Whiskey Rebellion
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Whiskey Rebellion

WHISKEY REBELLION

In 1794 thousands of farmers in western Pennsylvania took up arms in opposition to the enforcement of a federal law calling for the imposition of an excise tax on distilled spirits. Known as the "Whiskey Rebellion," this insurrection 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.

Congress established the excise tax in 1791 to help reduce the $54 million national debt. The tax was loathed across the country. For a small group of farmers west of the Allegheny Mountains, the federal excise tax was singularly detestable. Bartering was the chief means of exchange in this frontier economy, and distilled spirits were the most commonly traded commodity. Cash was a disfavored currency in western Pennsylvania during the late eighteenth century, but whiskey, especially Monongahela Rye, was as valuable as gold. Whiskey was considered an all-purpose liquor, with locals using it for cooking and medicine, and drinking it at social occasions, among other uses.

By modern standards the excise tax of 1791 does not seem oppressive. Distillers were taxed based on the size of their stills. Stills with the capacity to annually produce at least 400 gallons of whiskey were taxed between 7 and 18 cents a gallon, depending on the proof of the liquor. Distillers who made stronger whiskey paid a higher tax. Smaller stills were taxed at a rate of 10 cents for every month a still was in operation, or 7 cents for every gallon produced, whichever was lower. Based on these rates, the average distiller was required to pay only a few dollars in liquor tax each year. But even an annual tax of $5 would have consumed a large percentage of the disposable income earned by farmers in the barter-based economy of western Pennsylvania.

The rebellion began in Pittsburgh during October of 1791 when a group of disguised farmers snatched a federal tax collector from his bed, and marched him five miles to a blacksmith shop where they stripped him of his clothes, and burned him with a poker. Over the next three years dozens of tax collectors were beaten, shot at, tarred and feathered, and otherwise terrorized, intimidated, and humiliated. The home and plantation of John Neville, the chief tax collector for southwestern Pennsylvania, were burned to the ground.

By 1794 the excise tax lay largely uncollected in western Pennsylvania. The national debt was rising, and respect for federal authority was waning. Rebel forces had swelled to 5,000. In October President george washington dispatched 15,000 troops to quell the resistance. Led by alexander hamilton, Washington's secretary of state, the federal troops met little opposition. Within a month, most of the rebels had dispersed, disavowed their cause, or left the state. Keeping a few soldiers in western Pennsylvania to maintain order, the federal army departed for Philadelphia, having arrested more than 150 people suspected of criminal activity.

In May of 1795 the Circuit Court for the Federal District of Pennsylvania indicted thirty-five defendants for an assortment of crimes associated with the Whiskey Rebellion. One of the defendants died before trial began, one defendant was released because of mistaken identity, and nine others were charged with minor federal offenses. Twenty-four rebels were charged with serious federal offenses, including high treason. Two men, john mitchell and Philip Vigol, were found guilty of treason, and sentenced to hang. Seventeen defendants were convicted of lesser crimes, and sentenced to prison terms of various lengths. Upon learning that none of the convicted rebels were principally responsible for instigating the armed resistance, Washington pardoned each of them.

By extinguishing the Whiskey Rebellion, the U.S. government withstood a formidable challenge to its sovereignty. Preceded by shays's rebellion in 1786, and followed by fries's rebellion in 1799, the Whiskey Rebellion is distinguished by its size. While all three rebellions were motivated by their opposition to burdensome taxes, neither Daniel Shays nor John Fries ever gathered more than a few hundred supporters at any one time. On at least one occasion, as many as 15,000 men and women marched on Pittsburgh in armed opposition to the federal excise tax on whiskey.

