|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.