Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey Rebellion

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Unrest existed in many areas of the West, particularly west of the Alleghenies. Primary contributing issues included a lack of federal courts in the West, which necessitated long trips to Philadelphia, lack of protection against Native American attacks and a high federal Excise Tax on domestically produced distilled spirits.At Alexander Hamilton`s urging, Congress in 1791 enacted a tax on spirits at twenty-five percent of the liquor`s value. Large producers were not pleased with the tax, but generally complied; the small producers were irate and began to organize opposition.In the western counties of Pennsylvania, the Scots-Irish farmers were particularly hard-hit - most were grain growers and many were distillers. Mobs tarred and feathered a tax collector and burned the home of another. Shots (of ammunition) were exchanged.Washington called upon the rebels to disperse, but his plea was ignored. Washington invoked the wording of a statute authorizing the federal government to call up the militias, along with the written finding by James Wilson, then an associate justice of the Supreme Court, that the necessary conditions existed, to justify his action.A force of nearly 13,000 men was raised and marched into western Pennsylvania. Eventually two were convicted of treason, but later received presidential pardons.The Whiskey Rebellion was the first test of federal authority in the young republic. It also established a precedent when the president called up state militias for federal purposes.

Whiskey Rebellion - History

Whiskey Rebellion

Extracted from
History of Monongalia County, West Virginia
by Samuel T. Wiley
Kingwood: Preston Publishing Company, 1883

Chapter X
Whiskey Insurrection
Origin, History and Suppression - Mobs at Morgantown - Action of the State and National Authorities.

After the adoption of the Constitution, the first act of rebellion against the Government was the Whiskey Insurreciton, commencing in 1791 in south-western Pennsylvania in murmurs of discontent, and swelling into an open rebellion in 1794. It was caused by Congress passing an excise law on March 3, 1791, which imposed a tax of four pence per gallon on all distilled spirits. At this time whiskey was about the only cash article west of the mountains, and about every eighth or ninth farmer had a still. Grain was no price. A horse could carry only three or four bushels of grain across the mountain, there to be exchanged for salt at five dollars a bushel and iron at eighteen cents a pound. In the form of spirits, the same horse could carry the product of twenty bushels of rye. Hence the people of southwestern Pennsylvania regarded this excise law as unjust and oppressive, a view that was also shared to some extent by some of the inhabitants of Ohio and Monongalia counties.

A great field-meeting or muster of the insurgents was held at Braddock's Field (Allegheny County, Penn.), August 2, 1794, and a circular was issued inviting the neighboring counties of Virginia to send delegates to a meeting to be held on the 14th of that month at Parkinson's Ferry (now Monongahela City, Penn.). Ohio County was represented at this meeting, and William Sutherland was her member of a committee of conference to meet the United States Commissioners sent out to adjust the trouble. In this meeting Monongalia had no representative. On the 9th of August a body of Pennsylvanians, not content with attacking their own excise collectors, invaded Monongalia County and again on the fourteenth, when they were joined by a few others, but were driven out of Morgantown by the citizens of the town and the people in attendance at court. Subjoined is a clipping from the Philadelphia Gazette of September 2, 1794:

"We hear that the inhabitants of Morgantown, Virginia, have assembled in a body, and determined to defend themselves against the encroachments and depredations of the insurgents in the west parts of Pennsylvania. In two or three instances they have opposed the insurgents and driven them back.

"(Extract of a Letter from Morgantown, Va., August 14, 1794.)

"'The insurgents have been quite outrageous, and done much mischief. Here we have been quiet until a few days ago, when about 30 men, blacked, came in the night of the 9th instant, and surrounded the house of the Collector of this county, but the man escaping, and advertising that he had resigned his office, they went off peaceably. Three days after, at our court, a number of men, mostly from Pennsylvania, came to Morgantown, and in the evening, began to beat up for proselytes, but they were in a few minutes driven out of town. Yesterday they were to have returned with a stronger party, but did not.'

"N. B. Morgantown is mostly composed of Virginians and native Americans."

James Veech says: "Albert Gallatin (of Fayette Co., Pa.) In his historical-defensive speech on the Insurrection, in the House of Representatives of the Pennsylvania Legislature, in January, 1795, on a Resolution (which was adopted) to set aside the election of Senators and members from the four western counties, says of this event: 'A short time afterwards' [having referred to previous like outrages in Pennsylvania] 'the officer of a neighboring county in Virginia, fled for fear of insult, and a riot was committed at the place of his residence, by some of the inhabitants of that county, who have since been arrested, although the outrage seems at first to have been ascribed by the Governor of Virginia to Pennsylvanians. In another county of the same State, some of the papers of the officer were forcibly taken from him.'"

Who the excise officer at Morgantown was is not known.

When news of these disturbances reached Richmond, Henry Lee, Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation on the 20th of August, 1794, concerning the Morgantown trouble, calling on the civil and military officers to arrest every offender and watch all parties coming from Pennsylvania, and to apprehend them if found exciting a spirit of disobedience to the government. President Washington issued two proclamations against the insurgents, or "Whiskey Boys," as they styled themselves, and called out 15,000 men in four divisions, from Pennsylvania, New Jerseys, Virginia and Maryland, one division from each State. The Virginia division was commanded by Gen. Daniel Morgan, rendevoused at Cumberland, Md., and marched into southwestern Pennsylvania by the way of Braddock's Road. Gov. Henry Lee (grandfather of Gen. Robert E. Lee) was appointed commander-in-chief. By the time the army arrived in the rebellious district, the last vestige of armed resistance had died out. A part of the leaders were arrested but none were put to death. No troops were sent into Ohio or Monongalia counties.

