Following the American Revolution and faced with enormous debts from a long and costly war, the fledgling government of the United States faced its first major and crucial challenge to Federal authority over the States . The adoption of a new constitution meant compromises were made, one of which was the Federal government assumed the war debts of the 13 former colonies. So it was that in 1791, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, urged the new Congress to impose its first national internal revenue tax. Congress complied. The new excise tax was laid at the feet of the nations whiskey makers.
Most affected by the new tax were the farmers and distillers of Western Pennsylvania. Far removed from the big cities of the east, bartering was still the accepted method for procuring goods and services and whiskey was one of the most popular currencies. The government wanted the taxes paid in cash which was unfortunately in short supply. Larger distillers in the east were able to pass the cost of the new taxes on to consumers so were generally accepting. Farmers and smaller distillers unable to pass along taxes saw their profits disappear. In addition to the tax, all whiskey stills were required to be registered. Failure to do so would require an appearance in a Federal court, not local courts, the nearest being in Philadelphia some 300 miles away.
Frontier citizens, already at odds with the government over on going Indian attacks and its failure to open the Mississippi River to free trade, were starting to experience a kind of ’deja vu’. Taxation without proper representation. Citizens at first evaded the taxes but as popular support for resistance grew, the law was openly defied. Defiance eventually turned to violence with the destruction of homes, office’s and property of revenue inspectors, some who were tarred and feathered. Property damage was also the reward for those citizens who did not openly declare support for the uprising. This did not go unnoticed in the office of the President. In 1792 George Washington issued a proclamation condemning resistance to the “operation of the laws of the United States for raising revenue on spirits distilled within the same”. The rebels eventually armed themselves and possibly numbered in the thousands.
In July of 1794 an armed exchange took place at the plantation of John Neville, a revenue inspector, who was believed to be harboring a Federal Marshal. Over the course of two days as many as 500 rebels and a garrison of soldiers from Fort Pitt were involved. Though many were wounded only two were killed, one of whom was rebel leader James McFarlane, a revolutionary war hero and Captain. Neville’s home and buildings were burned to the ground. Violence began to spread to surrounding counties. In August of 1794 thousands of armed rebels gathered at Braddock’s Field, east of Fort Pitt, for what became known as the high tide of the Whiskey Rebellion. However, due to indecision, not much happened. In a last ditch effort to avoid a major confrontation, President Washington sent a delegation to meet with the rebel leaders after a second proclamation, ordering the rebels to retire peacefully and return to their homes, failed. The delegation after weeks of negotiations returned to Philadelphia, having not reached a compromise, and announced “it is absolutely necessary that the civil authority be aided by a military force in order to secure a due execution of the laws”.
Approximately 13000 militia were formed at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In September 1794 George Washington became the first and only sitting President to command troops in the field when he led the militia on a month long march across the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford. General Henry ‘Lighthorse’ Lee, revolutionary war hero and governor of Virginia, assumed command in Bedford and Washington returned to Philadelphia. In October, Lee led his militia into the western counties of Pennsylvania seeking to engage the rebels. Though no armed combat ensued, by November, Lee had arrested as many as 150 of the rebels including about 20 of the leaders. Under Presidential authority Lee pardoned all but 33 of the rebels arrested. A Regiment of Lee’s militia remained in the area for several months and support for the rebellion evaporated.
By July of 1795 President Washington had issued pardons to all those who were convicted, held in custody, under indictment or on the run. With violence ended, the fight over whiskey taxes was taken up on the political battlefield. Anti internal tax proponents campaigned for Presidential hopeful Thomas Jefferson who defeated John Adams in 1800. By 1802 Congress had repealed the excise spirits tax and all other internal taxes. The U.S. Government would rely on import taxes which were steadily growing due to increased international trade. This would continue until the ‘War of 1812’.
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was to date the most serious test of the new United States Constitution and of the Federal governments authority. It was also the most difficult domestic crisis of President Washington’s tenure as President. It confirmed for the government its use of Federal law within the states and the rights of Congress to levy a nationwide tax. It also confirmed to American citizens their rights to challenge unfair laws and have their grievances heard in the halls of Congress and the office of the President of the United States.