The Whiskey Rebellion represented the first serious challenge to the authority of the newly formed central government and thus demanded a decisive response.
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 represented a serious threat to the authority of the newly formed government and the administration of George Washington. Like Shays’ Rebellion of 1786, the Whiskey Rebellion involved farmers reacting to the perceived indifference of a government many miles from their fields. At its height, the Whiskey Rebellion involved thousands of Pennsylvania farmers being taxed on rye liquor, their chief export. An army of militia from surrounding states was sent into Pennsylvania to suppress the uprising. Several of the rebellion’s leaders were taken east for trial and two were found guilty of treason. The Whiskey Rebellion was the first test of federal power and authority.
Causes of the Whiskey Rebellion
Anger over federal taxation began when Congress passed an act in 1791 to establish an excise on tobacco and sugar products as well as whiskey. The purpose of the tax was to help fund Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s landmark financial proposals, designed to eliminate the national and state debts still outstanding from the years of the Revolution.
The Revolution had been fought partly on the basis of “no taxation without representation.” It was the same rallying cry Daniel Shays had used in 1786 only in New England the circumstances involved the foreclosure of family farms. For President Washington and the emerging Federalists, however, this was a different issue. It was one thing to revolt against a tyrannical government led by a despot like King George III (although he probably wasn’t). It was another matter entirely to revolt against a republic established by the consent of the people.
The Rebellion Expands in Pennsylvania
Following a Congressional act enforcing the excise tax, Pennsylvania farmers openly resisted federal marshals and revenue inspectors. Initial minor altercations turned violent and soon the region around Pittsburgh was filling with local militia men willing to forcibly resist any federal action and vowing not to compromise. Some 6,000 men stood ready to defend their right not to be taxed.
Alexander Hamilton urged President Washington to take action. In an August 2, 1794 letter to Washington, Hamilton refers to the actions in Pennsylvania as “insurrection” and that “competent…militia…be called forth…in effectuating Obedience to the laws and punishment of Offenders.” Washington raised 12,000 militia from surrounding states, many of whom were veterans of the Revolution. Only in Maryland was resistance encountered where some farmers also produced rye liquor. As the fall approached, the Federal army, commanded by Alexander Hamilton, entered western Pennsylvania.
Capitulation of the Rebels
The rebellion ended without bloodshed after negotiations with farmer delegations that agreed to lay down their arms and henceforth follow the laws of the land. Several leaders of the uprising, however, were taken to Philadelphia. Two of these men were tried and convicted in what became the nation’s first treason trials. Although sentenced to death, President Washington later commuted the sentences.
This would not be the last time in American history that issues of taxation or variations thereof entailed strong federal response or the threat of military action to enforce the laws. The Nullification Crisis resulted in President Andrew Jackson’s threat to send troops to South Carolina to enforce compliance of tariff collections. Even today, the popularity of the growing tea party movement protesting government deficits, though not violent, demonstrates that Americans still view taxation with deep suspicion.
- William Bruce Wheeler and Susan D. Becker, Discovering the American Past: A Look at the Evidence, Fifth Edition, Volume One: to 1877 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002)
- Page Smith, The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic, Volume Three (New York” McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980)
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (on-line edition)