The records of the old District Court held at Morgantown, show that on May 5th, William McKenley, John Moore, William Sutherland, Robert Stephenson and John McCormick, of Ohio County, were notified to appear there for trial, for stirring up the inhabitants of Ohio County against the government but at the next session, in September, no prosecution was made by the Deputy Attorney-General.

Gov. Lee at Pittsburgh, on November 17, 1794, ordered the return of nearly all the army home. Brig. Gen. Matthews was to move the next Wednesday to Morgantown, and "from thence to Winchester by way of Frankfort." As soon as the service would permit, Gen. Darke with the Elite Corps of the left column was to follow on the same route. No account was preserved of the arrival of the troops at Morgantown and their winter march through Monongalia.

Whiskey Rebellion - History

The Whiskey Rebellion
Digital History ID 4036

Author: George Washington

Annotation: Washington's proclamation on the Whiskey Rebellion.


By the president of the United States of America

A PROCLAMATION Whereas, combinations to defeat the execution of the laws laying duties upon spirits distilled within the United States and upon stills have from the time of the commencement of those laws existed in some of the western parts of Pennsylvania.

And whereas, the said combinations, proceeding in a manner subversive equally of the just authority of government and of the rights of individuals, have hitherto effected their dangerous and criminal purpose by the influence of certain irregular meetings whose proceedings have tended to encourage and uphold the spirit of opposition by misrepresentations of the laws calculated to render them odious by endeavors to deter those who might be so disposed from accepting offices under them through fear of public resentment and of injury to person and property, and to compel those who had accepted such offices by actual violence to surrender or forbear the execution of them by circulation vindictive menaces against all those who should otherwise, directly or indirectly, aid in the execution of the said laws, or who, yielding to the dictates of conscience and to a sense of obligation, should themselves comply therewith by actually injuring and destroying the property of persons who were understood to have so complied by inflicting cruel and humiliating punishments upon private citizens for no other cause than that of appearing to be the friends of the laws by intercepting the public officers on the highways, abusing, assaulting, and otherwise ill treating them by going into their houses in the night, gaining admittance by force, taking away their papers, and committing other outrages, employing for these unwarrantable purposes the agency of armed banditti disguised in such manner as for the most part to escape discovery

And whereas, the endeavors of the legislature to obviate objections to the said laws by lowering the duties and by other alterations conducive to the convenience of those whom they immediately affect (though they have given satisfaction in other quarters), and the endeavors of the executive officers to conciliate a compliance with the laws by explanations, by forbearance, and even by particular accommodations founded on the suggestion of local considerations, have been disappointed of their effect by the machinations of persons whose industry to excite resistance has increased with every appearance of a disposition among the people to relax in their opposition and to acquiesce in the laws, insomuch that many persons in the said western parts of Pennsylvania have at length been hardy enough to perpetrate acts, which I am advised amount to treason, being overt acts of levying war against the United States, the said persons having on the 16th and 17th of July last past proceeded in arms (on the second day amounting to several hundreds) to the house of John Neville, inspector of the revenue for the fourth survey of the district of Pennsylvania having repeatedly attacked the said house with the persons therein, wounding some of them having seized David Lenox, marshal of the district of Pennsylvania, who previous thereto had been fired upon while in the execution of his duty by a party of armed men, detaining him for some time prisoner, till, for the preservation of his life and the obtaining of his liberty, he found it necessary to enter into stipulations to forbear the execution of certain official duties touching processes issuing out of a court of the United States and having finally obliged the said inspector of the revenue and the said marshal from considerations of personal safety to fly from that part of the country, in order, by a circuitous route, to proceed to the seat of government, avowing as the motives of these outrageous proceedings an intention to prevent by force of arms the execution of the said laws, to oblige the said inspector of the revenue to renounce his said office, to withstand by open violence the lawful authority of the government of the United States, and to compel thereby an alteration in the measures of the legislature and a repeal of the laws aforesaid

And whereas, by a law of the United States entitled "An act to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions," it is enacted that whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed in any state by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings or by the powers vested in the marshals by that act, the same being notified by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations and to cause the laws to be duly executed. And if the militia of a state, when such combinations may happen, shall refuse or be insufficient to suppress the same, it shall be lawful for the President, if the legislature of the United States shall not be in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other state or states most convenient thereto as may be necessary and the use of the militia so to be called forth may be continued, if necessary, until the expiration of thirty days after the commencement of the of the ensuing session Provided always, that, whenever it may be necessary in the judgment of the President to use the military force hereby directed to be called forth, the President shall forthwith, and previous thereto, by proclamation, command such insurgents to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes within a limited time

And whereas, James Wilson, an associate justice, on the 4th instant, by writing under his hand, did from evidence which had been laid before him notify to me that "in the counties of Washington and Allegany, in Pennsylvania, laws of the United States are opposed and the execution thereof obstructed by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings or by the powers vested in the marshal of that district"

And whereas, it is in my judgment necessary under the circumstances of the case to take measures for calling forth the militia in order to suppress the combinations aforesaid, and to cause the laws to be duly executed and I have accordingly determined so to do, feeling the deepest regret for the occasion, but withal the most solemn conviction that the essential interests of the Union demand it, that the very existence of government and the fundamental principles of social order are materially involved in the issue, and that the patriotism and firmness of all good citizens are seriously called upon, as occasions may require, to aid in the effectual suppression of so fatal a spirit

Therefore, and in pursuance of the proviso above recited, I. George Washington, President of the United States, do hereby command all persons, being insurgents, as aforesaid, and all others whom it may concern, on or before the 1st day of September next to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes. And I do moreover warn all persons whomsoever against aiding, abetting, or comforting the perpetrators of the aforesaid treasonable acts and do require all officers and other citizens, according to their respective duties and the laws of the land, to exert their utmost endeavors to prevent and suppress such dangerous proceedings.

