Shay's Rebellion: Shaping the Constitution. part 2
Though the Annapolis Convention exposed that some were willing to consider the amending of the Articles to strengthen its weaknesses, the individual States held close their own powers and they were reluctant to give up those powers to a National government. Thus, the Philadelphia Convention may very well have gone the way of the Annapolis Convention of not for a little rebellion.
Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87 opened the eyes of many to the fallacies in the Articles of Confederation as well as the Federal Government then in place. Though the leading fathers had looked upon a similar rebellion only a few years earlier as “logical, virtuous and nobly patriotic [they] now looked aghast,” at what was happening in Massachusetts, says Starkey (3).
George Richard Minot explains the situation facing Massachusetts in his book History of the Insurrections in Massachusetts in 1786. “Their private state debt, when consolidated, amounted to upwards 1,300,000£, besides 250,000£ due to officers and soldiers of their line army,” (6). The amount Massachusetts owed the federal government was another 1,500,000£. In addition each town had its own debts from supplies and requisitions for men it had given to the state on credit.
All the states owed similar amounts, but Massachusetts in particular was anxious to be rid of its debt. Therefore, it passed higher land and poll taxes to help pay for the loans which wealthy Boston creditors held. The taxes, however, seem to fall more on farmers and the general poor.
The problem was further compounded by the fact the Continental Army veterans, mostly farmers who had let their lands lay fallow as they fought in the War of Independence, had still not received their army pay or promised bonuses. These debtors did not have the money to pay their mortgages. The banks began to foreclose on their farms. Merchants, who had loaned them money or extended them credit demanded payment as well. Shortly thereafter, with the urging of the merchants and the backing of the legislature, payment was required to be made in specie (coin money), something in very short supply in the days after the Revolutionary War.
Men, who were unable to pay their debts because they themselves had not been paid, saw their homes or farms confiscated and auctioned off for as little as twenty percent of its value. In a two year period (1784-86) nearly one-third of males over sixteen were involved in a debt case in Hampshire County, Massachusetts and seventy-three men were thrown into prison—crowded, ill-ventilated and filthy places.
According to Monroe Stearns in Shays’ Rebellion 1786-7: Americans Take Up Arms Against Unjust Laws:
"Upright, but insolvent farmers were confined with thieves and murderers. These criminals could get out of jail, but debtors could not [because] his creditor paid the cost of his board there...as long as he wished or until the debtor paid his debt." (10-11)
Circumstances continued to deteriorate as more and more farmers were jailed and their lands confiscated. Those who first defended this practice soon found themselves victims and their respect for the law soon changed to outrage at the courts.
Stayed tuned for Part Three, which I'll post on Saturday, Feb. 20th.
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats