The Whiskey Rebellion began with a whiskey tax, which sparked a rebellion in West Pennsylvania that involved over 7,000 insurrectionists, lasting from 1791 to 1794. President George Washington responded to the rebellion by sending a 12,000 soldiers to Pennsylvania to confront the rebels, who disbanded without a single shot fired. The Whiskey Rebellion marked the first major challenge to federal authority in the young United States.
The Whiskey Tax
Freedom from British rule had not come cheap; each colony had accrued significant debt during the Revolutionary War that remained on the books when the colonies became part of the United States. In his 1790 First Report on the Public Credit, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton argued for the “assumption” of this $25 million in outstanding debt by the Federal government. As long as the states held these debts, they would compete with the Federal government for both creditors’ dollars and for tax revenue. He faced stiff opposition in converting his plan into Congressional action, but eventually prevailed.
Hamilton also fought an uphill battle for an excise tax on whiskey. Taxes on commodities were an easy way to raise the money the government needed to pay the service on the debt and to provide much-needed revenue for basic government functions. President George Washington initially resisted Hamilton’s idea, but after a trip across southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia in early 1791, where local officials assured him it was a good idea, he threw his support toward the excise bill. The First Congress passed the bill in the spring of 1791.
Under the new law, producers would pay based on the size of their stills. A still that could produce up to 400 gallons of whiskey per year would be taxed at between 7 and 18 cents per gallon, depending on proof. Smaller producers would pay 10 cents per month or 7 cents per gallon, depending on which number was smaller. Later changes to the law reduced the tax burden on the largest distillers fractions of a penny per gallon.
Because the whiskey tax was universally detested, Congress was quickly flooded with petitions and letters from all over the country asking for its repeal. However, most distillers just passed their increased costs onto consumers and moved on.
Resistance in Western Pennsylvania
The exception was Western Pennsylvania, where detest of the whiskey tax quickly hardened into outright resistance. At the time, this was the American frontier: an isolated and impoverished region where there was little hard currency, but quite a lot of whiskey. Unable to easily move agricultural products to large markets, farmers were used to converting their surplus grain to whiskey, which could then be used for barter. So there were many small stills in the area, run by farmers who had little hard cash to pay the tax.
The first attempt to collect taxes gave the government a taste of what was to come. On September 11, 1791, excise officer Robert Johnson set off on his collection rounds. He was soon confronted by a group of 11 men dressed as women. They dragged him off his horse, stripped him naked, tarred and feathered him and abandoned him in the woods. Johnson was able to recognize some of his attackers and swore out warrants for their arrest. With few men willing to take on the task, the warrants were given to an elderly cattle drover named John Connor. He, too, was confronted by a mob, horsewhipped, and tied to a tree for hours.
These individual attacks continued off and on for the next three years as the resistance grew more organized. Then, on July 15, 1794, local tax inspector General John Neville agreed to escort U.S. Marshal David Lenox to serve a warrant for nonpayment of taxes on a farmer named David Miller. When Miller refused the summons, Neville and Lenox decided to leave, only to be confronted with a pitchfork-wielding mob. They escaped unharmed, but the mob continued to grow in size, and by the next morning, a group of around 700 men marched on Neville’s Bower Hill estate.
The attack of Bower Hill pitted Neville’s slaves and a small group of soldiers from nearby Pittsburgh against the mob, resulting in two deaths and multiple injuries. Bower Hill was burned to the ground.
Washington’s Response to the Whiskey Rebellion
Encouraged by radical leaders, the number of insurrectionists grew following Bower Hill. By August 1, 1794, more than 7,000 men massed at Braddock’s Field, just east of Pittsburgh, to join the Whiskey Rebellion. Many of these men did not own stills, or even land. Their grievances ran towards wealth inequality, the failure of the government to protect them from Native American attacks, and other philosophical issues of the day. Some spoke of sacking and looting Pittsburgh’s elite, while others weighed declaring independence from the new union.
President Washington at first pursued reconciliation with the rebels, dispatching a team of negotiators to the region in late August. The negotiators met with a committee of rebels, and while the committee eventually agreed to renounce violence and obey federal authority, a referendum of citizens did not find the majority willing to submit. Negotiators told Washington that military force would likely be required to enforce order.
Calling on Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia, Washington assembled a militia force of about 12,000 by the fall of 1794. This massive show of force caused the rebels to disband–ending the Whiskey Rebellion–without a single shot fired. Washington left a small garrison of about 1,200 was left in the area to keep the peace.
Aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion
Two dozen rebels were indicted for high treason and ten eventually stood trial for participating in the Whiskey Rebellion. While two were convicted and sentenced to hang, only was pardoned by Washington, reasoning that they had “abandoned their errors.”
Washington’s actions was viewed as a triumph for the still young federal government. Washington’s forces were able to crush the rebellion with minimal effort. Though the Whiskey Rebellion served as a demonstration of the federal government’s power, Americans still refused to pay the whiskey tax. Congress eventually repealed the whiskey tax in 1802,.