In testimony whereof I have caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. Done at the city of Philadelphia the seventh day of August, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-four, and of the independence of the United States of America the nineteenth.

Whiskey Rebellion

Although Washington seldom drank whiskey himself, he ran a profitable distillery at Mount Vernon from 1797 until his death in 1799.

Digital Encyclopedia

Alexander Hamilton

The Whiskey Rebellion was a response to the excise tax proposed by Alexander Hamilton, who was Washington's Secretary of the Treasury in 1791.

Historic Site

Friendship Hill

Friendship Hill was the home of Albert Gallatin, who represented Fayette County to the state assembly created in Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. This historic house is owned by the National Park Service.

In January 1791, President George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a seemingly innocuous excise tax "upon spirits distilled within the United States, and for appropriating the same." 1 What Congress failed to predict was the vehement rejection of this tax by Americans living on the frontier of Western Pennsylvania. By 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the stability of the nascent United States and forced President Washington to personally lead the United States militia westward to stop the rebels.

By 1791 the United States suffered from significant debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. Secretary Hamilton, a Federalist supporting increased federal authority, intended to use the excise tax to lessen this financial burden. Despite resistance from Anti-Federalists like Thomas Jefferson, Congress passed the legislation. When news of the tax spread to Western Pennsylvania, individuals immediately voiced their displeasure by refusing to pay the tax. Residents viewed this tax as yet another instance of unfair policies dictated by the eastern elite that negatively affected American citizens on the frontier.

Western farmers felt the tax was an abuse of federal authority wrongly targeting a demographic that relied on crops such as corn, rye, and grain to earn a profit. However, shipping this harvest east was dangerous because of poor storage and dangerous roads. As a result, farmers frequently distilled their grain into liquor which was easier to ship and preserve. While large-scale farmers easily incurred the financial strain of an additional tax, indigent farmers were less able to do so without falling into dire financial straits.

President Washington sought to resolve this dispute peacefully. In 1792, he issued a national proclamation admonishing westerners for their resistance to the "operation of the laws of the United States for raising revenue upon spirits distilled within the same." 2 However, by 1794 the protests became violent. In July, nearly 400 whiskey rebels near Pittsburgh set fire to the home of John Neville, the regional tax collection supervisor. Left with little recourse and at the urgings of Secretary Hamilton, Washington organized a militia force of 12,950 men and led them towards Western Pennsylvania, warning locals "not to abet, aid, or comfort the Insurgents aforesaid, as they will answer the contrary at their peril." 3

The calling of the militia had the desired effect of essentially ending the Whiskey Rebellion. By the time the militia reached Pittsburgh, the rebels had dispersed and could not be found. The militia apprehended approximately 150 men and tried them for treason. A paucity of evidence and the inability to obtain witnesses hampered the trials. Two men, John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, were found guilty of treason, though both were pardoned by President Washington. By 1802, then President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax on whiskey. Under the eye of President Washington, the nascent United States survived the first true challenge to federal authority.

Loyola University Chicago

1. "28 January 1791," Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789-1793. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.

2. National Gazette, 29 September 1792.

3. Gazette of the United States, 25 September 1794.

Baldwin, Leland. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1939.

Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels who Challenged America&rsquos Newfound Sovereignty. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006.

Slaughter, Thomas. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Whiskey Rebellion Rebels

Which record groups would contain information about the whiskey rebels in the Whiskey Rebellion? I am researching the individuals who were not only brought to trial, but those who were tracked afterwards. Who was on a list of rebels? Were there some type of warrants for their arrest?

There are a lot of records for the troops which were raised, but I am searching for the rebels themselves.

Thank you in advance for any help in this effort.

Re: Whiskey Rebellion Rebels
Kelly Osborn 07.09.2016 9:23 (в ответ на Joan Peake)

A quick search of our catalog search led one of our archivists to this item: Indictment of William Bradford and John Mitchell from the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (These were two who were indicted for stirring up the rebellion as Raising Revenue tells me.) My guess would be to contact NARA Philadelphia, which holds the Circuit Court records for Pennsylvania.

Another archivist suggested s earching, which mostly finds official notices about the Whiskey Rebellion, but also a citation to William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty, N.Y., 2006. There are also some detailed reports about the issue that are from RG  58, Letters of Commissioner of Revenue, 1792�. For example, this one giving a summary of attitudes in the states: To Alexander Hamilton from Tench Coxe, 19 October 1792 .  The footnotes for that letter contain lots of links to other letters from the Hamilton Papers.

Re: Whiskey Rebellion Rebels
Patrick Connelly 08.09.2016 9:19 (в ответ на Joan Peake)

The history of whiskey fun!

