Another take on the whiskey rebellion.

"Gentlemen, I will have this land just as surely as I now have this handkerchief."
George Washington, Sept 20 1778.

It was at dawn, July 16th, 1794, (20 years and 210 days after the Boston Tea Party, and 18 years after Independence) that around fifty men armed with guns and clubs, marched on the house of the Western Pennsylvanian federal excise tax collector, John Neville, and demanded he resign his position, and cease collecting the tax. He refused, whereupon shots were fired, and five of the attackers wounded. The next day, the two sides once again exchanged fire, this time with the excise collector's guards surrendering after the rebels set fire to the house and surrounding buildings. The whiskey rebellion, as it was later termed, was underway, brought on by a (small) tax levied by the new US Federal government on domestically distilled spirits.

As earlier noted, life on the frontier was not a picnic. The Indian threat, the harsh winters, a fragile economy, and the continual allotment of land, usually the best land in the region, to out of town speculators were daily reminders of the difficulties of their existence. A further federal tax on their whisky put some on the path to rebellion. The excise however was strongly favored by 'Easterners', particularly those who sought a powerful national government. Such men had the ears of government - in fact were the government. And efficient tax collection is a pre-requisite of central control.

Frontiersmen saw things somewhat different. Most still believed in the ideals of the revolution, no taxes without representation being one. The West was being taxed to support the government, but enjoying none of its blessings.

But to understand more about the rebellion, we must first digress a little, and talk a bit about George Washington. There are apparently some 3000 authors who have already written about Washington since 1800, though few, it seems, link any patterns between Washington's western land dealings - his private interests - and his Presidential - public - action. Of Washington, Thomas P Slaughter, in his book The Whisky Rebellion, said this, page 81:

"During the 1760s and 1770s Washington mounted a campaign for land on the frontier more impressive than any he ever executed as a general - and more successful. He had an acquisitive genius and was a ruthless exploiter of advantage. Governor Dinwiddie had offered a 200,000 acre bounty to encourage enlistments for the war. After the fighting ended, however, it took some persuasion to convince the House of Burgesses to finance the governor's promise. By the time that the militia's leader - George Washington - got around to petitioning and persuading the new governor and House of Burgesses to deliver on the bounty, he had accumulated claims to more than 20,000 of those frontier acres for himself. Between the years 1754 and 1769 Washington purchased rights from soldiers too poor, too cynical, or too nave to bank on the word of an ex-governor. Some gladly surrendered their apparently ephemeral claims; others declined Washington's offers of 10 for each 2000 acres. Some men suspected that he labored disingenuously in behalf of the grantees in order to force them into capitulation to his offers. Why, they asked in retrospect, did it take their commander a decade and a half to draw up the petition and exert his influence within the House of Burgesses? Some men even refused to sell to Washington, while agreeing to identical terms offered by others. So Washington took his investment scheme underground and engaged his brother Charles to find out "(in a joking way, rather than in earnest, at first)" what value the militiamen put on their rights. Once he had cajoled this information from the men, Charles was to purchase 15,000 acres in his own name. "Do not," George insisted, "let it be known that I have any concern therein." If the truth were known, prices would rise, resentment would rekindle, and the scheme for vast acquisitions would founder on the shoals of Washington's unpopularity with the men. Once Washington succeeded, the grant materialized during the next session of the assembly. There is no evidence to substantiate the militiamen's accusations that the timing was more than a coincidence, but it is clear that Washington lied about the openness of his accumulation of rights. There is no doubt that some of his comrades-in-arms were furious at him for his machinations. He broke a Virginia law limiting the size of surveyed tracts. Contrary to another law he secured an additional personal grant of 5,000 acres. He engrossed the best soil for himself at the expense of fellow officers and men who trusted their commander to make a fair survey and distribution. The whole process was not, as Washington averred, 'a lottery only'."

And further, page 82:
"The Virginian's lust for frontier soil did not end here... In 1773 he (Washington) was still charting claims and entreating a western Pennsylvania agent to scout out more land "that you would increase my quantity to fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five thousand acres" in that district alone. Eventually, Washington would own over 63,000 acres of trans-Appalachia, becoming one of the largest absentee landlords the western country knew during his day." End quote

