Whiskey Rebellion

views updated May 18 2018


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


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.

Alexander Hamilton to President George Washington, August 2, 1794">

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

Whiskey Rebellion

views updated May 23 2018


An uprising in western Pennsylvania sparked by a tax on distilled spirits, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 tested and ultimately affirmed the power of the national government. The roots of the conflict reached back to the severe depression that beset rural America during the 1780s. As urban elites enriched themselves with banknotes and government certificates left over from the Revolution, farmers were left with heavy debts and scarce currency. Economic distress—and anger towards "moneyed men"—grew the further one traveled from the Atlantic coast. The crisis stretched from Maine to Tennessee and triggered the New England Regulation, or Shays's Rebellion, of 1786–1787. Western Pennsylvania suffered as much as any region; in some counties, a majority of households faced debt prosecutions and foreclosures. When, in 1791, the new federal government imposed an excise tax on whiskey—a major commodity as well as libation on the frontier—western farmers refused to pay. Invoking the memory and message of the American Revolution, frontiersmen decried the invasions of "corrupt" government and called for a more equitable legal and economic order.

From 1791 to 1793, settlers in rural Pennsylvania and elsewhere used protest petitions, scare tactics, and simple foot-dragging to defy the excise. Few farmers who owned a distillery registered it; local constables and justices of the peace refused to enforce foreclosures on their neighbors' farms. On more than sixty occasions between 1787 and 1795, Pennsylvania farmers blocked roads to keep out tax collectors. Tax men who made it through these social and physical barriers risked tar and feathering, hair shaving, and other forms of public humiliation. Over the course of a decade, frontiersmen fused revolutionary and evangelical values into a logic of resistance. Engaged in chronic warfare with Indians and enmeshed in labor obligations with neighbors, they defined their "public" in opposition to a remote, oppressive government. Living close to survival's edge, they embraced an emotional form of Christianity that underscored the frailty of human will and effort. Itinerant preachers told frontier seekers that God did not respect earthly titles, that the wealthy and powerful had once persecuted Jesus, and that the meek and lowly would soon inherit the earth. Why, then, should patriotic citizens heed the unjust decrees of distant magistrates? Did they not have the same right to resist arbitrary power that their colonial forbears had so recently exercised?

Federal authorities in Philadelphia, however, insisted that popular defiance of the law was no longer legitimate once the United States had established a republican government with ratification of the Federal Constitution in 1788. For President George Washington, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (author of the excise tax), and other Federalist power holders, the Revolution was definitively over: it was something to be defended, not reenacted. Indeed, they viewed dissent of any kind as seditious. Drawing from a cultural register that privileged "conspiracy" as an explanation for events, the Federalists believed that their Republic faced enemies within and without during the 1790s. Hence their reactions to western unrest: Hamilton wanted to suppress it with "super abundant" force. Washington initially took a more moderate tack, but when a furious crowd destroyed an inspector's mansion on the Pennsylvania frontier in July 1794, he declared that the frontier rebels menaced "the root of all law and order." The president was particularly alarmed by reports that some westerners had met with Spanish and British agents, perhaps to foment secession all along the frontier.

The Pennsylvania backcountry thus became the focal point of the government's response to rural discontent. From July to August 1794, Washington's cabinet mobilized a force to cow or crush the farmers. The state government of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, pursued negotiations with its distraught citizens. Early in September, rebel leaders agreed by a vote of 34 to 23 to the state's demands of loyalty oaths and the gradual payment of taxes. But the high number of nays, along with the continued harassment of customs officers, convinced Washington that force was still necessary. After mobilizing nearly fifteen thousand militiamen from four states, Washington and Hamilton personally led the troops westward in late September. Intimidated by this army and by the apparent turn of public opinion against them, the rebels offered little resistance. Federal troops arrested 150 men and sent 24 back to Philadelphia for trial; two were convicted, and Washington pardoned both. The defeat of the rebels continued (and continues) in the collective memory of the new nation. The name "Whiskey Insurrection"—coined, it seems, by Hamilton—suggests that the unrest was sudden, knee-jerk, and alcohol induced. Aggrieved farmers who had disputed profiteering and "speculation" since the 1780s became intoxicated, paranoid yokels who shook a fist at progress itself. By defeating the insurrection and then trivializing its roots, Federalist elites narrowed the scope of legitimate popular action to the ballot box.

