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September 1, 1794 - The Whiskey Rebellion occurs when western Pennsylvania farmers in the Monongahela Valley, upset over the liquor tax passed in 1791, are suppressed by 15,000 militia sent by Alexander Hamilton to establish the authority of the federal government to uphold its laws.
There's always been a problem with taxation, on how it affects certain segments of the population. That was true with a tax on tea that prompted the American Revolution, and it was true five years into the first presidency of George Washington, when farmers in western Pennsylvania decided that the liquor tax was unfair.
The tax was passed in 1791, the first tax on a domestic product, and it applied to all distilled liquor, although the rebellion and tax became known predominantly as the whiskey tax due to the popularity of the drink. Western farmers, including many veterans of the war for independence, opposed it on grounds that the federal government, without local input, was imposing a tax without representation. Of course, Congress thought, with the powers invested in them to tax in the Constitution, that they were within their powers.
The Articles of Confederation had no powers to tax, and thus debt had accrued during the revolution and subsequent years to $54 million by the time the Constitution and first president were inaugurated in 1789. With state debt added in and coupled together into a federal debit, it amounted to $79 million. The current import duties were not going to be enough to pay the debt down, and thus, Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on distilled spirits. It became law in March 1791.
Immediate controversy began with many large eastern distillers at a distinct advantage over their western small still farmers. Since the large distillers could pay per a large volume by a flat fee, which the small western distillers could not, they were effectively paying a lower rate. At first, the western farmers harassed tax collectors or just refused to pay. By September, the harassment had escalated, with a new tax collector tarred and feathered, and lack of collection ensueing through the beginning of 1792. At second, the farmers banned together to lobby Congress, which worked in May 1792 to reduce the tax by 1 cent per gallon, but not repeal it.
The farmers were not satisfied, calling a second convention in Pittsburgh for August, with more radical results. Liberty poles were raised. Local militia were taken over. Hamilton saw these acts as a considerable threat. After a report by Tax Collector George Clymer about the Pennsylvania problem, Hamilton convinced George Washington to sign a presidential proclamation on September 15, 1792.
Presidential Proclamation, September 15, 1792
PROCLAMATION. Whereas certain violent and warrantable proceedings have lately taken place tending to obstruct the operation of the laws of the United States for raising a revenue upon spirits distilled within the same, enacted pursuant to express authority delegated in the Constitution of the United States, which proceedings are subversive of good order, contrary to the duty that every citizen owes to his country and to the laws, and of a nature dangerous to the very being of a government; and
Whereas such proceedings are the more unwarrantable by reason of the moderation which has been heretofore shown on the part of the Government and of the disposition which has been manifested by the Legislature (who alone have authority to suspend the operation of laws) to obviate causes of objection and to render the laws as acceptable as possible; and
Whereas it is the particular duty of the Executive "to take care that the laws be faithfully executed," and not only that duty but the permanent interests and happiness of the people require that every legal and necessary step should be pursued as well to prevent such violent and unwarrantable proceedings as to bring to justice the infractors of the laws and secure obedience thereto:
Now, therefore, I, George Washington, President of the United States, do by these presents most earnestly admonish and exhort all persons whom it may concern to refrain and desist from all unlawful combinations and proceedings whatsoever having for object or tending to obstruct the operation of the laws aforesaid, inasmuch as all lawful ways and means will be strictly put in execution for bringing to justice the infractors thereof and securing obedience thereto.
And I do moreover charge and require all courts, magistrates, and officers whom it may concern, according to the duties of their several offices, to exert the powers in them respectively vested by law for the purposes aforesaid, hereby also enjoining and requiring all persons whomsoever, as they tender the welfare of their country, the just and due authority of Government, and the preservation of the public peace, to be aiding and assisting therein according to law.
In testimony whereof I have caused the seal of the United States to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. [SEAL.] Done this 15th of September, A. D. 1792, and of the Independence of the United States the seventeenth.
The Proclamation Leads to Insurrection
Although the western Pennsylvania counties were not the only counties or states where the Whiskey tax was fought, it became the focus of attempting collection. This failed, for the most part, throughout 1793, up and down Appalachia, but especially in Pennsylvania. On November, 22, 1793, a tax collector in Fayette County, Benjamin Wells, was forced at gunpoint to surrender his commission. Washington ordered the assailants caught. They avoided capture.
By May of 1794, non payment was no longer going to be tolerated. Federal District Attorney William Rawle issued sixty subpoenas to distillers in western Pennsylvania who had not paid. They would be forced to appear in Federal Court three hundred miles away in Philadelphia. A number of the farmers would not accept that mandate and the expensive trip east. Battles ensued at Bower Hill on July 16-17 between Federal marshals and the rebels, on the second day six hundred strong and led by American Revolution Major James McFarlane. When the federal marshals seemed to indicate surrender, McFarlane stepped into the open and was shot.
The moderates in the Whiskey Rebellion were enraged and gathered seven thousand strong on Braddock's Field, (see engraving above) site of the former Battle of the Monongahela during the French and Indian War on July 9, 1755. This meeting on August 1, 1794 was not only of the whiskey farmers, but also included the poor citizens of the region who felt pushed down by the federal government. Violence was advocated, but was diffused. A march on Pittsburgh came with only a few barns burned, and another convention held at Whiskey Point on August 14, where peace and revolt were discussed.
Washington remained perplexed by the mounting insurrection. Most of his cabinet wanted him to use force to stop it. Washington chose to send a peace delegation, but also began raising a militia to suppress it. By September 1, Washington, through another proclamation, commanded that the rebels disperse or they would be suppressed by the national militia.
Presidential Proclamation, August 7, 1794
BY AUTHORITY 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.
G. WASHINGTON, By the President
Armed Suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion
Three commissioners were sent to Western Pennsylvania; Attorney General William Bradford, Justice Jasper Yeates of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and Senator James Ross, to negotiate peace and meet with the rebels. On August 21, the negotiations began. The rebels must denounce violence, submit to U.S. laws, and hold a referendum. If done, there would be amnesty. With mixed results and a small majority, the terms were agreed upon. When some areas still held out for rebellion, the commissioners recommended the militia be sent to cause the rebels to submit to federal authority.
The federal militia of 12,950 men, plus state militias, were sent. By October, George Washington joined them on the field. With this action, he became the only sitting United States President to lead troops on the field. With the amount of force shown by Federal authorities, and led by former American Revolution heroes General Light-Horse Harry Lee and Daniel Morgan, the insurrection stopped. Through 1795, a force of twelve hundred soldiers would remain under Morgan to keep the peace. Some of the rebels were brought to trial with two convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. Both men were pardoned by Washington.
So what did the Whiskey Rebellion prove? That the federal government had the power to tax its citizens, and in some ways, that the citizens would not like it, although there was a limit to the way they could protest it and that protest could not include violence. If it did, the power of the federal government would contain it. In 1802, Congress repealed the whiskey tax under the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, and went back to import taxes to fund the government.
Photo above: Scene of site of the meeting of Whiskey Rebels and Pennsylvania Militia on march to Pittsburgh, August 1, 1794, 1908, A.W. Graham engraving of painting by Paul Weber. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Thomas Gaddis house, known as Fort Gaddis, Fayette Country, site of Liberty Pole rallying point for Rebels during Whiskey Rebellion, date unknown. Historic American Buildings Survey courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents Prepared under the direction of the Joint Committee on printing, of the House and Senate Pursuant to an Act of the Fifty-Second Congress of the United States. New York : Bureau of National Literature, Inc., 1897 via the Avalon Project, Yale University Law School; Friendship Hill, National Park Service; Wikipedia Commons.