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Security History: Shays' Rebellion

Farmer and former Revolutionary War soldier Daniel Shays was leading his followers on 25 January 1787 to surround the U.S. government’s Springfield Armory in western Massachusetts. His goal was to fully arm his band of rebels—the Shaysites—and finally confront the militia forces recruited to end his insurrection.

For the Shaysites, the plan ended in disaster. Half of the rebel force failed to show on time, and a militia of 1,200 heavily armed men waited for them. Not a musket shot was fired; rather the militia fired two cannons loaded with grapeshot on the hapless insurgents. The salvo killed four and wounded 20. The remainder fled into the darkness.

Over the next few months, militia forces rounded up many of the Shaysites, and two—Charles Rose and John Bly, who were charged with theft when they confiscated guns and powder from nearby houses for the rebellion—were hanged.

The rebellion had begun the year before, triggered by discontent over high taxes, mounting debts, and low pay for revolutionary soldiers. At the end of the American Revolution, deep debt hung over many of the first 13 U.S. states. Desperate state governments raised taxes on their citizens, and to make it worse, the governments were not shy about using a heavy hand to collect their due. The Shaysites rose up in protest.

The short-lived rebellion had a long-lasting effect. During August 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to take up the issue of law enforcement. Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution laid out that, “The United States shall guarantee to each State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened), against domestic Violence.” Little debate took place and the U.S. states ratified the constitution on 21 June 1788.

Congress also intended to prevent another Shays’ Rebellion and took determined steps to ensure the federal government provided protection for its citizens. In 1789, Congress sent the Judiciary Act to U.S. President George Washington for signature, creating the federal appellate courts, the district courts, and the U.S. Marshal Service.

Read more about the early days of federal policing in the United States and the beginnings of today’s FBI in The Birth of the FBI—Teddy Roosevelt, the Secret Service, and the Fight Over America’s Premier Law Enforcement Agency by Willard M. Oliver.


By R. Scott Decker, Ph.D., retired FBI agent and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI.