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February 4

In 1787, rebel forces under the command of Daniel Shays of Massachusetts enter Boston, forcing Gov. James Bowdoin and the state legislature to flee the city.

Massachusetts State Legislature takes flight from Shays' Rebels
by Eric Lipps
Shays' rebels had been greatly aided by their capture of a government armory, which allowed them to defeat the 4,400-man force dispatched against them by the governor under the command of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln.

Shays declares himself 'acting governor' and issues a series of decrees directing the issuance of paper money, halting mortgage foreclosures and imposing caps on fees charged by lawyers. The legal fees had been a prime cause of resentment among those who would become Shays' followers; it was charged that in representing debtors, the lawyers were charging so much that the were forcing their clients into bankruptcy, costing them not only their savings but their homes and livelihoods. Appeals to the state senate had produced no result.

The successful armed overthrow of a state government sets an ominous precedent for the young United States. The ineffectualness of the government established under the Articles of Confederation lies exposed by the inability of the Continental Congress to intervene even against open insurrection. This sends a clear signal to disaffected elements throughout the country that they need not try to achieve their aims peacefully.

The nation's leaders will attempt to rectify matters in the summer of 1787 at the Philadelphia Convention, which was intended to propose amendments to the Articles in the hope of creating a more effective government and stabilizing the country. They would fail. The Convention, instead of merely amending the national charter, would come up with an entirely different constitution, and the state legislatures, accusing the delegates of having overstepped their mandate to produce what Virginia's Thomas Jefferson denounces as a "blueprint for monarchy". The new charter fails to be ratified, and in 1794, after a Congress increasingly desperate for money had attempted to levy taxes on the production of hard liquor, the so-called "Whiskey Revolution" will go further than Shays, toppling the national government. The burning of Philadelphia that October will spell the end of the American union; after that, the individual states will insist upon their own sovereignty, creating on the east coast of the North American continent a mirror image of the patchwork of nation-states existing in Western Europe.

Alexander Hamilton, who had advocated the whiskey tax not only for financial reasons but as a means of asserting "social discipline" - by which he meant the authority of the central government -warns following the Whiskey Revolution that disunion will offer not only England but other European powers the opportunity to return America to colonial rule. He will be proven right, as one after another of the "sovereign" states are forced into economic and political vassalage. By 1812, it will be clear to almost everyone what "state sovereignty" has meant, but it will be too late. In 1820, the last holdout, West Pennsylvania-a breakaway region of the old state of Pennsylvania-will formally surrender to a British occupation force sent to "restore order" and collect by force the state's large outstanding trade debt.