War causes debt in most cases, and after the American Revolutionary War, the new United States had to come up with a way to pay their debts to European countries. One decision that left many people in significant trouble was to increase land taxes on farmers, and this created tremendous difficulties, especially between farmers and merchants. There was inequity between the taxes farmers had to pay and the taxes merchants paid. Smaller farmers in the Eastern states couldn’t meet their debts, leading to uprisings like the Shays' Rebellion.
Many of the people in significant financial trouble were men who had served in the army during the Revolutionary War. Facing mounting debt, the potential for losing everything they had or even imprisonment for debt, they asked the Massachusetts legislature for debt relief. This was not granted, and instead great poverty resulted. Men like Daniel Shays organized as a result, and one action taken in 1786 was to march on debtor’s courts and demand they stop business.
In 1787 what is often called Shays' Rebellion took place. Shays and his forces, who sometimes called themselves Shaysites and numbered about 1000-1500, attacked an armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Actually, the term Shays' Rebellion applied to this last act is inaccurate. All of Shays’ actions between 1786 and 1787 are considered the Shays' Rebellion.
What occurred in the attack on the Springfield Armory was not successful for Shays or his men. A militia that was governed by General Benjamin Lincoln was able to defend the armory and scattered most of Shays’ men. Two men were hanged and Shays was sentenced to death, but the rebellion had long-lasting effects. First, the federal government recognized that Shays had a legitimate complaint and within a year of the end of Shays' Rebellion they had pardoned most men involved, including Shays.
The other reason that Shays' Rebellion is frequently cited as more than a footnote in American history is because it helped to shape the writing of the US Constitution. In 1786 and 1787, the government was still using the Articles of Confederation as its main laws. Yet the Articles of Confederation were in part responsible for the drastic poverty and the poor handling of that poverty of people like Daniel Shays. One of the things most specific in these articles was the limit of power in the central government. Greater power might have been able to address some of the issues for which Shays and his men fought.
Help did not come soon enough for Daniel Shays and for many men of the Shays' Rebellion. Though the Massachusetts legislature was able to change some things the following year to help offer some debt relief to farmers, people like Daniel Shays died without such assistance. Shays’ plight and that of many farmers did make a strong impression on the founding fathers of the US and ultimately helped to create greater fairness in the US Constitution.