In late 786 and early 1787, crowds of debt-ridden farmers closed the courts in western Massachusetts to prevent the seizure of their land for failure to pay taxes. They called themselves “regulators”—a term already used by protesters in the Carolina backcountry in the 1760s. The uprising came to be known as Shays’s Rebellion, a name affixed to it by its opponents, after Daniel Shays, one of the leaders and a veteran of the War for Independence. Massachusetts had firmly resisted pressure to issue paper money or in other ways assist needy debtors. The participants in Shays’s Rebellion believed they were acting in the spirit of the Revolution. They modeled their tactics on the crowd activities of the 1760s and 1770s and employed liberty trees and liberty poles as symbols of their cause. They received no sympathy from Governor James Bowdoin, who dispatched an army headed by former revolutionary war general Benjamin Lincoln. The rebels were dispersed in January 1787, and more than 1,000 were arrested. Without adherence to the rule of law, Bowdoin declared, Americans would descend into “a state of anarchy, confusion and slavery.”
Observing Shays’s Rebellion from Paris where he was serving as ambassador, Thomas Jefferson refused to be alarmed. “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he wrote to a friend. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” But the uprising was the culmination of a series of events in the 1780s that persuaded an influential group of Americans that the national government must be strengthened so that it could develop uniform economic policies and protect property owners from infringements on their rights by local majorities. The actions of state legislatures (most of them elected annually by an expanded voting population), followed by Shays’s Rebellion, produced fears that the Revolution’s democratic impulse had gotten out of hand.
James Madison, “father of the Constitution,” in a miniature portrait painted by Charles Willson Peak in 1781. Madison was only thirty-six years old when the Constitutional Convention met.
“Our government,” Samuel Adams wrote in 1785, “at present has liberty for its object.” But among proponents of stronger national authority, liberty had lost some of its luster. The danger to individual rights, they came to believe, now arose not from a tyrannical central government, but from the people themselves. “Liberty,” declared James Madison, “may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.” To put it another way, private liberty, especially the secure enjoyment of property rights, could be endangered by public liberty—unchecked power in the hands of the people.