Stories from PA History
Pennsylvania and the New Nation
Pennsylvania and the New Nation
Chapter 4: The Whiskey Rebellion

Oil on canvas of Alexander Hamilton, wearing a golden brown jacket and white ruffled shirt.
Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull, c. 1792
During the American Revolution, eastern Pennsylvanians were so preoccupied with suppressing loyalists and fighting the British that they did little to defend the frontier. So by 1780, it was almost impossible for the radical, revolutionary government established in 1776 to collect excise and property taxes in the western regions. Even in the eastern counties, inhabitants destroyed roads - in one case filling a mountain pass with dung - so collectors could not reach courthouses, and formed crowds to prevent foreclosures on the estates of those who owed back taxes or private debts.

The only reason Pennsylvania did not endure something like Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786-87) was that the state government made little effort to raise an army to enforce the laws. Instead, given the vast amount of land owned by the state, unlike thickly settled Massachusetts, Pennsylvania raised almost all its revenue in the 1780s and 1790s by selling state lands, thereby relieving its population of taxation and its government of potential unrest.

Oil on canvas of William Findley, with shoulder length, salt and pepper hair. He is wearing a dark suit and ascot.
William Findley, by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.
When Congress in 1791 approved Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's national excise tax that included whiskey, two of the nation's major distilling regions, western Pennsylvania and Kentucky, regarded it as an unfair burden. Why, they asked, should we be exclusively and unfairly taxed to pay off the national debt and benefit wealthy easterners and foreigners? To be collected at the place of manufacture, the tax amounted to 54 cents annually per gallon for those who operated stills under 400 gallons.

To small distillers, this law also had a class dimension: owners of larger distilleries could pay a flat tax based on their stills' capacities, and thus undersell those with fewer resources. Only in the previous few years had the Scots-Irish farmers of Allegheny and markerWashington counties begun to make a decent living by selling grain as both whiskey and foodstuffs to the army in the west and to immigrants passing through Pennsylvania to the Ohio Valley. They remained excluded, however, from the rich lands of the Ohio Valley, still controlled by Native Americans that the federal government had been unable to defeat. And they remained excluded by Spain from using the Mississippi River to float their grain down to New Orleans and the rich markets in Europe and the West Indies that lay beyond.

Political leaders John Smilie,markerWilliam Findley,and Albert Gallatin agreed with their constituents and urged them to oppose the tax in every legal way possible. So when the federal government refused to honor farmers' petitions for repeal of the measure, they refused to pay the excise tax and then threatened bodily harm to the tax collectors.

Few liked the new federal tax. In fact, the Pennsylvania legislature, anticipating the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and South Carolina's nullification of the tariff of 1828, declared that only the state could levy an excise tax. No whiskey taxes were collected in western Pennsylvania in 1792 or 1793. But in 1794, Governor markerThomas Mifflin arranged for Pennsylvania courts to hold their sessions in the west, and to hear cases involving the excise tax. Shortly after, a federal marshal ordered that farmers who refused to pay would have to stand trial in Philadelphia. The marshal met no difficulty collecting the tax as he passed through Somerset, Bedford, Washington, and Fayette counties. In Allegheny County, however, he tried to pressure payment from a farmer who had no intention of paying. When the farmer turned belligerent, the marshal ordered his arrest and sent him to stand trial in Philadelphia, to the great displeasure of local residents.

Cartoon depicting the fate of the Exciseman. An Exciseman carrying off two kegs of whiskey is being pursued by two farmers intending to tar and feather him. He is later hung.
An Exciseman, anonymous, 1792.
On July 16th, some Whiskey "rebels" marched to markerBower Hill, the home of Revolutionary War general John Neville, a prominent landowner, Virginian, and friend of President Washington, who had agreed to take the job of tax collector. There, Neville's supporters and his armed slaves fired on the crowd, killing popular Revolutionary War veteran John McFarland. When the crowd then demanded that Neville resign his commission and he refused, they burned his house to the ground. The rebellion was on.

