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Debt Helped Lead to Shays Rebellion
The American Revolution was not a decade behind the nation which meant that a new government was not entirely formed. This in turn meant that a new currency was not fully in circulation to handle the situation the new nation found itself in. No money meant no payment of debt. Debts that went unpaid resulted in more people placed into prison for the inability to pay those very debts. More prisoners meant more financial burden placed on the government to house and feed these very prisoners. An increase of financial burden on the government led to more taxes that began the vicious cycle again.
The revenue that was collected from the taxes was used to help pay the national foreign debt the colonies had acquired during the revolt. The people might not have minded too much about that but when they realized that much of it was going to pay for “the interest on state securities bought up at depreciated rates” that mostly veterans from the Revolution had been forced to sell at a fraction of their true value. The men who had risked their lives for freedom found themselves in a different kind of slavery and a different tyrant.
All of this was exasperated with the decline of exports due to Britain’s restrictions placed on America’s trade with the West Indies. This led to higher inflation and worthless currency that did exist. As inflation sky-rocketed, everyone down to the farmers felt the crunch as “these proud and independent yeoman farmers lost their farms, ended up in debtors’ prisons, and paid higher taxes than wealthy elites.” The result would go down in American history as the first ripples of a civil war or viewed as the first revolution after independence.
The people turned to their state governments for help. Everywhere petitions were signed and sent to courthouses pleading for relief from the economic crises. Many requested the government to create laws overriding the use of paper currency as the only legal tender and to allow property, gold, and silver to be used, also. Gold and silver were not as common either but some possessed more of that than they did paper currency. Eventually, governments such as Massachusetts passed laws where gold and silver could be paid in exchange of paper currency. This did little to affect enough of the populace including the farmers where such commodities were rare. They only had their land and goods to pay which would leave them homeless if used to pay their debts. What little done by the state governments only made matters worse for the majority.
Conventions were convened to petition the government for help. Many suggested creating a new state constitution in Massachusetts and quoted scripture to support their grievances. Just as the Israelites called out for help and a deliverer was given, the people of Massachusetts called out for relief hoping they would find it. Words seemed to fall on deaf ears. The people saw the hopelessness of their situation and the lack of response from their state governments. With the American Revolution just a few years behind them, the revolutionary spirit rose up and demanded that justice be administered.
The American colonies saw themselves as being treated unjustly by a king who pulled from the land across the sea but gave less back. King George III was considered a tyrant who milked the colonies and left them financially floundering without giving them a chance for their voices to be heard. In 1786, many across the new nation saw this same tyrannical spirit being practiced by their state governments. It only stood to reason that this same group of strong people who stood up against an empire would follow the success they experienced just a few short years before and stand up to the new governments that were following the corrupt role models of Britain.
The farmers of Massachusetts picked up their rifles once again and marched to the state seat of government. Peaceful petitions had failed leading them to take up arms and have their voices heard one way or another. The farmers shut the Court of Common Pleas down in Northampton, Massachusetts. This prevented the courts from prosecuting anymore debtors and imprisoning those that were forced into their position by the very government prosecuting them. The success of this move in Northampton started a wave of other such actions including the one in Springfield, Massachusetts that would become known in American history as Shays’ Rebellion.
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Williams, Tony. America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events That Shaped a Nation’s Character. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Accessed February 17, 2012. http://www.history.org/connect/files/Williams,%20Shays%27%20Rebellion.pdf.
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