiting for them.

Daniel pauses because he didn’t expect this. Now, there’s no way to seize the courthouse without inciting violence. And Daniel wants to avoid combat. Though many of the Regulators are armed and well-equipped for a fight, many are not. And no one relishes the prospect of bloodshed. So, Daniel tries to strike a deal instead.

Slowly, he walks ahead to meet the state's militia commander, General William Shepard. As the men face each other, Daniel explains the rebels’ demands. He tells the general that they don’t want violence, but they refuse to let the court issue any further indictments or sit again until the grievances of the people have been addressed.

As Daniel speaks, Springfield’s Regulators converge with Daniel’s Northampton force. As their numbers swell, Daniel sees General Shepard’s expression change from defiance to concern. 

Now outnumbered, the general decides to negotiate. He tells Daniel that the judges and militia will stay away from the courthouse, but only if he and his men agree to demonstrate peacefully.

Daniel agrees to the offer. And as the state militia dissolves around them, the protestors surround the courthouse. For two days, they parade around the building with fife and drum, refusing to leave until the court’s justices agree to halt their hearings against farmers. Eventually, the judges concede defeat and adjourn without hearing any cases. Triumphant, Daniel and his men return to Northampton.

Quickly, word of the showdown at the state’s highest court spreads throughout the state, and turns Daniel into a new leader of a burgeoning rebellion, and emboldens the farmers’ movement. All across Massachusetts, confrontations at courthouses continue with a new vigor. 

But in Virginia, news of the rebellion’s escalation alarms retired George Washington.

After the Revolutionary War, the former general was ready to leave politics behind. But the troubled state of the young country has made it hard to enjoy his leisure. For weeks, the growing insurgency in Massachusetts has weighed heavily on his mind.

And shortly after Daniel Shays’ demonstration in Springfield, Washington receives a letter that only intensifies his concern. 

Washington’s heart sinks as he reads his friend’s worrying report: “In one word, my dear General, we are in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy, with all its calamities, has approached.”

Washington sets down the letter, with a sigh of frustration. He doesn’t understand how Massachusetts has let the turmoil get to this point. He wishes he could do something about it. Or that the federal government could step in. But under the Articles of Confederation, Congress can’t fund troops to suppress a rebellion, nor can it regulate commerce to mitigate the farmers’ economic hardships. 

So for the rest of the day, the troubles in Massachusetts stay on Washington’s mind. He knows the rebellion will only grow stronger if it’s allowed to go on. And he worries it’s only a matter of time before the rebellion will turn violent.

Washington’s concern will be shared by Massachusetts legislature. In the coming months, they will threaten protestors with severe punishment while offering pardons to any who took an oath of allegiance and laid down their arms.

And at the top of their most wanted list will be Daniel Shays. The legislature will see the attack on Massachusetts’ supreme court as a direct assault on the sovereignty of the state’s government. And Daniel Shays’ growing influence will make his name synonymous with the rebellion. By December, the growing conflict will lead Governor Bowdoin to mobilize a private militia, funded by Boston businessmen and dedicated solely to stopping the rebellion. But while the government will assemble its forces, Daniel Shays and other rebel leaders will organize their own.

Act Three: The Rebellion Ends

It’s January 25th, 1787 just east of Springfield, Massachusetts, and four months after Daniel Shays and his fellow protestors stormed the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

Today, Daniel leads another regiment of men toward the city. This contingent is far larger than the last force he brought to Springfield. Today, he has well over a thousand men marching by his side.

As word of Daniel’s earlier protest spread around New England, like-minded Americans flocked to his cause. Within a matter of months, his ragtag gang of farmers grew into an army, 1500-strong.

But as the movement grew stronger, more and more ringleaders were arrested. These arrests have only angered the protestors further though. Now, Daniel and many others are outraged at what they see as a tyrannical government. And they’re ready to stand against it.

Recently, Daniel set his sights on sacking Boston, home to the businessmen that control the state’s government and funded a militia against the farmers. But to make his attack, he need weapons. So today, Daniel and his men are headed to the largest stockpile of weapons in the US: the Springfield Arsenal.

For weeks, Daniel has organized an attack on the armory with just two other rebel leaders. Together, they plan to attack from three sides simultaneously. 

But as the armory comes into view, Daniel sees General William Shepard and Governor Bowdoin’s private militia already there waiting for them.

Daniel glances northward. In the distance, he sees their allied forces approaching. But when he turns West, he sees none of his men. Daniel wonders where the other contingent of Regulators is. But he doesn’t halt his march. He’s sure the absent force will arrive soon.

But as Daniel’s men and the Northern force converge on the armory, they still have no support from the West. The government militias fire warning shots to deter the rebels from coming any closer. But Daniel is confident in their numbers. He orders his men to march on.

General Shepard looks at the masses of advancing troops, before turning back to his own. He had hoped that there would be no bloodshed today. But he sees little choice. Daniel Shays forces continue their march making no heat of the warning shots. General orders his men to fire.

In the end, Daniel Shays and his Regulators will be no match for the militia. By the time the smoke clears, Daniel will be in full retreat. Four of his followers will be dead. And as many as twenty more will be injured. Within a week, Daniel and his rebels will surrender and return to their homes in defeat. 

The battle at the Springfield Arsenal will spell the end of Shays’ Rebellion, as the five-month uprising will become known. But many will worry that the conflict is an omen of turmoil to come. For George Washington, Shays’ Rebellion will be enough to push him out of retirement and back into politics.

Alongside 54 other delegates, Washington will attend the Constitutional Convention just a few months after the uprising’s end. There, the nation’s leaders will work to address the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. And after months of heated debate, they will agree on a new blueprint for a stronger federal government, one they hope will balance the needs of large and small states, prevent another rebellion.

The document they authored, the United States Constitution, will transform American government. But it might not have been deemed necessary if the fragility of the country under the Articles of Confederation was not proven by Shays Rebellion, which won its largest victory at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on September 26th, 1786.


Next on History Daily. September 27th, 1821. After a long and bitter war, Mexican revolutionary Agustin de Iturbide leads his army into Mexico City, setting the stage for Mexican Independence.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.