The first week in August, 500 angry farmers led by markerDavid Bradford met at markerBonnet Tavern in Bedford County and there vowed death to tax collectors and withdrawal from the union if President George Washington tried to enforce the despised tax. Others intercepted federal mails and destroyed letters exposing the names of rebels. Some 7,000 western Pennsylvanians then marched on Pittsburgh, intimidated its residents, threatened to take control of the federal arsenal at markerFort Pitt, which was pretty much in ruins, and destroyed several private properties. They also threatened but did not harm markerFort Lafayette the supply depot for the federal army that was even at that moment fighting the Indians who threatened their security and trade to the west. Sympathetic "friends of liberty," who viewed the rebellion as a struggle against the eastern political powerbrokers, arose in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and in the backcountry of Kentucky and Virginia. At meetings held at Bonnet's Tavern and Braddock's field, emerged leaders vowed to raise a force to resist the tax.

On August 14, 1794, state representative markerAlbert Gallatin met with the rebels at what is now known as Whiskey Point and convinced them to submit to the federal laws. But it was too late. Reports of the violence in western Pennsylvania had already reached the federal government in Philadelphia, where it was also rumored that the rebels were asking representatives of Great Britain and Spain for aid in a frontier-wide separatist movement. Fearing the secession of western territories - and an even greater threat to the nation's western borders - President Washington ordered Governor Mifflin to send the Pennsylvania militia to enforce the law. But Mifflin declined, asserting that a president in peacetime and in the absence of any local request for help had no authority to direct a state governor to use a state militia for any purpose. In the process, he established a precedent that is still honored today.

Formal color portrait of Thomas Mifflin wearing a dark suit with a yellow vest and ruffled shirt.
Thomas Mifflin, by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1784.
Rebuffed by Pennsylvania's governor, Washington drafted a marker proclamation requesting that the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia place a force of 12,950 men into federal service. At the time, Washington was angry with Pennsylvania's western farmers for a variety of reasons. Back in the 1780s, some markerCovenanter squatters had contested his land ownership in land in Washington County. Having provoked wars with the Indians and ignored treaties respecting their lands, these western Pennsylvanians now seemed unwilling to pay a tax largely enacted on their behalf to rid the Ohio Valley of their enemies, even as the government was negotiating with the Spanish and the British to make sure the Ohio region could be settled and its products shipped down the Mississippi.

While Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and some Federalists were eager to use the ruckus to demonstrate the power of the new nation to raise armies and suppress insurrections, Washington simply wanted western Pennsylvanians to make some contribution toward the government that was spending so much of its energy and money to secure their interests.

On October 4, 1794, Washington joined the troops - contemptuously dubbed the "Watermelon Army" by the rebels - near Carlisle, and marched them out to Bedford County. It was there, during his stay at markerEspy House that Washington was informed that his army had scared off the "Whiskey Boys," who would now comply with the tax. Turning over command of the troops to Governor Henry Lee of Virginia, the president then returned to Philadelphia.

 Washington in full uniform, astride a magnificent white horse, reviews his following army. The mountains and rows of infantrymen stand in the background.
Washington Reviewing the Western Army at Fort Cumberland Maryland, attributed...
On November 13, federal troops arrested 150 rebels, then sent twenty of the ringleaders to Philadelphia to stand trial, including markerReverend John Corbley, a noted Baptist minister and vocal opponent of the whiskey tax. The Federal District Court of Philadelphia found most of the rebels not guilty, but in July, 1795, sentenced two of the men to death for treason. And so it ended. Washington would later pardon both. His show of force in raising an army and compassion in pardoning the offenders strengthened the new government, which made little further effort to collect the tax after its revenues increased from other sources.

Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion was the first large-scale resistance by American citizens against the United States government under the new federal constitution. It was also the first time the president exercised the internal police powers of his office. Within two years of the rebellion, the grievances of the western farmers were quieted. Just before the outbreak of the "rebellion," General Anthony Wayne had defeated the Ohio Valley Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, thereby ending the raids into western Pennsylvania and opening much of what is now Ohio to white settlement. In 1796 a new treaty with Spain, which allowed American citizens to sell their goods through New Orleans, opened a grain trade to the west, and brought new prosperity to the region.
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