The Whiskey Rebellion was an armed insurrection that took place in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Famers rebelled in protest of a federal excise tax on whiskey enacted by Congress in 1791.
Summary of the Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion was an armed insurrection that took place in Pennsylvania in 1794. The rebels were upset over a tax Congress placed on whiskey, which was the first tax levied by the Federal Government. For many reasons, farmers and distillers who lived on the western frontier found the tax excessive and resorted to harassment of federal tax collectors. By 1794 hostilities escalated to the level of organized, armed resistance by several thousand rebels who marched on Pittsburgh. President George Washington personally led an army of more than 13,000 militiamen from other states over the Allegheny Mountains to confront the rebels. In the face of that overwhelming force, the uprising collapsed and the federal government proved that it would enforce laws enacted by Congress. The successful suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion helped to confirm the supremacy of federal law in the early United States and the right of Congress to levy and collect taxes on a nationwide basis.
This painting, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer, depicts President Washington reviewing the troops as they prepare to march on the rebels. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Whiskey Rebellion Facts, Details, Impact
Quick Facts About the Whiskey Rebellion
- Date Started: The Whiskey Rebellion started on July 15, 1794, when warning shots were fired at a Federal Marshal on a farm near Pittsburgh.
- Date Ended: The Whiskey Rebellion ended in October 1794 when rebel forces dispersed.
- President: George Washington was President during the Whiskey Rebellion.
- Casualties: At least two people died in the Whiskey Rebellion, and possibly more.
- Slogan: “Liberty and no excise” was a popular rallying cry of the people who opposed the tax on distilled spirits.
Federal Government Assumes War Debt
- As part of the compromises that led to the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1789, the new Federal government agreed to assume the debt incurred by the 13 Original States during the American Revolutionary War.
Alexander Hamilton Urges Congress to Levy Taxes
- In 1791, at the recommendation of Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, Congress used its new constitutional authority to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises.”
- Congress enacted an excise tax on distilled spirits, to help raise money to pay off the national debt.
Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. Image Source: Wikipedia.
The Excise Tax on Whiskey — The First Tax Levied by the Federal Government
- The excise tax was the first nationwide internal revenue tax.
- At the time, most distilleries were located in the East, but there were still small distilleries on the Western frontier.
The Excise Tax Hurts Western Distilleries
- The tax was especially hard on the owners of the Western distilleries.
- They distilled corn into whiskey, which was used as currency on the frontier.
- It was traded for goods and services, not sold for money.
Western Distilleries Refuse to Pay the Tax
- From the beginning, the Federal government had trouble collecting the whiskey tax along the frontier.
- While many small western distillers simply refused to pay the tax, others took a more violent stand against it, roughing up and intimidating federal revenue officers.
Whiskey Rebellion Slogan
- “Liberty and no excise” was a popular slogan adopted by the opponents of the excise tax.
President Washington Issues a Proclamation
- President Washington responded to the harassment of federal officials by issuing a proclamation on September 15, 1792.
- He condemned interference with the “operation of the laws of the United States for raising revenue upon spirits distilled within the same.”
Farmers Rebel and Violence Escalates
- The violence escalated in 1794 when armed rebels and militia confronted revenue collectors and federal troops in several counties in Western Pennsylvania counties.
- The violence resulted in beatings, the destruction of property, and at least two deaths.
- By July 1794, western Pennsylvanians had had enough and roughly 7,000 frontiersmen marched on Pittsburgh to stop the collection of the tax.
Washington Calls Out the State Militias
- President Washington responded by issuing a proclamation on August 7, 1794, calling on the rebels “to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes.”
- That same day, Washington invoked the Militia Act of 1792, which, after Federal court approval, allowed the President to use state militiamen to put down internal rebellions.
- Secretary of War Henry Knox sent a letter to the governors of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia requesting a total of 12,950 militiamen to put down the rebellion.
Washington Sends Commissioners to Negotiate with the Rebels
- Washington tried to avoid more bloodshed by appointing three federal commissioners to negotiate with the rebels throughout August and September.
- After repeated failures at negotiating a settlement, the commissioners returned to Philadelphia on September 24, 1794.
- The commissioners reported to Washington it was “absolutely necessary that the civil authority should be aided by a military force in order to secure a due execution of the laws.”
Washington Leads Troops Into the Field
- Washington became the only sitting U.S. President to personally lead troops in the field.
