On this day in 1787, Daniel Shays, a farmer and veteran of the Revolutionary War, led a ragtag* band of perhaps 1,500 men toward the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. Shays hoped to seize the weapons stored there and then march to Boston, where he and his men would topple the state government.

What became known as Shays’s Rebellion had begun the previous spring, when debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts, fearing they would lose their land, thwarted creditors’ lawsuits by closing the courts. Such actions echoed events that had taken place on the road to Independence, especially the popular response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. But this time, Shays and men like him struggled against their compatriots, rather than the British. The Massachusetts farmers believed their fight would determine the legacy of the Revolution.

On January 25th, the Shays rebels faced off with a militia force outside the federal armory. The rebels lost. Badly. Many of them dispersed into the hills. Others were captured and jailed. The State of Massachusetts then mounted a show trial at which four of the insurrection’s leaders were condemned to death, only to be spared at the last moment when Governor James Bowdoin pardoned them.

The Massachusetts farmers, having failed in their effort to topple the state’s government through rebellion, instead turned out hard-money legislators — and Governor Bowdoin — in the next election, replacing them with representatives more sympathetic to the debtor’s plight. Relief followed. The crisis abated.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Thomas Jefferson, after hearing news of the insurrection, remarked, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing…It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Other elites, though, without the benefit of an ocean between themselves and the rebels — Jefferson served in Paris at the time — were less certain of Shays’s salutary impact on the body politic. George Washington, most famously, viewed the rebellion as evidence that The Articles of Confederation had to be amended. Washington, accordingly, came out of retirement to attend the Constitutional Convention that began in Philadelphia the following spring. The rest is history.

Oh wait, there’s one more thing. Approximately four years ago, I was invited to participate in a historians’ forum, sponsored by the History Channel, on important turning points in American history. I, along with fifteen other historians, was locked in a conference room in the bowels of a fancy hotel in New York City for two days. The group spent its time arguing over critical, and, ideally, novel historical watersheds. I had a bunch of whacked-out notions. But when the History Channel finally produced the series 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America, two of my ideas made the cut: the Mystic Massacre and Shays’s Rebellion. The former made for bad television. The latter, though, yielded this film. Which is cool.

* Obligatory use of “ragtag” to describe a band of farmers. Said band, depending on the circumstances and author’s intent, could also be “scrappy.” These are the rules, people. I don’t make ’em up; I just follow ’em. Got complaints? Take it up with management. I’m just a monkey with a keyboard.