Whiskey Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A group of dissidents in western Pennsylvania, unwilling to pay a tax on whiskey, engaged in violent protests and attacks upon tax collectors. The response of the federal government demonstrated its willingness and ability to use military force to enforce unpopular laws.

Summary of Event

Two of the more pressing and difficult problems that confronted George Washington’s administration involved paying the nation’s debt and maintaining the loyalty of the West to the United States. These two issues became one during the Whiskey Rebellion crisis. [kw]Whiskey Rebellion (July-Nov., 1794) [kw]Rebellion, Whiskey (July-Nov., 1794) Taxation;United States Whiskey Rebellion (1794) [g]United States;July-Nov., 1794: Whiskey Rebellion[3140] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July-Nov., 1794: Whiskey Rebellion[3140] [c]Government and politics;July-Nov., 1794: Whiskey Rebellion[3140] [c]Economics;July-Nov., 1794: Whiskey Rebellion[3140] Wilson, James Washington, George [p]Washington, George;Whiskey Rebellion Hamilton, Alexander Mifflin, Thomas McKean, Thomas

Problems in the West were largely the product of inadequate security and defense against the resident Native American nations and their European allies. Prior to Jay’s Treaty (1794)[Jays Treaty] Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain and Pinckney’s Treaty (1795)[Pinckneys Treaty] Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain in the mid-1790’s, much of the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys was claimed or occupied by Great Britain and Spain. Both nations apparently encouraged constant Native American attacks against American settlers in the vast region, and Washington’s government seemed incapable of containing the hostilities. Settlement was thus retarded, western dissatisfaction was aggravated, and foreign powers were encouraged to bring about the separation of the American West from the United States.

Economic conditions also played an important role in the western problems. High transportation Transportation;U.S. agriculture[US] costs compelled Western farmers to ship their bulky produce down the Ohio and Mississippi river systems to the Gulf of Mexico. The overland freight rates charged for hauling goods eastward over the mountains were prohibitive. If the western portions of the nation were to grow economically, not only would the federal government have to exert itself militarily against the Native Americans but also it would have to secure from European governments free navigation as far as the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The economic program proposed by Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury, compounded the western problems. His plan called for the national government to assume and fund all remaining federal and state Revolutionary War debts. Despite stiff southern opposition, Hamilton successfully steered his program through Congress. However, upon assuming the debt, Hamilton had to devise a way to pay the enormous new liability. The solution included levying a tax. Upon Hamilton’s advice, one of the first taxes legislated was an excise tax on distilled whiskey.

Although the excise legislation was quickly approved by Congress, Hamilton’s political adversaries immediately launched a campaign against the tax. Southern reaction was particularly negative. Critics of the plan, including Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;Whiskey Rebellion Thomas Jefferson, protested that the tax would reward special interests at the expense of small farmers in the West. One Georgia congressman predicted that violence would follow if federal officials attempted to collect the tax.

The proposed tax also was vigorously censured by many settlers west of the Appalachians. Whiskey was an important source of income and a major export product in the West, especially in western Pennsylvania. Farmers found it almost impossible to haul grain to eastern markets because of transportation costs. Instead, grain had to be converted into a form less bulky and more valuable in proportion to its weight. One such form was livestock, which could be driven to market, but this was an arduous and risky business. Another, less difficult form to transport was grain converted into distilled spirits. Whiskey could be carried profitably from western farmsteads to eastern markets. For many west of the Appalachians, Hamilton’s tax threatened to eliminate whiskey profits. The excise equaled 25 percent of whiskey’s retail value, which was more than enough to wipe out a frontier farmer’s whiskey earnings.

Western resentments were further aroused by the appointment of federal tax collectors. Of particular concern were stipulations within the tax legislation that distillers charged with evading the excise were to be tried in federal courts located in the East. Westerners resented the interference in their economic life and were especially antagonistic toward the excise agents. Western settlers placed no special trust or faith in the national government, located as it was in the East and representing, in the minds of many westerners, a challenge to individual freedoms won during the Revolutionary War.

The most threatening protest to the legislation came in western Pennsylvania. Upon learning that the whiskey tax had been passed by Congress, some western Pennsylvanians, led by men such as James Wilson, initiated a series of meetings designed to organize resistance. Local protest groups similar to those created during the American Revolution soon were established. Although most opposition was limited to petitions and demonstrations, in a few instances violence erupted. In one episode in September, 1791, shortly after passage of the tax, an eager excise inspector in the Pittsburgh area was tarred and feathered by a mob of protesters. Several other states also encountered minor disturbances during the first months after passage of the whiskey tax. However, between late 1791 and mid-1794, the resistance, for the most part, remained peaceful.

