The Whiskey Rebellion was a rural uprising in the western counties of Pennsylvania in 1794 in response to a federally imposed excise tax placed on liquor. George Washington led an army into the field to break up the rebellion: he was the only United States President ever to lead troops into the field. It was a strong show of power for the young government, demonstrating willingness to enforce its laws. The unpopularity of this tax contributed to the resignation of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who went on to form the Republican Party which proved to be the downfall of the Federalist Party.
After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the federal government assumed the debts that the states had incurred during the American Revolution. In an effort to reduce the national debt, Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, proposed a bill to tax distilled spirits. The bill was passed into law in 1791. The tax was not well received by farmers and distillers in the western frontier counties, especially in Pennsylvania. Due to the difficulty of shipping grain to market, the western farmers became economically dependent on fermenting and distilling their grains in order to maximize its lifespan. These frontier counties also operated largely on the barter system, which made it difficult for them to pay cash taxes. Believing that the federal government was acting against their interests, the frontiersmen refused to pay the tax.
The tax resulted in both violent and non-violent responses to it. In September 1791, sixteen men in Washington County tarred and feathered a tax collector named Robert Johnson. Johnson was able to identify some of the men who had assaulted him and warrants were issued for their arrests. Realizing the danger of the situation, head excise officer John Neville, a veteran of the American Revolution, used a proxy to serve the warrants. The proxy was assaulted by a mob and the warrants were never served. Meetings were held to fight the tax with non-violent means by representatives from Pennsylvania's western counties of Washington, Allegheny, Westmoreland, and Fayette. They petitioned Congress, charging that the excise was a selective tax unfairly targeting western Pennsylvanian distillers. Politicians in the east feared that this violent resistance to pay the law signified a move toward frontier independence, of which there had been several occurrences in the 1780s.
A group of western Pennsylvanians known as the Mingo Creek Association became the driving force behind the rebellion. Their members rose through the ranks of the local authorized militias and used their power to obstruct tax collectors and protect residents from debt lawsuits. In 1792, Neville rented a house in Washington County from an army officer named William Faulkner. The Association threatened Faulkner and during a convention in Pittsburgh they issued a series of radical demands including support for actions against anyone aiding federal officials. Shortly afterward, a group ransacked Faulkner's house and he decided to not allow Neville to use it as his base of operations. Neville became convinced of the need for a military presence to enforce the law.
Tensions escalated throughout 1793 and early 1794 with harassment extending not only to federal officials but to residents who had registered their stills with the government. The rebellion was further fueled by someone writing under the pseudonym "Tom the Tinker". Tom became the invisible leader of the movement, inspiring gangs of rebels to call themselves "Tom the Tinker's Men" and carrying out his written threats. In May of 1794, liberty poles began to appear across the Pennsylvania countryside -- clearly echoing the symbolism of the liberty trees of New England prior to the American Revolution.
In July 1794, U.S. marshal David Lenox, along with John Neville, was sent to western Pennsylvania to issue summonses to delinquent tax payers. After reading a writ at the Oliver Miller Homestead on July 15, a posse that had been trailing the two federal agents fired shots as they rode away. The Mingo Creek Association sent men to Neville's house at Bower Hill to arrest Lenox and Neville, which they failed to do and resulted in five casualties for the rebels. The rebels returned two days later with a larger force under the command of James McFarlane to find that Bower Hill had been reinforced by federal troops. This time the rebels were victorious and Neville's entire plantation was burnt to the ground. Inspired by their success, the rebels marched toward Pittsburgh, threatening to burn the town unless certain demands were met. The moderates in the town's leadership agreed to the rebel demands, and joined their militia that was gathering on Braddock's Field.
On August 6th, President Washington sent a peace envoy to meet with the rebels. At the same time, he issued a proclamation ordering the insurgents to disperse under threat of military action, which was required under the Militia Act of 1792 before mobilizing troops. Orders were sent to the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to prepare their militias to march. Although the federal peace commissioners believed that force would ultimately be necessary, the rebels were split with the moderate view of peace being the majority view. Although there were moderates willing to sign an oath of allegiance to the United States, there were still a significant number of rebels who would have nothing to do with it. In October, Hamilton and Washington went into the field leading a 13,000 army toward western Pennsylvania. Due largely to the efforts of moderates such as Albert Gallatin and Henry Hugh Brackenridge there was no violence. Rebels were rounded up and paraded back to Philadelphia for trial, and most were acquitted for lack of evidence.
- Tom the Tinker is believed to be John Holcroft, a veteran of Shays Rebellion, however this has never been proven.
- Hogeland (2006) pp.130-131
- Hogeland (2006) p.132