Unsettled Domestic Issues

18d. The Whiskey Rebellion

Washington visiting troops in Harrisburg
Realizing the Whiskey Rebellion needed to be subdued, George Washington dispatched troops to western Pennsylvania. He is pictured reviewing the men at Harrisburg.

More taxes on whiskey? "No way!" said the rebellious farmers of western Pennsylvania.

New taxes placed on whiskey to increase federal revenue cut deeply into ordinary people's livelihood. In the newly settled backcountry, poverty was widespread. For farmers to survive economically, they needed to convert bulky corn and grain into more easily transported whiskey. The new taxes debilitated this crucial economic resource for many frontier settlers from New York to Georgia.

In addition to the specific issue of the whiskey tax, many backcountry settlers resented distant rule from the more populous east coast. For example, anyone in western Pennsylvania facing charges in a federal court had to travel all the way to Philadelphia to get a trial. Furthermore, renewed Indian wars in the early 1790s made westerners resentful of what they saw as easterners' indifference to the risks of life on the frontier. The overlapping resentments soon got hotter than a distillery still.

Fisher Ames
Fisher Ames argued eloquently for the government to protect private property and maintain public order.

The violent climax occurred in the area around Pittsburgh in the summer of 1794. Following a pattern established in the American Revolution, local farmers had begun holding special meetings to discuss their opposition to the tax as early as 1792. A mass meeting in Pittsburgh declared that the people would prevent the tax from being collected and one tax collector was even tarred and feathered in protest.

President Washington soon declared such meetings unlawful, but among ordinary settlers in western Pennsylvania he was often seen as just another large-scale landowner from the east who didn't understand local conditions. Many men would not back down in the face of what they considered an oppressive and unjust tax. Matters came to a head when an angry crowd who refused to pay the tax harassed a federal marshal, tax collector, and a handful of federal soldiers. The troops surrendered and the marshal's house was torched. Other minor protests soon swept western Pennsylvania and there were rumors of holding a convention to discuss secession from the United States.

Liberty Flag of the Whiskey Insurrection
Whiskey distillers in what was known as "the American West" realized that new policies such as the whiskey tax favored businessmen who mass-produced the alcohol. They decided to band together under this flag.

The federal government reacted dramatically to the violence and the possibility of it spreading to other backcountry areas. Alexander Hamilton had long supported military mobilization to suppress the tax resistance in the west and supported Washington in raising a 13,000-troop force (larger than the Continental Army had ever been). When they arrived in the Pittsburgh area the resistance dissolved and the federal force had to search hard to arrest twenty men that they accused of involvement in the Whiskey Rebellion.

The rebellion of the summer of 1794 ultimately took on more important symbolic significance than anything else. The federal government had shown itself willing to mobilize militarily to assert its authority. Furthermore, the government made plain that the west must conform to national laws that took precedence over local customs.

But many perceived the sweeping actions of the federal government as going too far. Even an ardent Federalist like Fisher Ames observed that, "Elective rulers can scarcely ever employ the physical force of a democracy without turning the moral force or the power of public opinion against the government." Like the Shays' Rebellion eight years earlier, the Whiskey Rebellion tested the boundaries of political dissent. In both instances, the government acted swiftly — and militarily — to assert its authority.

On the Web
The American Experience: The Whiskey Rebellion
A brief summary of the events of the 1794 summer that became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. This page is part of a larger PBS companion site to a documentary on the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, so it focuses on the role that Hamilton played in the Rebellion. Short and sweet.
Taxing 'Sin' — Then and Now
In a bold move to inspire investors' confidence in the infant national economy, Hamilton declared that the federal government would pay back all of its wartime debts. But where would this money come from? How about the hard-drinkin', slow-witted farmers in the West! This excellent article discusses the unfairness of the whiskey tax, and compares it to the so-called "sin taxes" of today.
The Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania was not an isolated incident, nor was it the result of lawless anarchy. Farmers throughout the western counties of many states resisted the excise tax on whiskey, and in some cases, organized their own local assemblies to represent their interests. The background info on farmers' response to the tax provided at this National Park Service page will help give you a much fuller understanding of the incident.
A democracy cannot possibly support justice. -Fisher Ames
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