|Painted in 1795 by Frederick Kemmelmeyer|
(public domain image - original portrait now in
Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Farmers in western Pennsylvania tottered on the edge of rebellion during the early 1790s. The Whiskey Tax threatened their livelihood. Eastern and western Pennsylvania, were separated by an almost insurmountable barrier called the Allegheny Mountains. The market west of the Alleghenies was limited. In order to sell their grains east of the mountains, growers had to load their crops on pack horses and transport them across dangerous mountain terrain. The problem was twofold: 1) Grains were difficult to transport, and a tough sell once they got them across the mountains. 2) Whiskey was easier to transport, and easier to sell.
Because of this, a large number of stills operated in western Pennsylvania, transforming grain into whiskey.
In 1791 Congress passed a tax on distilled liquors. It based the taxes charged on the capacity of a brewer’s still, rather than the quantity of spirits actually produced, and it required the tax to be paid in cash. That put small producers at a disadvantage. Because they produced less whiskey, distillers in western Pennsylvania effectively paid a larger tax per gallon than eastern distillers, who could increase their whiskey production, and in effect cut the tax they paid per gallon. The other sticking point was the tax was required to be paid in cash. Barter was the currency of the western frontier. Most distillers paid their bills in whiskey—not cash.
The law required all stills to be registered with the government. If still operators violated the law, or refused to register and pay taxes, they were required to stand trial in a Federal court, some three hundred miles away in Philadelphia. The result was a long and costly journey few grain farmers could afford.
The first rumblings of dissatisfaction occurred shortly after the new tax was passed. The farmers held a meeting at Redstone Fort on July 27, 1791. It was decided that representatives should meet in each of the four respective western Pennsylvania counties—Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Allegheny.
Most westerners, took the easiest course of action, and simply refused to pay the tax.
Excise offices were supposed to be set up in each county to collect the taxes. The rebel’s response was similar to the tactics used by the Sons of Liberty during the American Revolution. Federal collectors were threatened, tarred and feathered, and tortured. People who offered space for tax collectors to set up their offices suffered the same fate as the tax collectors.
A new reign of terror began in 1793 as insurrectionists shot up the stills of their neighbors who complied and paid the tax. As a result, many small distillers were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. One such incident happened in Allegheny County where the rebels destroyed William Cochran’s still.
Federal Marshal David Lennox was dispatched to the area in July of 1794 to serve arrest warrants to protesters who refused to pay the tax. Revenue officer John Neville accompanied Lennox as he served the writs.
They served a writ on William Miller on July 15th. As they were leaving Miller’s home, an armed mob began shooting at them. On July 16, the mob attacked Neville’s house. Neville and his slaves exchanged gunfire with the rebels, and one of the rebels, Oliver Miller, was killed during the battle. Protesters faded away after Miller was killed, but later that day a mob of nearly 500 local militia converged on Neville’s house.
Luckily for Neville, a force of ten Federal soldiers from Fort Pitt came to his rescue and helped him escape. The rebel leader, James McFarlane, was killed in the fighting. Neville’s house and outbuildings were burned down. Gunfire from the mob increased, and the soldiers, who were greatly outnumbered, eventually surrendered.
In Fayette County, rebels burned the home of tax collector, Benjamin Wells. The biggest protest occurred at Braddock’s Field, just outside of Pittsburgh, in July of 1794. Thousands of protesters met there to determine a course of action on how to fight the tax.
A delegation consisting of Attorney General William Bradford, Pennsylvania Senator John Ross, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Jasper Yeates was sent to confer with the rebels in late August and early September of 1794. The delegation returned to Philadelphia on September 24, and reported military action would be required to resolve the problem.
George Washington decided it was time to act. He called out the militia from several states. On September 19, 1794 he joined a force of 12,950 men gathered at Carlyle, Pennsylvania. Washington marched as far as Fort Cumberland, Maryland with the troops, then turned control of them over to General Henry “Light Horse” Lee, and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
By mid-November, the militia had rounded up and arrested nearly 150 men suspected of taking part in the Whiskey Rebellion. Twenty men were eventually taken to Philadelphia to stand trial. Two were convicted of treason. By the start of December, most of the army returned home. Fifteen hundred men were left behind to police the frontier.
George Washington was satisfied with the results. Not a single person was killed by the invading force. Some individual rights were tromped on in making the arrests, but the government’s right to levy taxes was secure, as was its right to use the military to enforce laws.
The Whiskey Insurrection established the right of the Federal government to use the military to enforce unpopular laws, and to preserve the Union. Andrew Jackson would use the same tactics during the South Carolina Nullification Crisis in 1832. Abraham Lincoln would use them again to preserve the Union during the Civil War.