To commemorate this event and other local history, Allegany Museum hosts its annual Whiskey Rebellion Celebration. The Whiskey Rebellion Fest is also a major fundraiser for Allegany Museum. Allegany Museum is a non-profit entity, and relies on donations, gifts, and fundraisers to keep its doors open. 2016 saw the inaugural Friday evening Fest, and it was an overwhelming success. A capacity crowd thronged the Museum’s historic ballroom and enjoyed tastings of whiskey and other spirits, historic re-enactments, a colonial ‘pub’ room providing authentic colonial games, photos with ‘President Washington’, canapés, presentations of cigar/whiskey pairings and free cigars. The Museum also mounted an exhibition of historic whiskey bottles, jugs, and ephemera at the event and in the weeks before and after. Enjoy this and more at the 2020 Whiskey Rebellion Fest, September 11! Brought to you by the Community Trust Foundation


The Washington administration's suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion met with widespread popular approval. [101] The episode demonstrated the new national government had the willingness and ability to suppress violent resistance to its laws. It was therefore viewed by the Washington administration as a success, a view that has generally been endorsed by historians. [102] The Washington administration and its supporters usually did not mention, however, that the whiskey excise remained difficult to collect, and that many westerners continued to refuse to pay the tax. [28] The events contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States, a process already underway. [103] The whiskey tax was repealed after Thomas Jefferson 's Republican Party , which opposed the Federalist Party of Hamilton and Washington, came to power in 1800. [104]

The Rebellion raised the question of what kinds of protests were permissible under the new Constitution. Legal historian Christian G. Fritz argued, even after ratification of the Constitution, there was not yet a consensus about sovereignty in the United States. Federalists believed the government was sovereign because it had been established by the people, so radical protest actions, which were permissible during the American Revolution, were no longer legitimate. But the Whiskey Rebels and their defenders believed the Revolution had established the people as a "collective sovereign", and the people had the collective right to change or challenge the government through extraconstitutional means. [105]

Historian Steven Boyd argued that the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion prompted anti-Federalist westerners to finally accept the Constitution, and to seek change by voting for Republicans rather than resisting the government. Federalists, for their part, came to accept that the people could play a greater role in governance. Although Federalists would attempt to restrict speech critical of the government with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, after the Whiskey Rebellion, says Boyd, Federalists no longer challenged the freedom of assembly and the right to petition . [106]

Soon after the Whiskey Rebellion, actress-playwright Susanna Rowson wrote a stage musical about the insurrection entitled "The Volunteers", with music by composer Alexander Reinagle . The play is now lost, but the songs survive, and suggest that Rowson's interpretation was pro-Federalist. The musical celebrated the militiamen who put down the rebellion, the "volunteers" of the title, as American heroes. [107] President Washington and Martha Washington attended a performance of the play in Philadelphia in January 1795. [108]

In L. Neil Smith 's alternate history novel The Probability Broach (1980), Albert Gallatin convinces the militia not to put down the rebellion, but instead to march on the nation's capital, execute George Washington for treason, and replace the Constitution with a revised Articles of Confederation . As a result, the United States becomes a libertarian utopia called the North American Confederacy . [109] [110]

In the satirical novel Joyleg, A Folly by Avram Davidson and Ward Moore , a veteran of both the American Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion is found alive and very well in the Tennessee backwoods, having survived over the centuries by daily soaks in whisky of his own making, to hilariously face the world of the 1960s.

In 2012, Wigle Whiskey , the first distillery in Pittsburgh since Prohibition, was founded. [111] It was named after Philip Wigle. [111]

From 1971 to 1993, the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World in Florida included a section on the Whiskey Rebellion.

How the 18th Century Whiskey Rebellion Changed U.S. Attitudes Toward Revolt

In 1789, America was faced with a debt of $79 million, equivalent to about $2.4 billion today. The cause? The Revolutionary War (1775–1783).

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) suggested that the federal government assume the debt and pay it off through various taxes, like the Excise Whiskey Tax, which passed in 1791.

The legislation taxed domestic and imported alcohol, and it was immediately unpopular in areas like western Pennsylvania. Due to its structure, small producers like grain farmers often had to pay as much as 9 cents ($2.73 today) per gallon, while larger, dedicated distilleries paid as little as 6 cents per gallon ($1.82 today).

Despite the tax, farmers produced whiskey for a number of reasons. Due to the war’s impact on alcohol importation, it was difficult to acquire foreign spirits like rum. Meanwhile, beer was hard to store and transport across the Allegheny Mountains. In contrast, whiskey made from local corn kept well and allowed farmers to do something with surplus corn that would otherwise rot.

A still during the whiskey rebellion / Getty

Tax payments had to be made in cash, but the use of cash was a rarity the further west in Pennsylvania one traveled, where people often paid for goods and services partly or wholly in whiskey. Whiskey was the informal medium of exchange. Many families only saw a few actual dollars during the year and paying the tax in cash could’ve severely impacted their ability to make other cash purchases.

Producers in western Pennsylvania had to ship their whiskey up to 300 miles before they could sell it, which further reduced their revenue. Distilleries located closer to cities didn’t have that extra overhead.

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The tax wasn’t just unpopular due to the financial burden it placed on producers, but the thought of paying a distant sovereign and being dragged 300 miles to stand trial if you refused bore resemblance to the way colonists were treated by England.

Initially, many refused to pay. Some argued that the structure was unfair to smaller producers and that paying in money was too burdensome.

