Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania: The Whiskey Rebellion

April 27th, 2011

One of the more interesting events in the history of the War Department during the Washington administration was the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion.” In 1791 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton helped push through an excise tax on whiskey. The tax was part of Hamilton’s broader program of centralizing the power of the national government and finding a way to pay bondholders to whom the national debt was owed (also a major part of Hamilton’s program).

Hamilton believed the tax on whiskey to be a “luxury tax,” even though whiskey was consumed by many lower-income laborers and farmers, especially on the frontier. Whiskey even served as a medium of exchange in some areas of the frontier where money was scarce, and opponents of the new tax rightly argued that it targeted the poor while relieving wealthier easterners from taxation. Whiskey was a way to relax after a hard day’s work, and the rebels rightly questioned why it had been acceptable for them to resist British taxation, yet unacceptable to resist a similar mode of taxation from an already-unpopular national government – a tax that was arguably as unjust, if not moreso.

In response to the tax, western Pennsylvanians beginning in 1791 petitioned the government, formed formal assemblies and conventions, elected committees of correspondence, raised liberty poles, and tried other forms of non-violent resistance. As these efforts floundered, however, the westerners became more restless. A whiskey tax collector was tarred and feathered, anti-tax groups organized local militias, local courts refused to indict violators, and anti-tax sentiment soon spread to the surrounding states of Maryland, Virginia, and even as far south as the Carolinas and Georgia. By 1794 there was a full-on insurrection when a federal judge ordered “illegal” distillers to appear in court. By summer 1794 radical leaders began urging violent resistance against a national government that they believed had become as illegitimate as the former British government. Some rebels even began drawing parallels to their movement and the French Revolution.

In a letter to President Washington, Secretary Hamilton in detail described the attack on the tax collector, Robert Wilson: “stripped of his Cloaths which were afterwards burnt, and after having been himself inhumanly burnt in several places with a heated Iron was tarred and feathered – and about day light dismissed – naked wounded and otherwise in a very suffering condition.”

The government’s August 2 conference on the Whiskey Rebellion was quite interesting. In attendance was Washington, his Cabinet, the Governor of Pennsylvania, and other officials. President Washington interpreted the rebellion to be a grave threat, arguing that it could mean “an end to our Constitution and laws.” Washington advocated “the most spirited and firm measures,” but held back on what that meant exactly. Thomas McKean, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, however, warned that the use of military force by the national government – especially excessive force – “would be as bad as anything that the Rioters had done, equally unconstitutional and illegal.” McKean argued that the matter should be left up to the courts, not the military, to prosecute and punish the rebels. Alexander Hamilton, naturally, insisted upon the “propriety of an immediate resort to Military force.”

Throughout the entire ordeal, however, Washington proceeded cautiously, as he did not wish to exceed his constitutional authorities, and was opposed to using excessive military force on the American people, even those who were rebelling. Hamilton continually pushed for harsher measures. Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, meanwhile, urged that Washington resist the use of military force, and instead send commissioner to reconcile with the rebels. Washington did both, sending commissioners as he raised a militia army numbering around 12,000, and hailing from Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey.

On September 18, 1794, Hamilton informed the Governor of Maryland that while “a great proportion of the inhabitants” are non-violent and wish to avoid the insurgency, “there is a large and violent party which can only be controuled by the application of Force.” Five days later the Governor wrote back, gleefully announcing that “the opposition to the Government in this State is entirely crushed without the loss of one Life.”

In the aftermath of the rebellion, Hamilton pushed for harsher punitive measures, while Washington desired softer measures. A federal grand jury indicted 24 rebels for high treason, but most had successfully fled and so only 10 rebels showed up in court. Of these, only two rebels were convicted. Both of these convicted rebels were sentenced to death, but PARDONED by President Washington. In 1800 after the Jeffersonian revolution supplanted the Hamiltonian era, the whiskey tax was finally repealed.

The Whiskey Rebellion was important in many respects. First it strengthened the national government and showed that anyone who revolted would be met with military force. But secondly, it showed the caution and wisdom of President Washington. Washington did not wish to embark on a rash, violent, military excursion, yet still showed a powerful hand. Washington’s force also managed to avoid violence. Finally, Washington remarkably pardoned the two convicted rebels (could you imagine a modern-day president ever pardoning a rebel against the federal government?!).

There are many more documents in the War Department Papers on the Whiskey Rebellion, particularly from the summer of 1794 to the fall of that same year, and we invite you to look at them yourself.