The Whiskey Rebellion also occupies a distinguished place in American jurisprudence. Serving as the backdrop to the first treason trials in the United States, the Whiskey Rebellion helped delineate the parameters of this constitutional crime. Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution defines treason as "levying War" against the United States. During the trials of the two men convicted of treason, Circuit Court Judge william paterson instructed the jury that "levying war" includes armed opposition to

the enforcement of a federal law. This interpretation of the Treason Clause was later applied during the trial of John Fries, and remains valid today.

further readings

Frear, Ned. 1999. The Whiskey Rebellion. Bedford, Pa.: Frear Publications.

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Whiskey Rebellion

WHISKEY REBELLION

WHISKEY REBELLION (1794). Residents of the American backcountry in the 1790s were intensely democratic and resented the fiscal policies of the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, which concentrated power in the hands of the upper classes. Their many grievances included the failure to open the Mississippi River to navigation, the dilatory conduct of the Indian wars, the speculative prices of land, arduous and ill-paid militia duty, scarcity of specie, and the creation of a salaried official class. The excise law of 1791, which taxed whiskey—the chief transportable and barterable western product—furnished a convenient peg on which to hang these grievances, and for three years the opposition to this measure escalated.

Tensions erupted during the summer of 1794 in western Pennsylvania. Distillers caught violating the law were forced to travel to York or Philadelphia for trial, an onerous journey that would cost the value of the average western farm. Congress in May and June 1794 acknowledged the inequity and passed a measure making offenses against the excise law cognizable in state courts. While the bill was in Congress, the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania issued a series of processes returnable to Philadelphia. However, these processes were not served until July, six weeks after the easing measure was passed. While serving a process, a federal marshal was attacked by angered residents in Allegheny County, and on 17 July several hundred men, led by members of a local "Democratic society," besieged and burned the home of General John Neville, the regional inspector of the excise.

The attackers would probably have stopped there, but certain leaders robbed the mail and found in the stolen letters expressions that they used to incite an attack on Pittsburgh. The southwestern militia was mustered at Braddock's Field on 1 August. The citizens of Pittsburgh were so alarmed that they exiled the odious townsmen, including Neville. The militia marched without violence on Pittsburgh on 2 August. Nevertheless, on 7 August President George Washington issued a proclamation ordering the disaffected westerners to their homes and called up the militia from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

On 14–15 August delegates from the Monongahela Valley metat Parkinson's Ferry, but were prevented from drastic measures by the parliamentary tactics of the moderates. A committee appointed by Washington met with a western committee and arranged to poll the people of the western counties on their willingness to submit. The vote was unsatisfactory, and Washington set in motion the militia army that had meanwhile been gathering in the East. The western counties were occupied during November, and more than a score of prisoners were sent to Philadelphia. All of them were acquitted or pardoned, or the cases were dismissed for lack of evidence.

The federal government had passed the first serious test of its enforcement powers. The rebellion strengthened the political power of Hamilton and the Federalist Party. Circumstantial evidence seems to indicate that Hamilton promoted the original misunderstanding and sent the army west solely for that purpose. It is likely also that the defeat of the frontiermen encouraged investors to accelerate the economic development of the region that they had already begun.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baldwin, Leland D. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.

Miller, John C. The Federalist Era, 1789–1801. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960.

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

Leland D.Baldwin/a. r.

See alsoAmnesty ; Distilling ; Hamilton's Economic Policies ; Insurrections, Domestic ; Moonshine ; Pennsylvania ; Taxation .

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Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey Rebellion, 1794, uprising in the Pennsylvania counties W of the Alleghenies, caused by Alexander Hamilton's excise tax of 1791. The settlers, mainly Scotch-Irish, for whom whiskey was an important economic commodity, resented the tax as discriminatory and detrimental to their liberty and economic welfare. There were many public protests, and rioting broke out in 1794 against the central government's efforts to enforce the law. Troops called out by President Washington quelled the rioting, and resistance evaporated. Nevertheless Hamilton sought to make an example of the settlers and illustrate the newly created government's power to enforce its law; many were arrested. President Washington pardoned the two rebels who were convicted of treason. The tax was repealed in 1802.

