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the first real test of federal authority
In 1791, the U.S. Congress levied an excise tax on whiskey and other distilled spirits produced in the United States. Recommended by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton as a means of raising revenue and reducing the national debt, the tax rate was set at 6 to 18 dents per gallon, with smaller distillers often paying more than twice per gallon what larger producers paid. All payments had to be made in cash to the Federal revenue officer appointed for the distiller's county. The law also required all stills to be registered.
Large, commercial distillers in the eastern United States generally accepted the new excise tax since they could pass its cost onto their cash-paying customers, but most smaller producers west of the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains opposed it. While eastern farmers could readily transport their grain to market, westerners faced the hard task of moving their crops great distances to the east over the mountains along poor dirt roads. Given this difficulty, many frontier farmers distilled their surplus grain into more easily transportable whiskey. And, since whiskey was often the only source of cash for many western farmers, the excise tax was, according to them, a direct assault on their already meager profits. To make matters worse, the law required that those cited for failure to pay the tax had to appear in distant Federal, rather than local, courts. In Pennsylvania, for example, the only Federal courthouse was in Philadelphia, some 300 miles away from the small frontier settlement of Pittsburgh.
Many western distillers refused to pay the tax, and some went so far as to harass agents sent to collect the taxes. The most vocal and violent opposition came from Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties in western Pennsylvania, where almost one-fourth of the nation's distilleries were located. The tarring and feathering of tax collectors became almost common, as did the harassment of anyone who was suspected to helping the collectors, and the destruction of homes belonging to collectors and supporters.
President George Washington took notice of the resistance to the whiskey tax and issued a proclamation on September 15, 1792, condemning interference with the "operation of the laws of the United States for raising revenue upon spirits distilled within the same." The proclamation went largely unheeded, however, and many government officials, including Alexander Hamilton, urged Washington to use the military to enforce the tax and restore peace in Pennsylvania. Washington refused to employ federal troops, but did place state militia units on "standby status."
Full-scale rebellion broke out in July 1794, when federal officials attempted to arrest leaders of the anti-tax movement. A series of bitter fights between U.S. marshals and rebels ensued, and several people were killed or wounded. On August 2, President Washington met with his Cabinet and the Governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Mifflin, to consider the situation, and on August 7 he issued a proclamation calling on the rebels "to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes." Fearing expansion of hostilities beyond western Pennsylvania, Alexander Hamilton suggested the use of military force, but Washington chose to put state militia on the ready instead. He also sent negotiators (Attorney General William Bradford, Senator James Ross of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Jasper Yeates), who met with a 15-member "rebel committee" in late August and early September.
Negotiations failed to end the conflict, however, and on September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. President to personally lead troops in the field when he led a 13,000-man militia force on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains from Carlisle to the town of Bedford. Upon reaching Bedford he turned command of the force over to General Henry Lee. Washington left a letter with Lee with instructions to combat those "who may be found in arms in opposition to the National will and authority" and "to aid and support the civil Magistrate in bringing offenders to justice."
In late October 1794, the federalized militia entered the western counties of Pennsylvania and sought out the whiskey rebels. By mid-November, the militia had arrested 150 rebels, including 20 prominent leaders of the insurrection. Under the President's authority, General Lee issued a general pardon on November 29th for all those who had taken part "in the wicked and unhappy tumults and disturbances lately existing," with the exception of 33 men named in the document. While most of the militia returned home, a regiment occupied the area until the following spring, and organized opposition to the tax evaporated. Two men were subsequently convicted of treason, but both were pardoned by Washington, as were all others still in custody or under indictment.
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This page was last updated on June 14, 2017.