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5.7.5 Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck

Unidentified Artist
1787
Print

Unidentified Artist. Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.75.25

Take a look at the image of the two men, Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck. What are they wearing? What are they doing? What message do you get about these men from this image? If you had to write a caption, what would it be?

 

Daniel Shays led a rebellion in western Massachusetts made up largely of poor and indebted farmers. The government of Massachusetts needed money to pay off expenses from the American Revolution and raised taxes on citizens. Shays and his supporters protested these taxes and soon began to take up other issues around wealth and representation as well. Shays and his supporters chased off sheriffs and shut down courts to prevent having their property foreclosed upon and being evicted. When Shays and his over 2,000 supporters marched on a state armory to seize weapons, the state militia dispersed the group and arrested the leaders. Why was this an issue of governance? Why would Shays’ Rebellion have caused many Americans to support calls for a stronger federal union?

 

The armed uprising of farmers and landholders in western Massachusetts became known as Shays’ Rebellion. Daniel Shays represented farmers who were at risk of losing their land and livelihoods because of the heavy tax burden put on citizens in Massachusetts. Both of these men, Shays and Job Shattuck, were also soldiers in the militias fighting against the British for American freedom during the American Revolution. After the war, the state was heavily in debt from the Revolution and shifted the tax burden to its citizens. Farmers like Shay thought they were experiencing an unfair tax burden and were unable to pay off their debts; they responded by violently attacking court houses and government buildings in 1786 and then leading an armed revolt ending in the summer of 1787. This occurred at the same time that the Constitution was being debated. Federalists used this rebellion as an example of the need for a strong federal government. 

 

The actions that Shays took were common in the Revolutionary era. Rural New Englanders had formed independent militias and shut down courts in 1774 and 1775 in the lead-up to independence. Both supporters and detractors of Shays called his men regulators, linking the movement to the rural insurrection in North Carolina, 1765 – 1771. During the Revolution itself, independent militias could be found in many states that swore allegiance to the government while simultaneously resisting certain laws and leaders. After this rebellion, many pro-Shays candidates won elections to local and state office in Massachusetts, a sign that the grievances of the Shaysites were fairly widespread. While what Shays did was not necessarily new, the moment had changed. By 1786 – 1787, many of the former revolutionaries had come to fear that the republic was going in a radical direction — becoming too democratic and too willing to curb property rights to court the interests of poorer Americans.

 

Gen. Daniel Shays. Col. Job Shattuck
Thro’drifted Storms let SHAYS the Court assail
And Shattuck rise, illustrious from the Jail
In coward hands let legal Powers expire,
And give new Subjects to my founding Lyre