- He led the militia on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford.
The Whiskey Rebellion Ends
- In the face of this overwhelming force, the uprising collapsed.
- The federal government proved that it would enforce laws enacted by Congress.
Aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion
- Of those who participated in the insurrection all of them were pardoned, except 33 men.
- Of the 33 who were arrested, only two were convicted of treason.
- Washington pardoned them in July 1795.
- Rebels who fled and were never arrested were later pardoned by President John Adams.
Whiskey Rebellion Timeline
Congress passed a law that levied a tax on distilled spirits. It was important because it was the first time the Federal Government had taxed a product produced in the United States.
Opponents of the excise tax met for the first time at Fort Redstone in Brownsville, Pennsylvania.
Elections were held in four key counties in Western Pennsylvania to choose delegates to meet and discuss how to respond to the Federal Government.
The delegates met at the Sign of the Green Tree Tavern on Water Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They met for three days and adopted a petition that said the tax — and anyone who enforced it — were “contrary to the interests” of the people of the four counties.
Tax collection Robin Johnson was attacked by a mob. The mob robbed him and then proceeded to tar and feather him. For the next three years, tax collectors were harassed and intimidated by people living in Western Pennsylvania.
This illustration depicts a tax collector who has been tarred and feathered. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
July 16–17, 1794 — The Battle of Bower Hill
In July 1794, Federal Marshal David Lenox was in Allegheny Country, serving writs to farmers and distillers who had not paid their taxes. Tax Collector John Neville was with Lenox.
On July 15, they tried to deliver a write to William Miller. When Lenox and Miller left they were confronted by a mob. The mob harassed them, but eventually let them go on their way. However, as they rode off someone fired a shot at them.
Early the next morning, Neville was sleeping at his home, which was called Bower Hill when a mob gathered outside. Neville told the men to leave, but they refused, so he grabbed his gun and fired on them. One man, Oliver Miller, was shot and killed. The mob retaliated by firing back on Neville’s house. Neville ran back inside and sounded the alarm, which alerted his slaves who then attacked the mob. The mob was pushed back and they went to find more men to help them.
The mob returned to Bower Hill the next day and were led by Major James McFarlane, who was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. However, Neville had called for reinforcements of his own and 10 soldiers from Pittsburgh arrived, under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick and his men arrived before the mob.
When the mob arrived, the leaders tried to negotiate, but the talks failed. Both sides fired on each other for about an hour. McFarlane called for a ceasefire and when he went out into the open someone from inside the house shot him and he fell. The mob rushed the house and set fire to it and the slave quarters, which forced Kirkpatrick to surrender.
The soldiers left Bower Hill and the mob kept Kirkpatrick, Lenox, and Neville as prisoners, however, they were able to escape soon after.
August 1, 1794
A massive crowd of around 7,000 people gathered at Braddock’s Field. Some of them went into Pittsburgh and burned barns on Kirkpatrick’s farm.
August 14, 1794
A meeting was held at Parkinson’s Ferry, now called Whiskey Point. The crowd elected a group of men to meet with the peace commissioners that had been sent by President Washington. The meeting at Parkinson’s Ferry is known as the Parkinson’s Ferry Convention.
September 30, 1794
President Washington left Philadelphia to go to Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
October 4, 1794
Washington crossed the Susquehanna River. When he arrived in Cumberland County, he was joined by a detachment of men from the Philadelphia Light Horse. The Philadelphia Light Horse was one of the first military units that had been established during the American Revolution.
Just outside of Carlisle, Washington met with the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Washington took command of roughly 12,000 men.
October 6–12, 1794
Washington made plans to march on the rebels.
October 12, 1794
Washington and his army marched out of Carlisle and went to Bedford. By the time Washington arrived, most of the rebels were gone, but around 150 were arrested.
The excise tax on distilled spirits was repealed because it was impossible for the government to collect the taxes.
Significance of the Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was important because the successful suppression of the rebels confirmed the supremacy of Federal law in the early days of the United States under the Constitution. It also affirmed the right of Congress to levy and collect taxes on a nationwide basis.
The Whiskey Rebellion also contributed to a growing divide between the Federalist Party and the Democrat-Republican Party. While the Federalists wanted a strong national government, the Democrat-Republicans did not. Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican, believed the government had used the army to stifle legitimate opposition to unfair government policies.