Revolts in Pennsylvania

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Revolts in Pennsylvania


Taxation with Representation. In 1789 the first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, understood the importance of establishing a solid financial basis for the new republic. In order to achieve that goal Hamilton needed to find a way to relieve the heavy burden of debt that plagued many of the states. Hamiltons overall plan included the assumption of state debts by the federal government. This was no small matter because it implied a new, greater role for the federal government. Hamiltons plan to raise funds necessary to pay the debt included a small excise or internal tax on liquor. In 1791 Congress authorized this excise on whiskey. Despite the fact that the excise marked an important assertion of federal power, support for the excise was generally bipartisan: the senators representing North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia supported it. James Madison, who had opposed Hamiltons debt assumption program, nonetheless supported the whiskey excise as a fair and unavoidable way to raise necessary funds.

Whiskey is King. For the farmers of western Pennsylvania the whiskey tax came as a bitter and unwelcome imposition of remote federal authority. Whiskey was an important local commodity, often used in place of cash as an article of barter. It was also a central element of western Pennsylvania society, where most people were involved in some fashion in the manufacture, sale, or use of the product. Taxing whiskey production touched a nerve that went to the core of the local economy. The excise itself was modest: the additional cost to a consumer of whiskey who drank an average of two gallons each month was about $1.68 a year. The real question was not the cost but the perceived challenge to liberty and the widely held view that the remote federal government was inattentive to the concerns or needs of the frontier. Moreover, the excise had a particularly harsh effect on small family distillers because it was imposed on the capacity of each still, not on the volume of whiskey actually produced. Large distillers who could operate on a more efficient basis and produced greater volumes of whiskey ended up paying less tax per gallon produced. The moment was ripe for revolt.

Reaction. Protest meetings sprang up in the western counties of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Washington. Federal excise officers, who were required by the law to inspect the stills, were terrorized, and as lawlessness grew, some were tarred and feathered. Tensions came to a head in 1794. The law required whiskey stills to be registered for later revenue collection purposes. John Neville, the regional excise officer responsible for collecting the tax, served papers on various men who failed to register their stills. On 16 July a group of several hundred men marched to Nevilles home demanding his resignation and the return of all records associated with collection of the excise. Neville refused, defending his home with the help of a handful of soldiers from the nearby military post of Fort Pitt. Shots were fired, and after a small battle two attackers lay dead while six were wounded. The next day a second attack on the house forced Neville and his allies to flee, and the angry mob looted and burned his property.

Open Rebellion. Threats and intimidation became widespread. The insurgents had already robbed the Pittsburgh mail as an assertion of their power. On 1 August nearly seven thousand men gathered at Brad-docks Field just outside Pittsburgh, menacing the town with an aggressive show of force. This call to arms was viewed as a potent and direct threat to the authority of the federal government. President George Washington, strongly encouraged by Hamilton, decided to exercise force to assert the primacy of the federal government and put an end to the violence. He called on the insurgents to disperse, but the frontiersmen paid no heed to the presidents proclamation. Instead, they brazenly threatened to march to Philadelphia, then the nations capital.

Federal Solution. Washington had no independent authority to call out the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required the president to wait for a judge to certify that law and order could not be maintained without the use of armed forces. On 4 August 1794 Supreme Court justice James Wilson certified that the situation in western Pennsylvania could not be resolved by ordinary judicial means. Washington immediately called upon the states to form a military force of 12, 900 men to quell the rebellion. A large contingent gathered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in response to the call, and Washington and Hamilton rode from Philadelphia to join the militiamen. The troops moved westward, preparing to do battle with the insurgents, but no rebels could be found. Indeed, the militia met no resistance, and the march into the Alleghenies ended with no further bloodshed. Thomas Jefferson, whose sympathies did not lie with Hamilton or Washington, sniffed that an insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, but could never be found. Washington, who believed he had acted wisely, said in a message to Congress that if he had failed to act, mob rule would have shak[en] the government to its foundations. Two leaders of the uprising were located and arrested. They were found guilty of high treasonwaging war against the United Statesand both were pardoned by Washington, who declared one a simpleton and the other insane.

Fries Rebellion. Washingtons successor, John Adams, also had to confront a Pennsylvania rebellion. The year was 1799, and the issue again was taxation, this time property taxes enacted into law in 1798. These taxes imposed levies on homes, land, and slaves. The federal government hoped to raise as much as $2 million by these levies, but many resisted the tax as an affront to their pocketbooks and their liberty. The hotbed of resistance this time was in Montgomery, Bucks, and Northampton Counties. When several tax evaders gathered to intimidate tax assessors, they were arrested by the U.S. marshal and taken to Sun Tavern in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. John Fries, a local auctioneer, was offended by this show of federal power and assembled about 140 armed men to march on Sun Tavern. The marshal released the arrested men.

First Trial. President Adams reacted quickly and called out a federal force to suppress what he perceived as a dangerous rebellion. About sixty men were arrested as federal troops marched through the eastern Pennsylvania countryside. Fries and thirty others were indicted for treason after Justice James Iredell declared to the grand jury that if these men went unpunished anarchy will ride triumphant and all lovers of order, decency, truth and justice will be tramped underfoot. Iredell presided over the trial along with Federal District Court Judge Richard Peters. Friess lawyers, including Alexander Dallas, argued that his forcible release of prisoners did not amount to treason. The court disagreed and defined treason as any act of violence that could be construed as levying war against the United States. Fries was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Second Trial. Fries appealed and received a second trial. This time the judge was Samuel Chase, a staunch Federalist. Chase instructed the jury of his view that any insurrection or rising to resist or to prevent by force or violence, the execution of any statute of the United States for levying or collecting taxes is a levying war against the United States, within the Constitution. In other words Chase believed Friess conduct amounted to treason. Fries was again found guilty and sentenced to death. Fries appealed to President Adams for clemency. Adams sought the advice of his cabinet, addressing fourteen questions of law to them. In their collective response to Adams, the cabinet unanimously supported the treason charge and the death sentence. Adams disagreed, regarding Friess rebellion as riot, highhanded, and dangerous indeed, but not treason. Adams saw great danger in applying the definition of treason to every sudden, ignorant, inconsiderable act among a part of the people wrought up by a political dispute, and on 23 May 1800 he pardoned Fries and all those implicated in the insurrection.

Conclusion. Rebellion of any sort is a threat to public order and safety. In the early days of this nation it was also a threat to the very existence of the country. The founders understood how much effort it took to develop the fragile consensus to adopt the Constitution and a federal government. They feared that an insurrection left unchecked would undo their hard work. The primacy of that government had to be asserted in a clear, forceful, and effective manner or the very underpinnings of government would be shaken. In retrospect the Whiskey Rebellion may have been most important in the way it affirmed the general consensus of support for the office of the president and the authority of the federal government. Fries Rebellion affirmed that authority and offered the president an opportunity to demonstrate that federal power could be tempered by sensitive executive judgment.


James MacGregor Burns, The Vineyard of Liberty (New York: Knopf, 1982);

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);

Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).