See L. D. Baldwin, Whiskey Rebels (rev. ed. 1967); W. Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion (2006).

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"Whiskey Rebellion." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Whiskey Rebellion

WHISKEY REBELLION


In June 1794, innkeeper John Lynn agreed to sublet part of his rented house in western Pennsylvania to John Neville. Neville was an excise inspector whose job it was to make sure that the federal tax on whiskey was collected from the backwoods frontiersmen. When the news circulated that Lynn was sheltering a tax collector in his home, however, a dozen armed men went to the inn. The men kidnapped Lynn, carried him into the woods, stripped him naked, shaved off his hair, and coated him with hot tar and feathers. After extracting a promise from Lynn not to allow his house to be used as a tax office and not to reveal their identities to the authorities, the men tied him to a tree and left him overnight in the middle of the forest. Although Lynn kept his promise, the notoriety he gained from his association with the tax ruined his business. Events like Lynn's kidnapping threatened federal tax collectors all across western Pennsylvania during the summer of 1794. They marked the beginning of what became known as the Whiskey Rebellionthe largest and most serious challenge to federal authority yet faced by the new United States.

The Whiskey Rebellion had its roots in the period around the American Revolution (17751783). Before the war hundreds of families crossed the Appalachian Mountains, searching for better, cheaper land. They were accompanied by an equal number of land speculators, who were working for rich colonial interests. The speculators laid claim to hundreds of thousands of acres of the best farm land in the name of men who already owned thousands of acres in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere. George Washington (17891797), who had trained as a surveyor, was one of the largest buyers of land. He owned more than 63,000 acres in western Pennsylvania by the time he became president. Absentee landowners like Washington claimed most of the best land, and the poor farmers were forced to survive on the remnants.


Separated from the older colonies by the mountains, the frontiersmen were forced to rely on themselves for protection and assistance. They were threatened by hostile Native Americans and hampered by lack of money, but they were especially frustrated by transportation problems. All the major colonial markets for their grain were on the other side of the Appalachians, and the costs of transporting their produce across the mountains were very high. The Spanish, who controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River, blocked an alternate route down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In order to turn a profit on their excess grain, the frontiersmen built private stills and converted it into whiskey. Whiskey was easier to sell than raw grain, and it held its value better.

When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 the new federal government agreed to assume the outstanding war debts of the former colonies. In order to pay these debts, President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (17551804) pushed a tax on whiskey and other alcoholic beverages through Congress in 1791. Many congressional delegates from the West were opposed to the whiskey tax. For his part, Hamilton believed that such a tax was the fairest way of spreading the costs of the American Revolution and the maintenance of the federal government across the population.

What Hamilton failed to consider was how strongly the settlers across the Appalachian Mountains felt about paying the tax. The western frontiersmen believed that they were maintaining their rights against the distant federal government in the same way their predecessors had done against the British government during the 1760s and 1770s. They felt betrayed by John Jay's (17451829) negotiations with the Spanish from 1785 to 1786 that kept them from shipping their grain down the Mississippi. Further, after two major defeats of federal troops by Miami and Shawnee tribesmen, the frontiersmen believed that the federal government was even unable to protect them.

During September 1791, representatives of the four westernmost Pennsylvania countiesWashington, Fayette, Allegheny, and Westmorelandassembled at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to discuss how to persuade Congress to repeal the whiskey tax. Although Hamilton would later portray them as radical anti-federalists, they held moderate views about the national government. Other westerners were not so tolerant. By the summer of 1794 what little patience they had was exhausted. Early in the morning of July 16, 1794, some 50 men armed with rifles approached the house where John Neville was staying. They demanded that Neville resign his position as excise inspector and turn over to them all the information he had collected on distilling in the area. Neville and the armed men exchanged shots; five of the besiegers were wounded, one of them fatally. The next day a mob of hundreds of local residents surrounded Neville's property. Neville, who had been reinforced by several soldiers from Fort Pitt, escaped without injury, but several soldiers were wounded and died, as did three or four of the attackers. The mob burned Neville's home and property to the ground.