This made tax collection difficult. Famously, on September 11, 1791, Robert Johnson, a tax collector, was tarred and feathered on his collection route in Washington County. Later, John Conner, a cattle driver, tried to collect on the resulting warrants for two men that Johnson recognized during the attack. He was also tarred and feathered before being tied to a tree for several hours.

It came to a head on the morning of July 16, 1794, when a mob surrounded Bower Hill, the home of tax collector John Neville near Pittsburgh. The day prior, Neville had attempted to serve a distiller a summons to appear in court for refusing to pay his tax but was chased off the property. However, one of the soldiers hired to protect his property informed the mob Neville had already fled.

Enraged, the mob called for the soldiers to surrender and when they refused, the group set fire to the property and opened fire on Neville’s home. It was during this skirmish that the mob’s leader, Revolutionary War veteran James McFarlane, was killed.

Further enraged by the death of McFarlane, thousands of men marched toward Pittsburgh to capture the city shortly after the incident at Neville’s home. And while the mob was unsuccessful and the situation was ultimately diffused, government officials in Philadelphia decided something needed to be done about this string of violent events.

President Washington sent state and federal commissioners to try and resolve the situation. But when they failed, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson ruled that Pennsylvania’s western counties were in open rebellion.

Washington summoned more than 12,000 militia members from the surrounding states to fight the rebels.

There was little violence when the two forces met. The majority of the rebels had already dispersed, and only 150 were arrested. Two were charged with treason and sentenced to hang, but they were pardoned eventually by President Washington.

The moment in U.S. history demonstrated that the federal government not only had the support of the state government, but was capable of suppressing armed rebellion.

Many producers still refused to pay the whiskey tax and it was later repealed in 1802 during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Initially opposed to the tax, he used the collection difficulties to help justify its repeal.

What Was the Whiskey Rebellion?

What started as a tax in 1791 led to the Western Insurrection, or better known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting. The Whiskey Rebellion was an armed insurrection against a tax imposed by the federal government on distilled spirits, which, in 18th century America, basically meant whiskey. It took place in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, between 1791 and 1794.

More precisely, The Whiskey Rebellion developed after the First United States Congress, seated at Congress Hall at Sixth and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, passed an excise tax on domestic whiskey on March 3, 1791.

This legislation, pushed through Congress by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), was designed to help pay off state debts assumed by Congress in 1790. The law required citizens to register their stills and pay a tax to a federal commissioner within their region.

The tax that had everyone up in arms was known as “The Whiskey Tax,” and it was charged to producers based on how much whiskey they made.

It was as controversial as it was because it was the first time the newly-formed US government imposed a tax on a domestic good. And since the people the tax hurt the most were many of the same people who had just fought a war to prevent a far-off government from imposing excise taxes on them, the stage was set for a showdown.

Due to its unfair treatment towards small producers, much of the American West resisted the Whiskey Tax, but the people of Western Pennsylvania took things further and forced President George Washington to respond.

This response was sending federal troops to disperse the rebellion, pitting Americans against Americans on the battlefield for the first time as an independent nation.

As a result, the emergence of the Whiskey Rebellion can be seen as a conflict between differing visions Americans had of their new nation in the immediate aftermath of independence. Older accounts of the Whiskey Rebellion portrayed it as being confined to western Pennsylvania, yet there was opposition to the whiskey tax in the western counties of every other state in Appalachia (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).

The Whiskey Rebellion represented the largest organized resistance against federal authority between the American Revolution and the Civil War. A number of the whiskey rebels were prosecuted for treason in what were the first such legal proceedings in the United States.

Its result — a successful suppression on behalf of the federal government — helped shape American history by giving the infant government the chance to assert the power and authority it needed to take on the process of nation building.

But asserting this authority was only necessary because the citizens of Western Pennsylvania chose to shed the blood of government and military officials, which turned the area into a scene of violence for the better part of three years between, 1791–1794.

The Whiskey Rebellion Begins: September 11, 1791

The echoing snap! of a twig sounded in the distance, and a man whirled towards it, breath catching, eyes frantically searching in the darkness. The road he traveled on, which would eventually descend into the settlement known as Pittsburgh, was shrouded by trees, preventing the moon from breaking through to guide him.

Bears, mountain lions, a wide range of beasts all lurked in the woods. He wished that was all he had to fear.

If word got out who he was and why he was traveling, the mob would surely find him.

He probably wouldn’t be killed. But there were worse things.

Another twig. The shadows shifted. Suspicion loomed. Something is out there, he thought, fingers curling into a fist.

He swallowed, the sound of the saliva pushing down his throat echoing in the barren wilderness. After a moment of silence, he continued along the road.

The first high-pitched scream hit his ears, almost throwing him to the ground. It sent a wave of electricity through his entire body, freezing him.

Then they emerged — their faces painted with mud, feathered hats atop their heads, chests bare — howling and banging their weapons together, sending sound far out into the night.

He reached for the pistol strapped to his waist, but one of the men swooped in, grabbing it from his hands before he had a chance to draw it.

“We know who you are!” one of them shouted. His heart stuttered — these were not Indians.

The man who spoke stepped forward, moonlight touching his face through the bows of the trees. “Robert Johnson! Tax collector!” He spat on the ground at his feet.

The men encircling Johnson began to jeer, feral grins smeared across their faces.

