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The Most Famous Failed Rebellions

Written by Kevin Jennings

Enough is enough, and it’s time for a change! That is a sentiment that has echoed throughout history and led to countless rebellions against governments in power. Many of these, like the American, French, and Chinese Revolutions were successful and would change the landscape not only of the country engulfed in revolt, but of the entire world. But more often than not, rebellions didn’t fare so well.

              A small band of plucky young upstarts is rarely going to be a match for an established government and their military. That’s not to say that all failed rebellions were small in scale, just that it takes more than conviction in what they belief to overthrow the might of an established government. Today we’ll be looking at some of the most famous failed rebellions throughout all of history.

Shays’ Rebellion


              It was August 1786, not even three years since the Americans had achieved victory against the British and won the right to govern their own nation. It would be easy to think that this would have been a great time for citizens of the United States, having newly won their freedom. However, the Americans hadn’t quite figured out how to be America yet, and European businessmen weren’t going to take it on good faith that they would.

              Eastern Massachusetts had a market economy at the time, and members of this merchant class dominated the state government. Western Massachusetts was and remains much more rural, with much of their economy being rooted in agriculture. In the west, people would barter for goods and services, and farmers would often be extended lines of credit, payable when times were better.

              European business partners of the merchant class had no interest in working on credit, instead demanding hard cash, something that was in short supply nationwide across the fledgling United States. In order to pay the Europeans, these merchants began demanding the same from their local business partners. The farmers were unable to meet the demands of the merchants as well as the state tax collectors, resulting in many of them losing their land, the only thing of value that they owned.

              This resulted in strong feelings of resentment towards tax collector and the courts. John Hancock had resigned as governor in 1785 citing health reasons, but it is believed he saw trouble coming and wanted no part of it. Hancock had refused to impose hard currency demands on poorer citizens and refused to actively prosecute the collection of delinquent taxes. With his resignation, Governor James Bowdoin took over and quickly escalated the situation by imposing additional taxes. Even John Adams, a relative conservative who introduced legislation that would make rebellion punishable by death and prohibit any speech that was critical of the government, spoke out against these additional taxes.

              It began with protests against the economic practices as well as protests staged to keep courthouses from being able to open. The people were getting restless, and it was time for Congress and the federal government to step in. There was just one glaring problem: under the Articles of Confederation, Congress did not have the power to levy taxes, only states could. As such, there was no way for the federal government to recruit an army because they had no way to pay them. It didn’t help that county militias were unwilling to aid the state in dispersing the early protests, as they were sympathetic to the cause.

              On September 26 at the Springfield courthouse, rebellion leader Daniel Shays had organized roughly 300 men to protest and prevent the court from opening. They were met by local militia commander William Shepard and his also roughly 300 men who were there to protect the building. The rebels chose to only protest that day rather than engaging the militia. Shepard eventually sent his men to the Springfield Armory, as the rumour was that was Shays’ intended target all along.

              It would turn out that the rumour was correct. Despite the fact that the armory was owned by the federal government and Massachusetts had no authority to use its arsenal without direct permission from the Secretary of War, Governor Bowdoin ordered Shepard to use it to arm his militia of 1,200 against the coming insurgents. Not only were they prepared for the rebels, the rebels plan had been compromised.

              Luke Day, one of the other rebel leaders, had sent a message to Shays to postpone the date of the assault from January 25th to the 26th because his men wouldn’t be ready in time. The message was intercepted, and Shays and his men came to lay siege to the federal armory without the backup that they had expected. Shepard’s men fired warning shots followed by two cannons filled with grapeshot. The rebels dispersed without either side firing their muskets, but Shays still lost four men and saw 20 injured.

              Despite seven months of heavily organized protests that succeeded in disrupting the courts, the tax collectors, and the government, Shays’ final assault on the government was over before it began. It may not have been a spectacular final battle, but the entire rebellion changed the face of America forever.

