In the late 18th century, the newly independent United States of America faced its first major domestic crisis.
Settlers in its westernmost regions rose up in open armed rebellion against the government. The cause of the rebellion had to do with taxes, which was the very thing that the American Revolution was about in the first place.
The rebellion was seen by some as a threat to the very existence of the new country.
Learn more about the Whiskey Rebellion, its causes, and its ramifications on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
One of the things that might be hard to understand in the 21st century is that in the late 18th century, no one was really sure if the American experiment was going to be successful.
This was a country that was far from the old world. They were surrounded by the colonies of European power and were a republic in a world that was mostly ruled by monarchies.
There were many in Britain who were sure that the United States would soon fall apart, and they would come crawling back to Mother England.
So when the events that took place in the early 1790s occurred, they were taken very seriously at the time, even though they have been largely forgotten today.
The story starts with debt.
The United States came out of the Revolutionary War with an enormous amount of debt. The first congress and the first president were inaugurated in March 1789.
One of the big things the new government did took place in 1790 was when the federal government assumed all of the debts incurred by the individual states. This was a compromise between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, where, in exchange for assuming the state debt, the nation’s capital would be established on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland.
This was the idea of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. He wanted to assume all of the state debt to strengthen the power of the federal government.
The reason it would strengthen the federal government is because it would require a system of tariffs and taxes that would be a source of revenue for the federal government to pay off the debt.
One of Hamilton’s proposed taxes was a tax on distilling alcohol. Hamilton thought that a tax on alcohol, which was in effect a tax on whiskey, would be a rather benign tax. Even though Americans drank an enormous amount of liquor, here I’ll reference my previous episode on the astonishing drinking habits of early Americans. It was still not considered to be virtuous.
Taxes on such items as alcohol and tobacco are still known as sin taxes today.
Moreover, Hamilton thought that his tax wouldn’t noticed because it was paid by whiskey producers, not by consumers.
Nonetheless, many people were uneasy about this tax, including President George Washington. He was against the tax, but in 1791, he toured Virginia and Pennsylvania to try to get the opinions of citizens. While on his tour, he found enthusiastic support for the whiskey tax from local elected officials.
Having heard the widespread support for the plan, he returned to Philadelphia and supported the passage of the legislation.
However, there was a problem.
At this time, 96% of the population of the United States lived east of the Appalachian Mountains. When the tax was proposed, that was the population that was considered and the commercial whiskey producers in this area were the intended target of the tax.
The 4% of the population who lived west of the Appalachian Mountains lived in what was at the time called the West. They lived in Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio River Valley.
The people who lived in this region mostly lived a subsistence lifestyle. They were farmers who grew crops, and the biggest crop was corn.
In addition to living a subsistence lifestyle, most of the people in this region got whatever goods they couldn’t produce from barter, usually bartering their surplus crops.
However, corn and all grains were incredibly inefficient crops to transport. Grain is heavy. The major population centers were hundreds of miles away over mountains, and corn, like all grains, could spoil.
However, what did work was converting the grain to alcohol, aka whiskey.
Whiskey was over ten times easier to transport by weight, even though it was a liquid. Moreover, the economic value was even greater.
Whiskey was used as the primary form of exchange in the backwoods. In addition to being widely consumed, it was used to purchase whatever someone who lived far from civilization might need.
This was vital because most of these people didn’t have money. When I say they didn’t have money, I mean that people literally didn’t have money. Almost all commerce was conducted via barter, in particular with whiskey.
The whiskey tax did not exempt the personal stills that these people used on the frontier. These people didn’t take it well that the government came in and taxed the one thing that they had of value, especially considering that they had just fought and won a war about taxation.
However, that wasn’t the biggest problem. The tax had to be paid in cash, and the people on the frontier didn’t have cash. If they could pay the tax in kind, then it might have been unpopular but tolerable.
But the government needed cash to pay off its debt, and cash was something that they simply didn’t have.
On, and the cherry on top of everything is that the tax was regressive. Large producers paid six cents a gallon, and it got cheaper the more they made. The small distillers had to pay nine cents per gallon.
The tax went into effect in 1791, and the reaction to it was swift.
Protests against the tax began immediately. Most whiskey producers simply refused to pay the tax.
When officials came to collect the tax, they were often threatened with violence.