Johnson recognized who was speaking. It was Daniel Hamilton, a man who’d grown up near his own childhood home in Philadelphia. And off to the side was his brother, John. He found no other familiar face.

“You’re not welcome here,” Daniel Hamilton snarled. “And we’re going to show you what we do with unwelcome visitors.”

This must have been the signal, for as soon as Hamilton stopped speaking, the men descended, their knives drawn, lugging forward a steaming cauldron. It bubbled a hot, black tar, and the sharp scent of sulphur cut through the crisp forest air.

When the crowd finally dispersed, traveling into the darkness once again, their laughter echoing, Johnson was left on the road by himself. His flesh seared in agony, feathers soldered to his bare skin. Everything pulsed red, and when he drew breath, the motion, the pull, was excruciating.

Hours later, accepting no one was coming — either to his aid or to further torment him — he got up, beginning to limp slowly towards town.

Once there, he would report what had happened, and then he would issue his immediate resignation from the post of tax collector in Western Pennsylvania.

Violence Intensifies Throughout 1792

Before this attack on Robert Johnson, the people of the West sought to have the Whiskey Tax repealed using diplomatic avenues, i.e. petitioning their representatives in Congress, but few politicians cared much about the issues of the poor, unrefined frontier-folk.

The East was where the money was — as well as the votes — and so the laws coming out of New York reflected these interests, with those not willing to abide by these laws deserving to be punished in the eyes of Easterners.

So, a federal marshall was sent to Pittsburgh to issue arrest warrants to those known to have been involved in the brutal assault against the tax collector.

However, this marshall, along with the man who served as his guide through the backwoods of Western Pennsylvania, suffered a similar fate as Robert Johnson, the first man who tried to collect this tax, making the intentions of the frontier folk quite clear — diplomacy was over.

Either the excise tax would be repealed or blood would be shed.

This violent response hearkened to the days of the American Revolution, the memories of which were still very fresh for the majority of people living in the newly-born US at this time.

During the era of insurrection against the British Crown, rebellious colonists frequently burned British officials in effigy (dummies made to look like real people) and would often take things even further — tar-and-feathering those they deemed evil representatives of the tyrant King George.

Tar-and-feathering is exactly what it sounds like. An angry mob would find their target, beat them, and then pour hot tar over their body, tossing on feathers as their flesh bubbled so as to burn them to the skin.

(During the American Revolution, the wealthy aristocrats in charge of the revolt against the British government had made use of this rampant mob mentality in the colonies to build an army to fight for freedom. But now — as leaders of an independent nation — they found themselves responsible for suppressing this very same mob that had helped them into their position of power. Just one of the many wonderful paradoxes in American history.)

Despite this barbarity on the Western frontier, it would take time for the government to carry out a more aggressive response to the attack on the marshall and other federal officials.

George Washington, the president at the time, didn’t want to resort to using force just yet, despite the fact Alexander Hamilton — the Secretary of Treasury, a member of the Constitutional Convention, a man known to be loud and outspoken about his opinions, and one of his closest advisors — was strongly urging him to do so.

As a result, over the course of 1792, mobs, left to their own free will thanks to the absence of federal authority, continued to intimidate federal officials sent to Pittsburgh and the surrounding area on business related to the Whiskey Tax. And, for the few collectors that managed to escape the violence intended for them, they found it nearly impossible to obtain the money.

The stage was set for an epic showdown between the United States citizens and the United States government.

The Insurgents Force Washington’s Hand in 1793

Throughout 1793, resistance movements sprung up in response to the Whiskey Tax across nearly the entire frontier territory, which at the time was made up of western Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Kentucky, as well as the areas that would later turn into Alabama and Arkansas.

In Western Pennsylvania, the movement against the tax was the most organized, but, perhaps because of the territory’s proximity to Philadelphia and abundant farmland, it was confronted by an increasing number of wealthy, Eastern Federalists — who had moved west for the cheap land and resources — who wanted to see the excise tax imposed.

Some of them wanted it because they were in fact “big” producers, and therefore had something to gain from the law’s enactment, which charged them less than those who ran a whiskey still out of their home. They could sell their whiskey for cheaper, thanks to a lower tax, and undercut and consume the market.

Native American tribes also presented a great threat to settler safety on the frontier, and many felt that growing a strong government — with a military — was the only way to achieve peace and bring prosperity to the then unruly West, hopefully bringing order to the region.

In this vision, they supported General John Neville, a senior officer in the army and one of the wealthiest men in the Pittsburgh area at the time, in his job of overseeing the collection of the Whiskey Tax in Western Pennsylvania.

But Neville was in danger. Despite the existence of a strong movement in favor of the tax by 1793, he was often burned in effigy at protests and riots in the area speaking out against the tax. Something that would make even a stoic Revolutionary War general’s knees tremble.

Then, in 1794, the federal courts issued subpoenas (official summons by Congress that must be obeyed or else you go to jail) to a large number of distilleries in Pennsylvania for not complying with the Whiskey Tax.

This outraged Westerners to no end, and they could see that the federal government was not going to listen to them. They were being given no choice but to do their duty as citizens of a republic by standing up to this perceived tyranny.

And because Western Pennsylvania had a strong group in support of the excise tax, there were plenty of targets for the rebels to set in their sights.

The Battle of Bower Hill

It’d been nearly an hour since word had reached John Neville — an armed mob of over three hundred, so organized it could be called a militia, was headed towards his home, which he’d proudly named Bower Hill.

