In the summer of 1794, the four western counties of Pennsylvania—Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland—were the sites of a sudden outburst of popular violence in response to a federal excise tax on whiskey. Bands of armed men attacked federal tax collectors and talked about the possibility of independence. Their aim was to rescue the heritage of the American Revolution from wealthy elites at both the state and federal levels who, they believed, had corrupted it. But the Whiskey Rebellion, as it became known, involved more than a tax revolt. It was about the challenges that the new federal government faced in its efforts to create a stable political system and, ultimately, the disruptive role of federal-state relations and partisan politics in that process.
The origins of the Whiskey Rebellion were complex, though the trigger of the uprising was the issue of taxation. By 1791, both Congress and the Washington administration realized that no government could operate without having its finances in order. In March 1791 the Congress created an excise tax on distilled alcohol. Within months the new tax was the object of protest in the Pennsylvania legislature and in the four western counties of that state. The farmers of Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland had good reason to view the excise tax as an unreasonable burden. Many of them simply could not afford to bring their grain crop east to market—the passage across the Appalachians was time-consuming and expensive. As a result, they often turned their grain into whiskey, which was easier to transport over long distances. Whiskey had other advantages, as well. It could be made on any farm with a home still and it could be used for barter or consumed on the spot. The excise tax threatened to make this economic strategy far less lucrative. It increased both the cost of producing whiskey and the price the buyer paid; and, because the excise had to be paid in cash, it was bound to drain money away from the already cash-poor frontier region of Pennsylvania. Even worse, people charged with violating the act had to be tried at the United States District Court in Philadelphia. Few farmers could afford the time or money to make that journey.
To a great extent, however, the excise tax was only one of the grievances of western Pennsylvania's farmers. During the 1790s, they became increasingly suspicious of the political elite at the state and federal levels. The farmers feared that powerful men in the East were using their influence to pervert the heritage of the American Revolution. The political elite of Pennsylvania was constantly engaged in efforts to facilitate land speculation, often at the expense of poor or struggling farmers. In the federal government, politicians such as Pres. George Washington's secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, appeared to be undermining the ideas of equality and democracy that were the cornerstone of the revolution in order to make themselves and their friends even more wealthy and powerful. The excise tax was proof enough of that trend. Hamilton's earlier Funding Act of 1790 was equally galling to the average citizen in western Pennsylvania. It allowed speculators to get rich quick by redeeming, at face value, war debt certificates that they had purchased from veterans of the Revolutionary War for mere pennies on the dollar. Instead of sharing in this financial windfall, the farmers watched huge sums of money pour into the pockets of a relatively small number of already rich men.
Beginning in 1791, the farmers of Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties convened meetings to protest the Funding Act, not just the excise tax. They argued that Congress was becoming a bulwark of elitism and privilege. At those meetings, the farmers also argued that the state government of Pennsylvania was a nest of corruption. Some of this anger was channeled into local Democratic Societies, which, as their name suggests, were dedicated to supporting the opposition of Thomas Jefferson and the emerging Democratic-Republican Party to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party. By 1794, however, the members of two Democratic Societies, at Washington Town and Mingo Creek, were whipping up discontent with the new federal government among the already angry farmers of western Pennsylvania.
Before any actual shooting began, the farmers of western Pennsylvania resorted to other, increasingly drastic tactics in their efforts to correct the perceived abuses of the federal and state governments. At the meetings they began to organize in 1791, the farmers denounced all excise collectors as the agents of a federal plot to undo the gains of the American Revolution. They urged everyone in the region to refuse to cooperate or even interact with the excise collectors. Some groups took that message to violent lengths, tarring and feathering any excise collector they came across. The farmers also targeted any of their neighbors who actually supported the new tax. More tarring and feathering took place, barns were burned and stills were destroyed. By 1794, the agitation against the financial structures of the new federal government was threatening to turn western Pennsylvania into a lawless frontier.
The actual Whiskey Rebellion began on July 15, 1794, in response to the actions of John Neville. Neville personified many of the grievances of the farmers of western Pennsylvania. In earlier years, he had been a well-respected figure on the frontier—he was, after all, a veteran of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. By the 1790s, however, Neville was deeply implicated in land speculation and was a determined agent of the new federal government, serving as the excise collector for his region. So, when Neville and a United States marshal, David Lenox, attempted to enforce the law against farmers in Allegheny County who refused to pay the excise tax, the frontier settlers knew whom to hold responsible for what they saw as unjust treatment. On July 15, an angry group of armed farmers confronted Neville and Lenox as they attempted to serve a writ on a local frontiersman. The next day, having failed to stop Neville and the marshal in the performance of their duty, the farmers marched on Neville's house in an effort to intimidate both him and Lenox. They were joined by between five hundred and seven hundred men of the Mingo Creek militia, most likely influenced by the discontented grumblings of their local Democratic Society. The Mingo Creek militiamen attacked Neville's house on the 16th and again on the 17th. They eventually burned it to the ground, but only after Neville, his household staff and several federal soldiers had killed two of the attackers and wounded another six. Neville himself escaped unharmed; and Lenox, it turned out, had never been at the house.