The attack on John Neville marked the beginning of the Whiskey Rebellion. Throughout August and September threats of violence against tax collectors and inspectors spread out of the western districts of Pennsylvania and into Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. In most cases, the rioters got their way through intimidation, and little blood was shed. The largest assembly came outside Pittsburgh on August 1, 1794, where about 7,000 frontiersmen gatheredmostly poor people who did not own property or even a still and were not directly affected by the tax. "Not surprisingly, then," wrote historian Thomas Slaughter in The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (1986), "their grievances were primarily economic in character; their victims were primarily members of wealthier commercial classes; and the property they envied was often the object of violence." However, the townspeople managed to defuse much of the threat by welcoming the frontiersmen into their houses and making whiskey freely available. They also convinced them not to burn property in the town and allowed them to expel some of the most obnoxious townsmen. The presence of the soldiers at nearby Fort Fayette also helped keep the rioters in check. Within a few weeks the whiskey rebels had dispersed and returned to their homes.

At the same time the Whiskey rebels near Philadelphia were beginning to disperse, the federal government was preparing to take action. President Washington called a meeting of his Cabinet to consider what action to take regarding the rebels. He found himself in agreement with Treasury Secretary Hamilton that the rebellion was a serious threat to the Constitution and the federal government. A proclamation was issued instructing the rebels to disperse by September 1. By that date, however, Hamilton had already begun to assemble a 12,950-man army that he believed would crush the rebellion and teach his political opponents a lesson. Although cooler heads had already prevailed among the leaders of the westerners, Hamilton's army marched at the end of September.

The Whiskey Rebellion trickled to a halt without much bloodshed. There were only two fatalities in western Pennsylvania, both of them accidentalone boy was shot by a soldier whose gun went off accidentally, and a drunken rebel supporter was stabbed with a bayonet while resisting arrest. By November 19 the federal army had managed to round up only 20 accused "leaders" of the Whiskey Rebellion. Eighteen of the accused were later acquitted in the courts; the other two were convicted of treason but were later given a presidential pardon.

The Whiskey Rebellion ended not because of the threat posed by Hamilton's army, but because many of the concerns of the frontiersmen were finally addressed. On August 20, 1794, an American army under General "Mad" Anthony Wayne decisively defeated a confederation of Native Americans at the battle of Fallen Timbers, outside modern Toledo, Ohio. The Treaty of Greenville (1795) that Wayne negotiated with the Native Americans opened the Ohio country to settlement. The Jay Treaty (1794) with Great Britain, and the Pinckney Treaty (1795) with Spain moved foreign troops away from western American borders and opened the Mississippi River to American shipping. Perhaps the most significant factor, however, was the fact that a political party with sympathies toward the frontier position, the Jeffersonian Republicans, came into power in the election of 1800. One of the first actions of President Thomas Jefferson's (18011809) administration was to strike down the Whiskey Tax and other internal taxes.

See also: Appalachain Mountains, Jay Treaty, Pinckney Treaty


FURTHER READING

Badwin, Leland Dewitt. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.

Boyd, Stephen R., ed. The Whiskey Rebellion: Past and Present Perspectives. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Bruchey, Stuart. The Roots of American Economic Growth, 16071861: An Essay in Social Causation. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Porter, David. The Whiskey Rebellion and the Trans-Appalachian Frontier. Washington, PA: Washington and Jefferson College, 1994.

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

a competent force of militia should be called forth and employed to suppress the insurrection and support the civil authority in effectuating obedience to the laws and punishment of offenders.

alexander hamilton to president george washington, august 2, 1794

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Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey Rebellion (1794) Revolt against the US government in w Pennsylvania. It was provoked by a tax on whisky, and was the first serious challenge to federal authority. Collection of the tax met violent resistance, but when President Washington called out the militia, the rebellion collapsed.

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