His wife and children were hiding deep inside the house. His slaves were stowed in their quarters, ready for orders.

The din of the advancing crowd was growing louder, and when he peered out his window, he could see the first row of men already well onto his 1,000 acre property, within firing range of his home.

He was an experienced war general, having fought first for the British and later for the United States Patriots under George Washington.

Stepping out onto his porch, musket loaded and cocked, he stood defiantly atop the stairs.

“Stand down!” he yelled, and the heads of the front line lifted to look. “You are trespassing on private property and threatening the safety of an officer of the United States Army. Stand down!”

The crowd drew closer — there was no doubt they could hear him — and he yelled out, once again. They didn’t stop.

Eyes narrowing, Neville drew his musket, took aim at the first man he could see within reasonable distance, and jerked the trigger back. The resounding CRACK! thundered through the air, and an instant later, through the lingering smoke, he saw his target hit the ground, the man’s pained scream almost drowned by the crowd’s surprised and outraged shouts.

Wasting not a second, Neville spun on his heel and slid back into the house, closing and bolting the door.

The mob, now provoked, paid him no attention. They marched forward, fuming for revenge, the ground shaking beneath their boots.

The blare of a horn trilled over the cacophonous thud of their march, the source a mystery, causing some to look around in bewilderment.

Flashes of light and loud bangs splintered the still air.

Unmistakable yells of pain halted the mob in its tracks. Orders were shouted from all directions, tangling together in the confusion.

Muskets drawn, the men scanned the building where the shots seemed to sound from, waiting for the slightest movement to fire upon.

In one of the windows, a man pivoted into view and fired all in one motion. He missed his target, but was followed by countless others who had better aim.

Those whose death had whistled by yet again tripped in their haste to turn and run, hoping to get out of range before the home’s defenders had time to reload.

After the crowd dispersed, ten Black men emerged from the small building located next to Neville’s home.

“Masta’!” one of them yelled out. “It’s safe now! They gone. It’s safe.”

Neville emerged, leaving his family inside to survey the scene. Working hard to see through the looming musket smoke, he watched the invaders disappearing over the hill on the other side of the road.

He exhaled heavily, smiling at the success of his plan, but this moment of peace soon slipped away. He knew this was not the end.

The mob, which had been expecting to secure an easy victory, was left wounded and defeated. But they knew they still had the advantage, and they regrouped to bring the fight back to Neville. People nearby were outraged that federal officials had fired on regular citizens, and many of them joined the group for the second round of the Battle of Bower Hill.

When the mob returned to Neville’s home the next day, they were more than 600 strong and were ready for a fight.

Before the conflict resumed, the leaders of both sides agreed, in a most gentlemanly move, to allow the women and children to leave the house. Once they were to safety, the men began raining fire upon one another.

At some point, as the story goes, the rebel leader, Revolutionary War veteran James McFarlane, put up a ceasefire flag, which Neville’s defenders — now including a whopping ten US soldiers from nearby Pittsburgh — seemed to honor as they stopped shooting.

When McFarlane stepped out from behind a tree, someone from the house shot him, mortally wounding the rebel leader.

Immediately interpreted as murder, the rebels resumed the attack on Neville’s home, setting fire to its many cabins and advancing on the main house itself. Overwhelmed, Neville and his men had no other choice but to surrender.

Once having captured their enemies, the rebels took Neville and several other officers prisoner, and then sent the rest of the people defending the property away.

But what felt like a victory would soon not seem so sweet, as such violence was sure to catch the eye of those watching from the nation’s capital in New York City.

A March on Pittsburgh

By framing McFarlane’s death as a murder and coupling that with people’s increasing discontent for the Whiskey Tax — which many saw as an attempt by another aggressive, authoritarian government, different only in name from the tyrannical British Crown that had ruled the lives of colonists only a handlful of years before — the rebel movement in Western Pennsylvania was able to attract even more supporters.

Through August and September, the Whiskey Rebellion spread from Western Pennsylvania into Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina , and Georgia with rebels harassing whiskey tax collectors. They increased the size of their force from 600 at Bower Hill to more than 7,000 within just a month. They set their sights on Pittsburgh — recently incorporated as an official municipality that was becoming a trading center in Western Pennsylvania with a strong contingent of Easterners who supported the tax — as a good first target.

By August 1, 1794, they were outside the city, on Braddock Hill, ready to do whatever it took to show the folks in New York who was in charge.

However, a generous gift from the scared and desperate citizens of Pittsburgh who had not yet fled, which included copious barrels of whiskey, stalled the attack. What started as a tense morning that led many Pittsburgh residents to come to terms with their own deaths dissipated into a peaceful calm.

The plan worked, and the citizens of Pittsburgh survived to live another day.

The next morning, a delegation from the city approached the mob and expressed support for their struggle, helping to diffuse tensions and reduce the attack to a peaceful march through town.

Moral of the story: Nothing like free whiskey to calm everyone down.

More meetings took place to discuss what to do, and secession from Pennsylvania — which would give the frontier-folk representation Congress — was discussed. Many also threw out the idea of seceding from the United States as a whole, making the West its own country or even a territory of either Great Britain or Spain (the latter of which, at the time, controlled the territory west of the Mississippi).

That these options were on the table demonstrates how disconnected the people of the West felt from the rest of the country, and why they resorted to such violent measures.

