What Was the Whiskey Rebellion? Why the Historic Battle Between Distillers and the US Government Was so Important
In 1794, farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania staged a protest against a whiskey tax enacted by the U.S. federal government.
This event has become known as the Whiskey Rebellion, and it stands as one of the most significant uprisings of American citizens against their own government — and one of the federal government’s first true tests.
We’re taking a closer look at this rebellion and why it matters today.
What Started the Whiskey Rebellion?
In 1791, Congress passed a law that imposed an excise tax on all spirits distilled within the United States. This was part of Alexander Hamilton’s plan to fund debts accrued during the Revolutionary War. Of course, the tax was unpopular with many Americans. This was especially true in rural areas like western Pennsylvania, where whiskey production had become an important part of everyday life and finances for many families.
In response to these concerns, President George Washington proposed that the taxes be reduced in 1792. However, Congress rejected his suggestion.
These farmers viewed the tax as an unfair burden on their livelihoods, particularly those living in rural areas who relied on whiskey production as their primary source of income. So, they began to organize protests against it.
The farmers refused to pay the tax, and soon, violence began to erupt across western Pennsylvania, which prompted Washington to send in military forces to quell the uprising.
The Tension Rises
By 1794, tensions had escalated to such a degree that people began to protest openly against the whiskey tax. Farmers from seven counties near Pittsburgh united in an armed rebellion against federal troops sent to enforce the law.
They formed militias and destroyed distilleries belonging to those who had paid the tax or refused to join the cause. While there were no fatalities during this uprising, it did prompt Washington and his cabinet to take action — they declared martial law and sent nearly 13,000 troops into western Pennsylvania in order to suppress any further violence or protests.
Violent Incidents From The Rebellion
Before Washington sent the militia, there were a few incidents that fueled the fire for the rebellion, including more than one case of men enforcing the tax being tarred and feathered.
Another instance of violence happened when federal marshal David Lenox tried to serve writs — legal documents that command people or entities to perform or to cease performing a specific action or deed — to 60 distillers who had not paid their taxes. He brought John Neville, a local tax collector, along as a guide as he traveled through Allegheny County.
When they arrived at William Miller’s home on July 15, Miller refused to accept his summons, which led to an argument between him, Lenox and Neville. As they rode away from Miller’s property, they realized they were being followed by an angry mob armed with pitchforks and muskets — some of whom were reportedly drunk.
The men escaped unharmed, but this incident showed just how far people were willing to go in protest against these new taxes imposed by Washington and his government. This incident certainly wasn’t unique; similar stories emerged throughout western Pennsylvania leading up to the full-blown rebellion in 1794.
The following morning, a crowd of angry men, some of whom had been served summons the previous day, showed up to Neville’s home, Bower Hill.
The men claimed Lenox needed to come with them because there was a threat to his life. Not buying it, Neville ordered the group to leave his property. When they refused, Neville fired a gun at the crowd, killing Oliver Miller. The mob shot back at the house, and Neville fled inside and sounded a horn. Neville’s slaves then attacked the crowd with firearms, wounding six of them. The crowd fled, taking Miller’s body with them.
The following day, about 700 men marched and returned to Bower Hill, demanding Neville surrender himself to them. Major James Kirkpatrick, one of 10 soldiers asked with defending the property, informed the men that Neville wasn’t home. It turned out that Kirkpatrick had helped Neville escape, and he was hiding in a ravine.
Despite Neville not being there, the crowd remained, demanding that the soldiers surrender. The soldiers refused, and the crowd set fire to a barn and the dwellings of Neville’s slaves. The angry mob allowed the Neville women to flee and then opened fire on the house. In the ensuing firefight, James McFarlane, leader of the mob, was killed. The mob set fire to the other buildings in retaliation, eventually burning the entire estate to the ground and forcing the surrender of the soldiers.
March on Pittsburgh
Days later, the mob was warned that Washington would send a militia to kill them. The group decided to strike first. Some of the men attacked a mail carrier and read the letters, discovering that three of them from Pittsburgh expressed disapproval about the violence at Bower Hill. With these letters in mind, 7,000 men arrived east of Pittsburgh with plans to attack the city.
Pittsburgh, fearful of violence, sent a delegation to meet with the angry rebels. The delegation gifted the mob several barrels of whiskey and informed them that the writers of the three letters had been expelled from the city. The rebels drank from the barrels and decided to peacefully march through Pittsburgh rather than attack it.
Federal Government’s Response
After a failed peace envoy, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson ruled that a military response was justified to handle the situation. Washington assembled a 12,000-man militia, which he sent into western Pennsylvania. The militia marched into the area but was not met by a rebel army. Instead of fighting, the militia arrested suspected rebels. Those arrested were taken to Philadelphia to stand trial. Only two were found guilty of treason, and Washington pardoned both of them.
The Aftermath of The Whiskey Rebellion
Though it ultimately failed, The Whiskey Rebellion serves as an important reminder that taxation without representation can spark rebellion in even the most loyal citizens — a lesson that still resonates today. It also illustrates how powerful grassroots organizing can be when citizens come together for a common cause.
The rebels were ultimately unsuccessful in repealing the whiskey tax, but historians look at the Whiskey Rebellion as one of America’s earliest civil disobedient acts and an extremely important test of the U.S.’s young government.
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