              Shays unintentionally proved that the Articles of Confederation may have been a nice start, but they were not going to be sufficient for the survival and prosperity of the United States. Though there is still some debate among historians, it is widely agreed that Shays’ Rebellion served as the catalyst for the Constitutional Convention that would ultimately lead to the writing of the United States Constitution, and later the Bill of Rights. Just because a rebellion failed, doesn’t mean it can’t still bring about change for the better.

The Third Servile War


            The Servile Wars were a series of three slave rebellions against the Roman Republic in the first and second centuries BC. The Romans had a lot of slaves. The exact number is unknown, but conservative estimates put it at 25% of the Roman populous, while some historians believe that slaves made up as much as 75%. With such a large percentage of the population living in slavery, it’s no wonder that they would try to organize and revolt.

              The Third Servile War began in 73 BC in the city of Capua. Gladiators were one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and there were training schools setup throughout Italy where slaves were taught to fight in gladiatorial combat. A group of 200 gladiators from one such school began plotting an escape. With so many people involved, it was nearly a guarantee that someone would turn on the other conspirators in an attempt to win favour or even their freedom.

              When the plan was betrayed, nearly half the men decided to follow through with an escape anyway. A force of 70 gladiators grabbed kitchen implements to use as weapons and broke out of the school, stealing wagons full of real weapons and armor on their way out. Once they had fled the school, they elected three leaders from among their ranks: Crixus, Oenomaus, and Spartacus.

              A small force of soldiers from Capua was sent after them, but the soldiers were easily defeated. They were plundered of their military weapons, only strengthening the rebels. The gladiators then retreated to Mount Vesuvius where they could easily defend themselves while they regrouped. As they traveled, they recruited even more slaves into their ranks.

              The rebels began raiding and pillaging Campania, an area of Italy that was essentially vacation homes for the wealthy. The Roman military didn’t view these revolts as an act of war, mistaking it instead for a simple crime wave. Rather than sending the Roman legion, the praetor instead sent a force of 3,000 hastily chosen militia to stop the uprising. When they arrived at Mount Vesuvius, they were happy to wait out the contained rebels until they died off from starvation.

              Spartacus and the former slaves may not have had military training (though some believe Spartacus was a former Roman soldier), but they were far more clever than the makeshift army that had been sent after them. Using vines and trees to fashion ladders and ropes, Spartacus’s men repelled down the mountain and circled around to flank the Roman force, wiping them out completely.

              A second military force, this time more disciplined, was sent under the command of generals Furius and Cossinius. They were once again defeated with Cossinius being killed in action and the Roman praetor Varinius nearly being captured. Spartacus and his men once again enjoyed a windfall of military weapons and armor with which to equip themselves. As word spread of their deeds, they also enjoyed a windfall of new recruits to their cause. Slaves came out in droves to join, and what was once a band of 70 gladiator trainees armed with kitchen knives was now a complement of 70,000 rebels armed with military equipment. The exact circumstances are unknown, but Oenomaus died during this time at Vesuvius, most likely in battle.

              They spent the following winter training and expanding their raids beyond just wealthy vacation homes into other neighbouring regions. However, their ultimate goal isn’t actually clear to modern historians. The most popular theory is that the slaves were breaking into two factions. Crixus and his men who wanted to continue pillaging Rome, and Spartacus and his men who wanted to escape over the Alps to freedom.

              The events of the next year are somewhat contentious as the contemporary sources have contradictory information. Despite this, there are a few things we can say for certain. First, Crixus was defeated and killed by the Romans. Second, Spartacus defeated the army that had felled Crixus, as well as winning several smaller battles. He was now commanding a force of 120,000 and was in the south of Italy, marching north towards Rome.

              The task of containing Spartacus had fallen on Roman military commander Marcus Licinius Crassus. For the first time, Spartacus and his slaves would face defeat at the hands of Crassus. Roughly 6,000 of the rebel slaves died in their battle before retreating, only to be engaged upon again and suffer thousands of more losses.