However, this violence also made it crystal clear to George Washington that diplomacy simply would not work. And since allowing the frontier to secede would cripple the United States — mainly by proving its weakness to the other European powers in the area and by restricting its ability to use the bountiful resources of the West for its economic growth — George Washington had no choice but to listen to the advice Alexander Hamilton had been giving him for years.

He summoned the United States Army and set it on the people for the first time in American history.

Washington Responds

However, while George Washington likely knew he would need to respond with force, he made one last-ditch effort to solve the conflict peacefully. He sent a “peace delegation” to “negotiate” with the rebels.

Turns out this delegation didn’t present peace terms that could be discussed. It dictated them. Each town was instructed to pass a resolution — in public referendum — showing a commitment to ending all violence and complying with the laws of the United States government. In doing this, the government would generously provide them with amnesty for all the trouble they’d caused in the previous three years.

No indication was made of a desire to talk about the citizen’s primary demand: the unfairness of the Whiskey Tax.

Still, this plan was somewhat successful as some townships in the area chose and were able to pass these resolutions. But many more continued to resist, carrying on with their violent protests and attacks on federal officials eliminating all of George Washington’s hopes for peace and giving him no other choice but to finally follow Alexander Hamilton’s plan of using military force.

Federal Troops Descend on Pittsburgh

Calling on the power given to him by the Militia Act of 1792, George Washington summoned a militia from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey, quickly amassing a force of around 12,000 men, many of whom were veterans of the American Revolution.

The Whiskey Rebellion proved to be the first, and only, time in American history during which the constitutional Commander-in-Chief accompanied the Army in the field as it prepared to move against the enemy.

In September of 1794, this large militia began marching west, pursuing rebels and arresting them when they were caught.

Seeing such a large force of federal troops, many of the rebels scattered throughout Western Pennsylvania began dispersing into the hills, fleeing arrest and an impending trial in Philadelphia.

The Whiskey Rebellion trickled to a halt without much bloodshed. There were only two fatalities in western Pennsylvania, both of them accidental—one boy was shot by a soldier whose gun went off accidentally, and a drunken rebel supporter was stabbed with a bayonet while resisting arrest.

A total of twenty people were caught during this march, and they were tried for treason. Just two were convicted, but they were later pardoned by President Washington — it was widely known these convicts had nothing to do with the Whiskey rebellion, but the government needed to make an example of someone.

After this, the violence was essentially brought to an end the response from George Washington had proven that there was little hope of making change by fighting. The tax still remained impossible to collect, though residents stopped physically harming those who made an attempt to do so. Federal officials also backed off, recognizing a lost cause.

However, despite the decision to back down, the movement in the West against the imposing government of the East remained an important part of frontier psyche and symbolized a powerful division in United States politics.

The nation was split between those who wanted a small, consolidated country powered by industry and ruled by a powerful government, and those who wanted a large, Westward-expanding, sprawling nation held together by the hard work of farmers and artisans.

The Whiskey Rebellion ended not because of the threat posed by Alexander Hamilton’s army, but because many of the concerns of the frontiersmen were finally addressed.

This division would go on to have a profound impact in American history . Westward expansion forced Americans to ask difficult questions about the purpose of government and the role it should play in people’s lives, and the ways in which people have answered these questions helped to shape the nation’s identity — both in its early stages and the present day.

In 1791, the federal government imposed a tax on distilled spirits to pay off the nation’s debts from the American Revolution. The tax, which was payable only in cash, was particularly hard on small frontier farmers, who bartered and did not have access to hard currency.

Protests occurred in every state south of New York. By 1794, western Pennsylvanians had had enough. Frontiersmen marched on Pittsburgh to stop collection of the tax. In July, rebels near Pittsburgh set fire to the home of John Neville, the regional tax collection supervisor. Determined to set a precedent for the federal government’s authority, President George Washington gathered an army of 12,000 militiamen to disperse the rebels. The uprising collapsed, and the new government demonstrated that it would enforce laws enacted by Congress. This was the first use of the Militia Acts of 1792, which allowed the president to call the state militia into federal service "whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings."

In this letter, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who had been given command of the army by Washington, reports to Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania that it is

indispensable and urgent to press forward the forces destined to act against the Insurgents with all possible activity and Energy. The advanced season leaves no time to spare, and it is extremely important to afford speedy protection to the well disposed, and to prevent the preparation and accumulation of greater means of Resistance, and the extension of Combinations to abet the Insurrection

and orders Mifflin "to act against the insurgents with all possible activity and Energy."

A full transcript is available.


War Department
Sept. 20 th 1794

The Intelligence received from the Western Counties of Pennsylvania, which comes down to the 13th Ins t ., and announces a far as it was then known, the result of the meetings of the People in the several Townships, and districts to express their sense on the Question of submission or resistance to the Laws. - while it shews a great proportion of the Inhabitants of those Counties disposed to pursue the path of Duty, shews also, that there is a large and violent Party which can only be controuled by the application of Force – This being the result, it is become the more indispensable and urgent to press forward the forces destined to act against the Insurgents with all possible activity and Energy. The advanced season leaves no time to spare, and it is extremely important to afford speedy protection to the well disposed, and to prevent the preparation and accumulation of greater means of Resistance, and the extension of Combinations to abet the Insurrection—The President counts upon every exertion on your part, which so serious and eventful an emergency demands.

With perfect respect,
I have the honor to be
Your obed t . Serv t .
Alexander Hamilton

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