After the attack on Neville's house, events began to take on a life of their own. Word of the confrontation spread across Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties and soon groups of farmers were seriously discussing the possibility of independence. It is unclear whether the Whiskey rebels were planning to create their own state within the federal union or to break with the United States entirely. It is known, however, that they came together across the region, transforming their regular militia musters, town assemblies and county conferences into focal points of rebellion. Much as the rebels had done in the lead-up to the American Revolution, the Whiskey rebels also established committees of correspondence and tried to draw other parts of the country into their cause. They found willing supporters in the two northwestern counties of Virginia, Ohio and Monongalia (now in West Virginia), and, eventually, in central Pennsylvania. The rebels intended to put the finishing touches on their plans for independence at a grand militia rally, in early August, just outside Pittsburgh.
By the time approximately six thousand militiamen gathered near Pittsburgh in the first week of August 1794, however, the federal government was already working on a plan to crush the insurrection. The driving force behind the government's efforts was Alexander Hamilton. From 1791 on, he had kept close watch over the development of the anti-excise tax movement in western Pennsylvania. Along with other leading Federalists, he saw the unrest for what it was: a challenge to the authority of the federal government and to Federalist control of the national government. If the farmers of western Pennsylvania were successful in their protest, the entire financial structure of the new central government would be in danger; and, what was equally to be feared, from a Federalist point of view, Thomas Jefferson's supporters might take advantage of the chaos that would doubtless ensue to gain control over the levers of national power. Hamilton was therefore determined to force the Whiskey rebels to back down and accept the Federalist political order, even if he had to use military force to achieve that end.
With the support of both the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, neither of which supported insurrection against the central government, Washington issued a proclamation on August 7, 1794, calling on the militias of eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to help suppress the Whiskey rebels. At the same time, however, Washington appointed a team of federal commissioners to travel to western Pennsylvania in an effort to end the rebellion peacefully. The commissioners made little headway and, on September 25, Washington finally issued the order that sent his army marching westward. Once they arrived in western Pennsylvania, the eastern militia found little evidence of a rebellion besides a number of liberty poles that the rebels had erected across the region, symbolizing the locals' zeal for independence. Faced with the prospect of a real war against an overwhelming number of troops, the Whiskey rebels had simply melted away, returning to the safety of their homes and families. By the late autumn of 1794, the power of the new federal government had been reestablished in Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.
Neither the federal government nor the Federalists emerged from the Whiskey Rebellion with a complete triumph. Even after 1794, collecting the excise tax remained difficult west of the Appalachians. In addition, contrary to Hamilton's intentions, the heavy-handed measures that he had urged on the government helped create a wider constituency for Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. More and more Americans believed that the Federalists were betraying the American Revolution's promise of liberty and equality by using military might to crush any opposition to the federal government and by favoring the wealthy and powerful in their policies. In contrast, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans appeared to be the more likely guardians of the Revolution's heritage. They may have supported Washington's initial call to arms in August 1794, but they were still associated, in the popular mind, with notions of local autonomy and the importance of upholding liberty rather than order (and tax revenues).
The leading Federalists became their own worst enemies in the period following the Whiskey Rebellion. Congressmen Fisher Ames of Massachusetts and Thomas FitzSimmons of Pennsylvania made an entirely self-serving effort to draw a direct line between the Whiskey rebels, the Democratic Societies, and Jefferson and his supporters. In this, they were following the lead of President Washington himself, who, in his address to Congress in November 1794, denounced the Democratic Societies as a threat to the stability of the republic, though he stopped short of accusing any specific individuals, such as Jefferson, of being behind the rebellion. Democratic-Republicans, particularly James Madison, responded to Ames and FitzSimmons's partisan attacks by defending their party as a legitimate and necessary opposition to the Federalists, who, from their point of view, were clearly running amok. Thanks in part to the Whiskey Rebellion, partisan politics had moved to the very center of the new federal government.
The Whiskey Rebellion was an important episode in the politics of the early republic for several reasons. The uprising in western Pennsylvania highlighted the struggles inherent in the Federalists' efforts to create a new federal government that had its own source of secure funding. At the same time, in their zeal to put down the rebellion and in their efforts to use the uprising to their own political advantage, the Federalists actually encouraged the growth of Jefferson's Democratic Republicans and the latter's self-definition as a legitimate force in the union. Even though they were defeated, the Whiskey rebels had a profound impact on the political development of their nation.
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- Revolutionary America, 1763-1815: A Political History, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2009.
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- The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty New York: Scribner, 2006. .
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