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Causes of unrest

Economic policy

In America after the Revolution, there were two kinds of money: specie, which was coin backed by property and land, and paper, which was not backed by property.

Specie held its value, but paper money depreciated, which caused problems.  If a merchant loaned a farmer ten pounds at a time when ten pounds might buy a 100 barrels of flour, and then the money depreciated, so that 10 pounds only bought a five barrels of flour, the merchant would not be satisfied by letting the farmer discharge his debt with the worthless money, he would accuse the farmer of stealing from him.  Likewise would the farmer feel cheated if he needed to sell 200 or more barrels of flour, at the new price, to raise the money to pay the debt. 

Without balanced representation, nothing kept men in government from using  their power in 1785 to choose a currency policy that benefited financiers and large merchants at the expense of the people.

War debts

To European and Boston financiers, the war was an investment. They gave their money and hoped to be repaid with interest—and also in  influence in the new state, and in opportunities to profit in its markets.

At the beginning of the war, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ debts totaled £100,000. At the end of the war, the Commonwealth’s debts exceeded £1.5 million. Their obligation to the federal government totaled another £1.2 million  Tax receipts brought in only about £66,000 per year.

As with the soldiers' notes, these bonds had largely been abandoned by their original holders, and traded on exchanges where their value rose and fell, based on rumors about whether the government planned to pay or discount the notes.  When Bowdoin decided to pay the soldiers' notes at full value, he decided to pay the war bonds in full as well, depreciating only the sufferings of the farmers who would have to raise those funds in taxes.

Soldiers' notes

Soldiers in the American Revolution loaned their service to the state.  They were paid in worthless paper money, and then in promissory notes. Many soldiers sold their ‘notes’ to speculators at the end of the war, for a little cash, to restart their farms, and never received the value of the pay they had been promised. 

After the war, those notes circulated on exchanges, and the veterans could watch the value of the notes rise and fall in the papers.  Unlike other states, which refused to pay large sums to men who had not earned the money by actually having served, the government in Massachusetts decided to pay the notes at face value, they were effectively making a small number speculators very rich, and they offended the veterans by voting to raise the money to pay these notes by taxing the very people who had never been paid fairly for their service.

Representation and voting

The 1780 Massachusetts Constitution actually increased the property requirements by 50% from before the war. John and Samuel Adams and James Bowdoin, who authored the Commonwealth's Constitution, were afraid of 'democratic hordes' who would wrest control of the state out of the hands of the wealthy men who conducted the state's business.

In many Massachusetts towns, though, all adult men were authorized to vote in local elections, regardless of property or worth, and they conducted their towns' business in town meetings and county conventions that were much more democratic than the state government. 

Now that the Revolution was over, James Bowdoin and other elites wanted to make it clear that Boston was in charge of the state—not each town's citizens.  Men in government treated the people's meetings and petitions as usurpations of the representative government's function, and they sought to impose centralized administrative control.


In the farming areas, this looked a lot like the tyranny the people had just fought a war to free themselves from.

Political gridlock

After the war, all 13 states suffered the same economic crisis.  Some states addressed their people's concerns by depreciating debts or issuing paper money, or passing tender laws, to let people pay debts in produce.  In Maryland and Pennsylvania, protests led to immediate reforms, but in Massachusetts, political gridlock kept Governor John Hancock from depreciating money and lowering taxes. Elites in the government refused to accept losses by letting Hancock lower taxes and issue paper money. They stalled his program and blamed him as conditions deteriorated.  Hancock would not agree to raise taxes, so conditions deteriorated, setting teh stage for Bowdoin to come into office in 1785 on a platform of strict economic policies that would pay all the state’s debts, in full, in four annual payments.

The media

The Massachusetts protests of 1786 are known as "Shays' Rebellion" primarily because of the power of propaganda.  The newspapers of 1786 were as full of vitriolic and counter-factual spin as social media is today. 

The Hampshire Gazette was founded in September 1786 to give merchants a platform for making their case.  Their letters called the people lazy moochers, who only wanted things for free, without working. They described the people as degenerates and also as military masterminds, intent on overthrowing the state.  They accused them of being stirred up by foreign agents. They accused the people of being 'levellers,' who wanted to level all the wealth of the country.

The people heard tyranny in the merchants' editorials, and they responded with editorials that predicted that the rich would take everything from them if they did not protect themselves. There were calls for a renewed Revolution, to accomplish the goals the Revolution of 1776 had started to work toward. 

This was mostly bluster, on both sides. The people remained nonviolent in their protests. The elections of 1786 were conducted without disruption, and power transferred peacefully to John Hancock, who issued reforms and ruled with the people's interests in mind again.

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