Tensions between the whiskey producers and the federal government continued to rise throughout 1791, and things came to a head on September 11 in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
A tax collector by the name of Robert Johnson came to the country seat of Washington to collect the whiskey taxes when a group of women confronted him…..except they weren’t women. They were men dressed as women.
They stripped Johnson naked, took his horse, and tarred and feathered him.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned tarring and feathering on this podcast before, but it is worth a brief explanation.
Tarring and feathering was a form of punishment and public humiliation that goes back centuries. It was often done in a highly public manner, often by a crowd or a mob.
The tar was often a type of tree sap that would heated to temperatures of about 60C or 140F. This would be poured on the person, and then a sack of feathers would be dumped on their head.
This was seldom fatal, but the hot tar or sap would be extremely painful and would often cause serious burns. So, this wasn’t a type of punishment that was cartoonish, it was more a form of torture.
So, they did this to Robert Johnson and then left him alone and naked to walk back to the next town.
Johnson recgonized two of the men who did this to him, so he reported them and a warrant was issued for their arrest. Another man, John Connor, was sent to arrest the men….and the same exact thing happened to him.
For most of 1791 and 1792, the whiskey tax wasn’t collected in Western Pennsylvania and the new state of Kentucky because it was simply too difficult to enforce collection.
While Western Pennsylvania was the site of the most notable resistance to the tax, there were protests in every state in Applachia from Maryland to Georgia.
In 1792, Alexander Hamilton was advocating using the military to enforce the tax, but the Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, resisted such action.
Things began to go beyond local resistance. A convention was held in Pittsburgh in August 1792 in response to what they thought was a lack of representation in Congress.
The delegates, five from each county, began to become more radicalized, issuing demands and replicating much of what was done during the revolution. They raised liberty poles in towns and formed local militia.
In September 1792, Hamilton drafted a presidential proclamation against the tax resistors that was signed by President Washington and published widely.
Things kept escalating. In 1793, a mob attacked the home of Benjamin Wells, a tax collector, and threatened his wife and family. Just one of many such attacks against federal tax officials.
It was in 1794 that things finally came to a head. Federal district attorney William Rawle issued subpoenas on 60 distillers who had avoided the tax. These men would have to travel over 300 miles to Philadelphia, the location of the court, at their own expense.
A Federal Marshal by the name of David Lenox was tasked with issuing the subpoenas, which he managed to do. On July 15, he visited the home of General John Neville, the head federal tax collector for western Pennsylvania.
Six hundred armed men surrounded Nevill’s home south of Pittsburgh. Ten army soldiers showed up, and soon, shooting began.
The leader of the rebellious forces, Major James McFarlane, was killed. The death of McFarlane spurred an escelation. On August 1, 7000 people assembled outside of Pittsburgh. There was talk of declaring independence from the United States, and they deployed their own flag.
The tax revolt had now entered open, armed rebellion.
Most of the members of President Washington’s cabinet advocated the use of force to put down the rebellion, but State Edmund Randolph wanted to negotiate.
Washington sent a team to negotiate, but while they did that, he assembled a military force. He created an army of almost 13,000 men, which was an enormous number for the country at that time. It was an army almost as large as the Continental Army during the Revolutionary
On September 30, Washington left Philadelphia to review the troops and the status of the expedition to Western Pennsulvania. It believed to have been the first and only time a sitting commander-in-chief has actually led military units in the field.
The troops entered Western Pennsylvania in October, and the rebellion almost instantly disappeared in the face of a superior force.
Many of the leaders of the rebellion fled, and the government arrested some who they thought took part in the rebellion. In the end, only two people were found guilty of treason, and both were given a pardon by Washington.
Ultimately, the tax was repealed in 1802 when Thomas Jefferson was in Office.
On the one hand, the Whiskey Rebellion was historically a rather small uprising with very few casualties.
Yet, on the other hand, the Whiskey Rebellion was a critical moment in American history. It tested the new federal government’s ability to enforce its laws and established a precedent for federal authority. The successful resolution of the rebellion demonstrated that the government had the will and the means to suppress violent resistance to its laws. It also highlighted the tensions between rural frontier areas and the federal government, a theme that would recur in American history.
…and it was a rather poorly written law. It would have been easy to have exempted the small whiskey producers, which didn’t produce much revenue anyhow and with whom it was difficult to collect.
In the end, the Whiskey Rebellion was America’s first major test as a country, one that it managed to pass.