In July, 1794, after almost three years of protest, peaceful resistance erupted into open rebellion. In one encounter, an armed mob, after a shoot-out with federal troops, attacked and burned the home of the excise inspector of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. This act of defiance was followed in August by a mass meeting at Braddock’s Field and a march to Pittsburgh. In another incident, approximately one hundred angry farmers assaulted a U.S. marshal as he attempted to serve summonses to delinquent taxpayers. In the days that followed, other tax collectors were assaulted, several buildings were burned, and mobs openly roamed through the western Pennsylvania countryside, threatening all who supported the tax.

The turmoil in western Pennsylvania was of grave concern to many, but especially to President Washington. Adding to his alarm was his government’s general ineffectiveness at resolving other western problems. Federal efforts to pacify local Native Americans had usually been thwarted, while the British and Spanish influence over the tribes grew stronger. The United States remained no closer to securing the evacuation of the British from the Northwest than it had been immediately after the Revolutionary War. Nor was Washington’s administration any closer to freeing navigation along the Mississippi River than it had been five years earlier. With so little success at resolving the western issues, some feared that if left unattended, the West might attempt to leave the union of states and create a country of its own. Such a turn of events would be disastrous for the nation as a whole.

Angry whiskey distillers in the American West, especially western Pennsylvania, protested against a federal government excise tax on whiskey, setting off three years of action that culminated in open rebellion and physical attacks in July of 1794. U.S. president George Washington responded by amassing more than twelve thousand troops to quell the rebellion, which faded upon seeing the force.

(C.A. Nichols & Company)

To end the rebellion, President Washington, acting upon reports from state and federal authorities in Pennsylvania, moved swiftly. After issuing a presidential proclamation, Washington called upon several neighboring states to furnish the federal government with a combined force of more than twelve thousand men. Leading the army as far as the Appalachians, the president prepared to do battle with the rebels if necessary. However, the anticipated opposition disappeared at the sight of Washington’s troops. The army encountered only citizens who pronounced themselves loyal to the United States. Even a few known protest leaders reversed themselves when confronted by Washington and his men. With the situation apparently under control, the president placed Alexander Hamilton in command and returned east. In short order, Hamilton rounded up 150 suspected rebels and sent 20 back to Philadelphia for trial. Two of Hamilton’s captives were convicted of treason, but both soon were pardoned by the president.

Significance

While the potentially explosive episode ended with a whimper, effects of the rebellion were profound. For the first time in the nation’s history, the federal government had used force to ensure that its laws were obeyed. The rebellion also generated important philosophical opposition to the Washington administration and to Federalists, specifically. By 1796, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party was deeply entrenched in western Pennsylvania. In 1799, the Republican chief justice, Thomas McKean, was elected governor, unseating Governor Thomas Mifflin, who had governed the state during the rebellion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brunhouse, Robert L. The Counter-revolution in Pennsylvania, 1776-1790. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1942. Writing from an economic perspective, the author describes the partisan struggles within Pennsylvania immediately prior to the Whiskey Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clouse, Jerry A. The Whiskey Rebellion: Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Frontier People Test the American Constitution. Harrisburg: Bureau of Historic Preservation, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1994. A brief history of the rebellion and a description of the buildings associated with it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferguson, Russell J. Early Western Pennsylvania Politics. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1938. Describes Pennsylvania politics and party development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Focuses on the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian philosophies as they applied to the Whiskey Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, John. The Federalist Era, 1789-1801. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960. Provides a concise description of the Whiskey Rebellion, paying particular attention to the effects of U.S. foreign policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slaughter, Thomas. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Provides a thorough analysis of the events and motives involved in the Whiskey Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Chris. Character: Profiles in Presidential Courage. New York: Rugged Land, 2004. Describes sixteen notable acts of presidential courage, including George Washington’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion.

Stamp Act Crisis

Boston Tea Party

Declaration of Independence

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Washington’s Inauguration

First U.S. Political Parties

Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit

Little Turtle’s War

Battle of Fallen Timbers

Jay’s Treaty

Pinckney’s Treaty

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