Rebellion against a whiskey tax tested the new U.S. Constitution and set the precedent for future conflicts between Americans and their government.
Just two years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, an internal excise tax was imposed on whiskey distillers. Most of the distillers were small farmers who lived in western Pennsylvania and the frontier regions of Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The tax was bitterly resented because whiskey was a valuable commodity on the frontier. In addition many considered the tax unfair and discriminatory because farmers who harvested other crops such as cotton or tobacco were not taxed on their products.
The threat to farmers’ livelihoods notwithstanding, the very notion of an excise tax outraged many Americans because it seemed to be a return to British taxation without representation. Onerous taxation was what prompted Americans to fight for independence from British rule just one generation earlier. To many, the federal government was transforming into precisely what they had fought against.
A Call for Resistance
By July 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania and the frontier regions were openly resisting the tax. Many whiskey distillers held protest meetings and began a campaign of harassment against federal tax collectors. Farmers threatened collectors with shotguns and even tarred and feathered some collectors. In addition small groups robbed the mail, stopped court proceedings, and threatened to march on Pittsburgh. This rebellion became a lightning rod for a variety of grievances against the federal government.
While some federal politicians urged negotiation with the rebels, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, the chief proponent of the whiskey tax, was eager to test the power of the federal government. Hamilton persuaded President George Washington to mobilize the militia to suppress the rebellion. Although farmers in many regions were resisting the tax, western Pennsylvania was targeted because of the abundance of tax collectors in that area. On August 7, 1794, Washington declared martial law and began mobilizing a multi-state militia force.
Federal Forces Move on Western Pennsylvania
Within a month, nearly 13,000 militia conscripts were organized to move on western Pennsylvania, led by President Washington and the chief U.S. tax collector, Hamilton. This force was larger than the army that had defeated the British at Yorktown to end the American War for Independence. The objective was to frighten the rebels with federal takeover if they resisted further; this was very similar to past tactics used by King George III against the American colonies.
After a two-week expedition through western Pennsylvania, no major rebel force was found and Washington withdrew the militia after capturing only 20 resisters. These captives were dragged in chains across the state to Philadelphia, where 12 of the 20 were tried for treason. Two were convicted and sentenced to hang but Washington pardoned both. With this, the Whiskey Rebellion soon faded from popular memory. But who had been victorious?
Precedents of the Whiskey Rebellion
The popular analysis calls the Whiskey Rebellion a victory for the new federal government. Washington successfully raised a militia in accordance with his executive order and congressional law. The unrest in western Pennsylvania was largely subdued and law and order was restored, thus proving that the federal government could enforce its laws.
Conversely, while the unrest in western Pennsylvania was generally subdued, many farmers continued practicing non-violent civil disobedience and the tax was rarely paid. Local juries could not be summoned to indict local protestors. In addition, no federal force was sent onto the frontier because no tax collector dared venture that far from the seat of the national government, and consequently no taxes were paid there. Moreover, resentment against government intervention was vented through various “Democratic-Republican” groups organized to oppose administration policies. These groups helped to elect Thomas Jefferson president in 1800, and the hated tax was repealed in his first term.
No federal excise taxes were imposed again (except for during the War of 1812) until the Civil War. Because the tax was mostly never paid, no one was successfully prosecuted, and the tax was ultimately abolished, this would seem to indicate that the whiskey rebels had prevailed. This victory set an important precedent in regards to citizens resisting federal taxation, as well as citizens affirming their sovereignty in the face of a perceived oppressive federal power.
- Rothbard, Murray: “The Whiskey Rebellion,” The Free Market, September 1994.
- DiLorenzo, Thomas J.: Hamilton’s Curse (New York: Crown Forum, 2008).