Historical Markers
Espy House Historical Marker
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Espy House

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
E. Pitt St. between Juliana and Richard Sts., Bedford

Dedication Date:
June 25, 1951

Behind the Marker

An oil on canvas painting of Washington on horseback leading his troops.
To Execute the Laws of the Union, The Whiskey Rebellion, by Donna Neary.
While many Americans today remember the "rebels" who opposed the 1791 federal whiskey excise tax as folk heroes, President George Washington, the only president ever to lead troops in the field, thought the real heroes were the 13,000 militia from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland who marched westward to quell the rebellion. He praised "the enlightened and patriotic zeal for the constitution and the laws which has led them so cheerfully to quit their families and homes and the comforts of private life to undertake and thus far to perform a long and fatiguing march and to encounter and endure the hardships and privations of a military life."
Oil on canvas of Henry Lee in uniform.
Henry Lee by Charles Willson Peale, from life,1782.

Informed that in the face of such a force the rebels had dispersed and agreed to pay the tax, Washington turned over command to Governor Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee of Virginia, his former revolutionary comrade-in-arms. Lee had opposed the excise tax, but still raised his state's quota of soldiers to re-establish federal authority. Washington made the statement quoted above when he turned over command to Lee at his headquarters at the Espy House in Bedford. Built of limestone in 1766 by Colonel David Espy, it was the largest house in the area. To Washington, the Whiskey Rebellion represented a fundamental challenge to the authority of the federal government; namely whether the government had the right to pass and enforce law, including the imposition of a tax.

Convinced of the excise taxes legality, Washington believed that if the violent opposition of the rebellious farmers of western Pennsylvania succeeded, that the new federal government would be perceived as "weak" not only by other Americans, but by foreign powers anxious to take over the fledgling republic. "No citizens of the United States can ever be engaged in a service more important to the Country," he continued in his praise of the militia and the three state governors who had appeared to lead them.
Image of the Espy House, Bedford, Pa.
Espy House, Bedford, PA, circa 2003.
"It is nothing less than to preserve the blessings of that Revolution which constituted us a free and independent nation."

Washington did more than praise his troops when he departed on October 20. His message contained instructions that the troops, who were about to march to Pittsburgh to capture the leading insurgents, had to proceed in an orderly manner and make sure the culprits received fair trials. "Every officer and soldier will constantly bear in mind that he comes to support the laws and that it would be peculiarly unbecoming in him to be in any way the infractor of them." Their duty was to "aid and support the civil magistrate in bringing the offenders to justice. The dispensation of this justice belongs to the civil magistrate and let it ever be our pride and our glory to leave the sacred deposit there unviolated." Washington had always insisted the military remain subject to civil authority. During the American Revolution, he was careful to obtain Congressional approval for any action - such as requisitioning supplies from local people or appointing senior officers - likely to cause controversy.

After Washington headed back to Philadelphia, Lee and the federal army proceeded to Pittsburgh where, on November 13, they arrested 150 men allegedly associated with the rebellion, and then marched some twenty to Philadelphia for trial. Here, Washington set another example for the republic when he pardoned the Whiskey Rebels to demonstrate that a republican government, unlike a monarchy, did not suppress its errant citizens through imprisonment and death.
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