This program brings to life a crucial time of unrest in the young United States between the winning of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In Massachusetts, Captain Daniel Shays leads a rebellion of farmers and Revolutionary War veterans, hard pressed by climbing inflation and high taxation. The program traces the spread of unrest in the new American republic, as conflict deepens between the cash-poor majority and the established class of merchants and the governing elite.
Although Shays is defeated, the rebellion, which has spread to other states, gives urgency to strengthening the union and to the debate over a stronger central government. Assembled in Philadelphia, James Madison and other convention delegates debate proposals for balancing state and federal power, forging the Constitution of the United States. A superb, dramatic reenactment, accurately set in historic locations.
After you show the program and consult this guide for discussion topics, your students should have a better grasp of:
The grievances of the farmer-veterans
The alarm felt by the merchants and social elite
The powerlessness of the Continental Congress as unrest spreads
The economic crisis, the "chain of debt," and the controversy over paper money
The relation of the rebellion to the calling of the Constitutional Convention
The debate over the "Virginia plan," one of the principal focuses of the Convention
SUGGESTED DISCUSSION AND ACTIVITIES
Ask students to describe the form of government in the United States after the Revolution but before the Constitution. Did people generally think that things were going well and that the nation was prospering? Keep the discussion brief, using it to introduce a half-hour video that deals with events of this period.
Choose from the following dozen suggested discussions and activities:
1. Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson expressed opposite opinions about Shays' rebellion. In the views of these leaders, how much had the Revolution accomplished? What perils did the new republic face? How should the republic be kept safe? Base your answers on the following quotations:
Jefferson: "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion."
Adams: "Rebellion against a king may be pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."
2. The Economic Crisis. (Above.) In a rural economy based partly on barter, the storekeeper is presented with fresh cheese from his customer, a farmer, in exchange for credit. Explain why—in the credit crisis that now runs up and down the "chain of debt"—the storekeeper refuses to accept produce at all. What can the farmer do about it?
3. Put yourself in the farmers' place. Right now, in 21st-century America, imagine that coins are scarce; your dollar bills, if you have any, are as worthless as play-money; you have no savings or investments left; and now the government declares that all credit cards have been suspended and that the amount you owe on them is due to the banks immediately. Everyone you know—friends and family, your entire community—is in the same situation. The Small Claims Court finds that you do owe the debt; you don't have even the protection of personal bankruptcy laws; and the repo man is going to take your car, cell phone,* and any other possessions that will pay the bills you owe. Now what? (*Teacher: include any items valued by your students: Game devices? Sneakers?...)
4. Put yourself in the veterans' place. (Above.) Daniel Shays and most of his followers had fought bravely in the Revolutionary war — but if this is where they've ended up, then what was it all for? They believed that joining Shays' rebellion was part of the same continuing struggle. One rebel leader wrote to the public: "I earnestly stepped forth in defense of this country, and liberty is the object I have in view." Discuss the point he was making. Do you think that enlisted soldiers or war veterans in contemporary America have a right to protest their government if they believe it has misled them?
5. Put yourself in the businessmen's place. (Above.) From the commercial viewpoint, the farmers' demands for a circulating paper currency-not tied to a monetary standard-would bring depreciation and fiscal chaos, while non-payment of state taxes meant that men of wealth who had lent large sums to the war effort would be "drained of cash" and would face bankruptcy instead of the economic expansion they had hoped for. Were political leaders justified in claiming that the gains of the Revolution were being undone by "knaves and thieves" who "intended tyranny"?
6. National or state government? Discuss the "balance of power" sought by the framers of the Constitution. Why did the individual states fear an abuse of power by a national government?
7. A standing army? Was it a good idea or a bad idea to propose a strong central government that could keep a standing army? This subject was hotly debated at the Convention. In the program, Madison argues for national military readiness based on Shays' recent rebellion. Above, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts replies, "You would create United States troops, and turn them loose on any one of the states? More blood would have been spilled in the Massachusetts rebellion if Congress had meddled in it." Debate both sides of the question.
8. Stage a courtroom trial, putting an insurgent on trial for treason after the defeat of the rebellion. For a historical example, read about Jason Parmenter or Moses Sash on this web site...
9. Look up the "Virginia plan" defended by Madison (above) and the "New Jersey plan" proposed by those favoring state sovereignty. Write a paper which compares and contrasts them. How would the United States be different if the New Jersey plan had prevailed?
10. Was there a "Radical Tradition"? The court-closings by the Shays men (above) had precedents before and after Independence. In 1774, crowds of armed farmers had forced the closing of debtors' court sessions in Massachusetts communities. In 1782 and 1783, farmers (who included future Shays rebels) stopped courts, clashed with militia and tax collectors, and freed imprisoned protestors. Were such court-closings justified under British rule? In the new democracy? Was it socially disruptive violence, or was it a relatively moderate tactic to persuade the remote state government to take seriously the farmers' grievances, which had been expressed legally in petitions?
11. The problem of paper money. New England farmers wanted paper money, but Rhode Island was the only government that printed any and enforced its circulation. Discuss why Rhode Island's merchants were opposed to paper money. Was John Weeden justified in refusing John Trevett's money even if it meant defying the state government? Why?
12. The trouble with democracy, 1786. Discuss this statement by Noah Webster (above): "I was once as strong a republican as any man in America. Now, a republican is the last kind of government I should choose. I would infinitely prefer a limited monarchy, for I would sooner be the subject of the caprice of one man than the ignorance of the multitude." What do you think about the quality of voters today? What do you think about the quality of leadership in our democracy today?
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CURRICULUM BUILDER Shays' Rebellion and the Constitution -- A Fact Sheet -- now with new links
Updated July 15, 2011