              Spartacus negotiated with pirates to sail him and 2,000 of his men to Sicily so he could recruit reinforcements. Unfortunately, pirates are, well, pirates so they just took Spartacus’s money and ran. He was forced to retreat towards Rhegium where he and his men were cut off from their supplies.

              By this point, Roman legions of Pompey were returning to Italy having just quashed another rebellion in Hispania. Neither Crassus nor Spartacus were happy with this development. For Spartacus, it mean an even larger Roman force he would have to wage war against. For Crassus, it meant that the general of the legions from Pompey would receive all the credit for defeating Spartacus if he couldn’t do it before the reinforcements arrived. Spartacus tried to negotiate with Crassus, but he refused.

              Following this, Spartacus and his army were able to break through the Roman fortifications, but a force of over 12,000 got separated and were killed by Crassus and his men. By this point, the rebellion had been going on for two years, and the Spartacus’s army of slaves who were not trained military had had enough. They didn’t have the discipline to keep fighting, and the army began to disperse. Spartacus took all that was left of his army and turned around, facing the Roman legion head on.

              This final stand was a rout, with nearly the entire rebel army being killed on the battlefield. According to ancient historians Spartacus also fell in battle, but his body was never recovered.

The June Rebellion


            Fans of musical theatre will already be familiar with the June Rebellion, immortalized in the novel Les Misérables that would later be turned into the musical of the same name. The June Rebellion of 1832 was the last violent outburst linked to the July Revolution of 1830.

              Paris had been in a state of turmoil for years. The economy was doing horribly, and many people saw France and Paris in particular as being involved in a class war. The July Revolution had led to the king being overthrown and replaced with King Louis Philippe as the head of what would be referred to as the July Monarchy.

              Not only were there major economic problems, but there was a severe outbreak of cholera in the spring of 1832. The disease claimed the lives of over 18,000 citizens of Paris alone, and 100,000 across all of France. The poorer neighborhoods were hit hardest by the disease, leading some to believe that the government had poisoned the water supply.

              However, it wasn’t only the poor that died, and it was the deaths of two government officials that would be the ultimate catalyst for the June Rebellion. The first was Prime Minister Casimir Perier. Not only was he Prime Minister and a strong support of Louis Philippe, he was a wealthy banker and mine owner.

              The other death was that of Jean Maximilien Lamarque, an army commander turned member of parliament who was exceedingly popular with the lower class because he was vocally critical of the monarchy.

              It was a bad time to be Louis Philippe whose monarchy was regarded as the government of the middle class; with the most prominent spokespeople in government for both the wealthy elite and the impoverished now dead, he was now stuck in the middle of two sides that both hated him.

              Lamarque died on June 1st, and his public funeral on June 5th would be where insurgents would make their stand. As the funeral began, demonstrators took over the funeral procession and guided it to the Place de la Bastille, the location where the French Revolution of 1789 had begun. Riots started breaking out, until it became a full blown rebellion.

              A force of 3,000 rebels controlled much of eastern and central Paris, but their rebellion would be short lived. That night, the 20,000 militia members of the Paris National Guard received reinforcement from 40,000 army troops. The rebels were hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, and they were not up to the task.

              Surprisingly, losses on both sides were comparable. The rebellion had 93 casualties and 291 injured, while the army had 73 casualties with 344 injured. The rebels were outnumbered 20 to 1 and had put up a respectable fight, but those losses represented 10% of the rebel’s forces whereas it was just a drop in the bucket for the French army.

              Not only had the rebellion failed, it had failed spectacularly. Louis Philippe came out into the streets during the uprising to show that he was still alive, where he was greeted with cheers of “Long live the king”. The government portrayed the rebels as an extremist minority, and rather than overthrowing the king they only served to make him more popular. Their efforts may have failed, but at least we can thank them for inspiring one of the best musicals of all time.

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