The Whiskey Rebellion
of western Pennsylvania


Funding for a central government and to support an army during the War of Revolution was scarce. After the war it became more difficult to collect taxes from colonies which had also suffered great financial loses over many years. At first the colonial congress literally begged each colony for contributions but this was ineffective. As circumstances worsened taxes were placed on various commercial activity with most of the laws poorly written and ill conceived. One such act was for the production of whiskey. The law assessed a tax based on the capacity of the still; not on the volume produced. In many cases throughout the colonies this was only a minor problem of taxing the owner for product he may consume himself or for spillage. However, in western Pennsylvania it was a different story. Most of the whiskey sold in Pennsylvania was distilled on the western side of the Allegheny Mountains and hauled to the eastern side for sale, at double the price. The result was two tier pricing. Twenty-five percent per gallon on the eastern side and fifty-percent per gallon in the west. This resulted in a 100% higher tax rate for western settlers.

The whiskey tax imposed by the central government was in addition to the local and state tax. Criminal charges of federal violations were prosecuted in the federal courts in Philadelphia or York requiring defendants, lawyers, and witnesses to travel great distances and incur heavy expense to settle matters. Local registration and taxes were handled by county offices and courts sometimes requiring more travel east of the mountains. The western settlers had for years considered local taxation an onerous burden with no return of services and they often vented their flustrations with murdereous raids to the east. The addition of the federal taxes in the early 1780's exacerbated the problem.

Adding fuel to the fire, in January 15, 1788, Lord Dorchester, the governor-general of Canada, (aware of the strong feelings against the east) sent one his friends, John Connolly, to Western Pennsylvania to talk to General John Neville, General Samuel Parsons and other sympathetic to the British cause to determine the likelihood of the west separating from the east. He then sent a letter to Lord Sydney advising him to aid the west in separating from the Union. Active encouragement began in 1788 and continued through 1790.

Indians, often encouraged by the British, raided the areas west of the mountains. The central government made feeble attempts to subdue the Indians. Two military expeditions were sent. -- The first, in 1790, was led by General Josiah Harmer and the second, in 1791, was led by General Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory. -- Both were defeated.

Land in the west was cheap. Large tracts were purchased by well-to-do easterners including President George Washington, his brother Charles, Alexander Hamilton, and others.

A meeting at Redstone Fort in July of 1791 began the organized resistance to the collection of the whiskey excise tax. Attempts to enforce collections often resulted in humiliation with collectors tarred and feathered. The resistance festered and grew over the next three years. As resistance increased so did the federal charges, followed by increased animosity as more citizens were forced to travel to Philadelphia. In July 1794 an open rebellion erupted with the local militia taking an active role. In one gathering 5,000 to 7,000 armed men assembled in an open field displaying their willingness to fight.

Alexander Hamilton was President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury and therefore responsible for the collection of the whiskey tax. He had been encouraging Washington to take action for some time. With this latest uprising, Washington acted.

On August 7, 1794, Washington began mobilizing 12,950 troops from eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey under General Harry Lee, the Governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee.

Concurrently a Presidential Commission was organized and began investigating the matter. With a desire to quickly end the fracas on August 21 the commission offered amnesty to violators if they would come forward, sign a confession, agree to pay the tax and become law abiding citizens. Few accepted. Perhaps because they did not trust the commissioners. Following this, a commission member, General William Irvine, sent a letter to Washington which said in part:

"I do not mean now either to condemn or justify the proceedings here, but I may safely venture to say, that people on the west of the mountains labor under hardships, if not grievances that are not known, or at least not understood, in other parts of the United States, in more instances than the excise; but in this particular it can be demonstrated that they labor under particular hardships, for instance, carrying a man to Philadelphia or York to be tried for crimes, real or supposed, or on litigations respecting property, perhaps under the value or forty shillings: This is intolerable."

Nevertheless, at the urging of Hamilton, Washington determined that troops would be needed to put down the insurrection. The troops, largely from New Jersey, arrived in Carlisle Pennsylvania in late September 1794. Washington and his troops arrived in Bedford, Pennsylvania on October 19th. By early November the army began rounding up suspects. By November 19th most of the army began the trek home with prisoners and their guards following six days later.

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