Frontiersmen and other locals had little respect for the claims of absentee owners. More than a few locals simply squatted and took up residence; labor and use being for these people the law of ownership. And squat the locals did, persistently annoying General Washington. One such group of squatters were those on Millers Run, in Pennsylvania, whom Washington was visiting in 1778 in order to enforce his claim upon the land the squatters were occupying. "They wished to purchase the acreage from him rather than dispute the claim in court. Washington was not interested. He listened, apparently impatiently, to their pleas. They described in detail the hardships they had endured, the religions principles that had brought them to the frontier, and their determination to stay on the land they had cleared and cultivated. Washington responded with an offer of 999-year leases or sale over three years with interest. They had little money, but would agree to his price, even though they thought it very high, if Washington would extend the period for payment and forgo the interest. He refused. Washington was angered by their determination to fight for the land in court. Such people usually backed down when threatened with a lawsuit. He replied with dignity and some warmth, asserting that they had been forewarned by his agent, and the nature of his claim fully made known, that there could be no doubt of its validity, and rising from his seat and holding a red silk handkerchief by one corner, he said "Gentlemen, I will have this land just as surely as I now have this handkerchief."

Pennsylvanian courts upheld the General's claims, and Washington went on to sell the land in 1796 for $12000. (Slaughter, page 85, note 25.)

For the frontiersman and western farmers, such behavior was creating an intense dislike of eastern speculators in "their" western lands, of whom Washington was one of the largest. And for the farmers of corn, lacking ready markets for their product, their troubles were worse since they could sell their surplus corn only by distilling it into a far more portable form - whiskey. The whiskey excise of 1791 was therefore a direct threat to their way of life, not to mention a tax on the single most important item of western frontier trade. The president of the Union, whilst this tax was dreamt up and put into operation by Congress and Treasury secretary Hamilton, was Washington.

Interests on both sides had to be defended, and by 1794, frontiersmen, corn farmers and the landless were now openly rebelling against the tax. But then, as now, the threat of rebellion against the government was probably exaggerated by vested interests within the government, increasing justification for an armed suppression of the resistance. There were voices in the government branding the rioters as plotting to overthrow the government. Even the Treasury Secretary tried to undermine peace negotiations between the two parties. (Slaughter, page 198.)

On August 7th, President Washington issued an order for the rioters to disband and return home, and then at the same time, began the process of organizing a government backed force in case things got out of hand. On September 24th, after receiving word that negotiation between the parties was not successful, Washington gave orders for the military to put down the rebellion. Ultimately the government approved a 12,950-man force to do so, though getting them over the Appalachians proved the hardest part of the exercise.

Raising the militia cost money. It was done by Treasury Secretary Hamilton, via a loan from the Bank of the United States (BUS). Actually a request for a loan from the BUS had already been made - for the purposes of building warships; the loan was just brought forward and the use of the funds diverted to the crisis at hand. (Cowen, The Origins and Economic Impact of the First Bank of the United States, page 185.)

(There is a link here between modern warfare, and the raising of loans to pay for it. If governments were prohibited from going into debt, by common public consent written into constitutions, most wars, especially like the most recent ones fought in Iraq, could never be waged without prior approval. The public however is not financially literate enough to see this process happening and are continually hoodwinked. The public also rarely ever make the connection between vested interests and the way debt is spent into the economy, but that is another story for another time.)

By late October 1794, as the government force arrived to put down the uprising, it was becoming obvious no rebel army was going to materialize to fight. The rebellion had fizzled, and the only two persons ever subsequently convicted of treason, were later pardoned. But the whiskey tax stayed, being repealed only after 1800 by a more republican style of government led by Thomas Jefferson.


In the aftermath of the rebellion, once the Indians had been eventually moved on by Federal troops, and more and more of the US interior was opened up, the line of the frontier kept moving westward so that not long after the rebellion, western Pennsylvania was no longer a frontier region. The overwhelming show of force would have also sent the appropriate message to the citizens. And the army sent west to crush the Rebellion brought one further (unintended) consequence to the local economy as well: the government spent large sums in western Pennsylvania to supply the soldiers with food and naturally, perhaps ironically, whiskey. "This brought the largest injection of specie that the region had ever experienced. Cash-poor farmers now had money to spend, and they spent it on land. Soldiers visiting the western country for the first time espied plots that were much to their liking, and many of them purchased ground and moved their families west in the years following 1794. Eastern speculators who owned vast wilderness tracts were also direct beneficiaries of these transformations in the fortunes of the Old Northwest. George Washington, for one, had actively renewed his quest to sell frontier real estate only one month before the Rebellion, and the coincidence was certainly a propitious one for his finances. As he observed later in the year, "this event having happened at the time it did was fortunate, " but in more ways than he implied. When the "army of the Constitution" crushed the "enemies of order," it also helped raise the value of Washington's property by about 50 percent." (Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, page 224.)

At the time of the rebellion, the heroes of the revolution were militarily enforcing the ideas they had but 20 years earlier risked their very lives to overthrow.


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