See alsoFrontiersmen; Hamilton, Alexander; Pennsylvania; Taxation, Public Finance, and Public Debt; Washington, George .


Bouton, Terry. "A Road Closed: Rural Insurgency in Post-Independence Pennsylvania." Journal of American History 87, no. 3 (December 2000): 855–887.

Kohn, Richard H. "The Washington Administration's Decision to Crush the Whiskey Rebellion." Journal of American History 59, no. 3 (December 1972): 567–584.

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

J. M. Opal

Whiskey Rebellion

views updated May 18 2018

Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion was a revolt against U.S. economic policies in the summer of 1794. It began in western Pennsylvania and spread to neighboring states before subsiding in autumn. President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) led a militia of over twelve thousand men to crush the rebellion in Pennsylvania, but when they arrived, the rebels had already ended their revolt.

A whiskey tax imposed by Congress in 1791 was the reason for the Whiskey Rebellion. When the United States adopted the Constitution in 1788, the federal government and the state governments still owed debts from the American Revolution (1775–83). Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) proposed that the federal government assume responsibility for all the debts and pay them off with funds collected from various taxes, including the whiskey tax.

The whiskey tax was unpopular with many Americans, especially in western Pennsylvania. Whiskey made from corn was an important part of the economy in western Pennsylvania. The tax reduced profits in the whiskey business, especially for small producers.

The whiskey tax, however, was just the spark that ignited discontent with various federal policies. Settlers in the western region of the country had troubles with Native Americans, who resisted the loss of their land to Americans. The federal government was losing battles with the Native Americans, who were supported by English and Spanish territories in the western frontiers. Wealthy landowners such as Washington, were acquiring large holdings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, making it hard for middle- and lower-class Americans to find affordable land for agriculture.

Starting in 1791, representatives from thefour westernmost counties in Pennsylvaniabegan meeting in Pittsburgh to discuss how to respond to the federal government and the whiskey tax. By the summer of 1794, the meetings led to open rebellion. On July 16, 1794, about fifty armed men went to the home of John Neville, a whiskey tax collector. They demanded that Neville resign his position and turn over records he had collected on local distilleries. Neville refused, trading gunshots with the rebels. The next day, with support from soldiers from Fort Pitt, Neville continued fighting the rebels until he was forced to flee. The rebels burned down his home.

Through August and September, the Whiskey Rebellion spread from Pennsylvania into Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina , and Georgia with rebels harassing whiskey tax collectors. The largest crowd of tax protestors, numbering seven thousand people, assembled outside Pittsburgh in August.

Commander in Chief

The Whiskey Rebellion provides an interesting glimpse into the way the role of the president of the United States, also known as the commander in chief, has changed since adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Militia Act of 1792, President Washington could not order troops to crush the Whiskey Rebellion until a judge certified that law and order could not be maintained without the use of armed forces. Supreme Court justice James Wilson made such a certification on August 4, 1794. After that, President Washington personally led the troops on their mission to crush the rebellion.

President George Washington called a meeting of his cabinet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to decide how to respond to the rebellion. Treasury Secretary Hamilton argued that the rebellion threatened the power of the federal government. He supported raising a militia to crush it. Washington agreed, and both men rode with the militia from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, arriving in western Pennsylvania in October.

By then the rebellion had calmed. The federal troops arrested only about twenty leaders of the rebellion. Just two were convicted of treason, and Washington later pardoned them.

Over time federal policies helped ease the unrest that had led to the rebellion. Under the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, the United States opened Ohio to American settlement. Jay's Treaty of 1794 and Pinckney's Treaty of 1795 moved English and Spanish troops away from America's western borders and opened the Mississippi River to American shipping. After the Republican Party won the presidential election in 1800, President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; president 1801–9) supported a repeal of the whiskey tax.

Whiskey Rebellion

views updated May 23 2018


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.

Whiskey Rebellion

views updated May 08 2018


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.


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 .

Whiskey Rebellion

views updated May 09 2018

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.