The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, was a revolt carried out by farmers and distillers in Pennsylvania, to protest against the whiskey tax imposed by the national government. This rebellion is characterized with lots of aggression, it being considered as the first major test of the newly formed US government. The huge support which was garnered for farmers, opposing the whiskey tax, worked in favour of Republicans, who overtook Washington’s presidency (Federalist Party) in 1802. 

What was the Whiskey tax?

The Whiskey Rebellion goes back to times of American Revolution. Before the war, a large number of families crossed the Appalachian mountains in search for land. All the major markets for grain were set up on the other side of the mountain, which made the cost of transportation too high. The Spanish, who controlled the mouth of the Mississippi river, blocked the alternate route down the river. Thus, in order to make profit on their excess grain, the farmers built private stills, and used it for making whiskey. Whiskey had more value, and was much easier to sell.

The previous Central government had borrowed loads of money to meet expenses relating to the Revolutionary war, which was around $54 million debt. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton thought of a way to assume the outstanding war debts of the economy. A source of revenue had to be generated to fund the repayment of the debt, but Hamilton was of the view that import duties were already at an all-time high. He therefore proposed the levying of an excise tax on domestic distilled whiskey, making it the first tax to be levied on a domestic product by the government. This excise tax came to be known as the ‘Whiskey Tax’.

Hamilton believed that ‘whiskey tax’ was a luxury tax, and thus less objectionable by the public. According to him as well as other reformers, it was basically a ‘sin tax’ which would  discourage the consumption of alcohol by making them aware about its harmful effects.

Grievances:

Among the farmers in western Pennsylvania, the majority of them argued that this tax was unfair and targeted at the westerners. As explained earlier, small farmers in the west of the Appalachian mountains distilled their excess grain into whiskey. Also, due to cash supply, whiskey also served as a medium of exchange. The whiskey tax thus became an income tax imposed on the poor.

There were primarily two methods to pay the whiskey tax: a flat fee or per gallon. The large distillers, living in the East, produced in huge volumes, thus saving lots of money by opting to pay a flat fee. The more their output increased, the more tax they were saving. 

Many small scale farmers or distillers were of the opinion that Hamilton deliberately designed this policy, to promote big business. Another aspect was that the law required all stilts to be registered, and for the unregistered ones, they had to appear in distant Federal, rather than local courts. The only Federal courthouse was in Philadelphia, around 300 miles away, from Pittsburgh.

Whiskey Tax violence:

The law was termed as a failure immediately. There were a large number of refusals to pay the tax, and all the excise officers sent to collect the tax, were met with defiance and violence threats. 

In September 1791, excise officer (collector) Robert Johnson was riding in Pennsylvania, on one of his collection trips, when he was surrounded by 11 men dressed as women. They stripped him naked and he was ‘tarred and feathered’ which was a form of public humiliation, used to enforce revenge. After being stripped naked, a hot wood tar was painted onto the person, and feathers were thrown on him, so that they got stuck to the tar. 

Post that, when Johnson filed a complaint, John Connor was sent with the warrant however, he faced a similar fate, and he was tied to a tree for 5 hours, before being found. As a result, fearing more violence, Robert Johnson resigned from his post.

The number of such incidents kept rising. Another excise officer, Benjamin Wells, couldn’t escape this. Protesters barged into his house twice, and even assaulted his wife and children.

Battle of bower hill:

In 1794, federal marshal David Lenox started serving written orders to distillers in Western Pennsylvania who had not paid the tax. On July 15, he was accompanied by General Neville, who had offered to act as his guide through Allegheny County. 

On July 15, both of them approached William Miller, who refused to accept his order. When Lenox and Neville rode off, they were faced with a mob carrying pitchforks and muskets. 

The mob had been accumulated because they believed that Lenox and Neville were dragging the defaulters away, but once it turned out that this news was untrue, they were allowed to leave however, a shot was fired on their way back.

The next morning, Neville was asleep in his home, Bower Hill, when he was awakened by a crowd of people who had been served orders to pay the tax the previous day. They demanded the surrender of Lenox, however, Neville didn’t believe them and ordered them off his property. However, the mob was adamant, thus Neville shot at the crowd and killed Oliver Miller. In response, the crowd shot back at the house. Six members of the mob were wounded before they fled with Oliver’s body, and the group met again to plan a revenge against Neville. 

In July 1974, around 700 rebels gathered at Bower Hill, and demanded his surrender. However, Major James Kirkpatrick, one of the 10 soldiers who had come in defense of Neville, said that Neville wasn’t there. He helped Neville escape the house in the meantime. After an hour of gunfighting, the mob’s leader Mcfarlane, was killed. In this way, Bower Hill estate burned to the ground.

Militia expedition:

President Washington asked his cabinet for written opinions on this matter and what should be their plan of action for the same. Majority of the cabinet was of the view that force had to be used to end this revolt once and for all. Thus, Washington raised a militia army, to suppress the rebellion, ‘with deepest regret’ as claimed in his announcement.

The militia consisted of 12,950 men, and they marched into western Pennsylvania and met with very less violence. It was suspected that the rebellion’s main instigators had already fled. Thus, with the help of militia, the protests were brought to an end.

Conclusion:

While the violent opposition to Whiskey tax ended, political opposition continued. By 1802, Thomas Jefferson repealed this excise tax. Thereafter, until 1812, the national government solely relied on tariffs for revenue generation, as they expanded rapidly due to increasing foreign trade.

 

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