Landmark Moments in American History: The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791 the United States of America was still a young nation. While the Revolutionary War had ended in 1783, the Constitution wasn’t signed until 1787 and then still needed a year before being ratified in 1788. The first president, George Washington, was elected in 1789, and he had his work cut out for him. The nation was still struggling to pay off debts from the Revolutionary War and needed to find a way to raise funds.

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton suggested that the federal government should take on the debts of the states and pay for them using a whiskey tax. Washington took time to meet with citizens and government officials throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania, and finding support, signed the new tax into law.

The tax was met with much resistance. Many refused to pay the tax, especially western farmers who often used their leftover grains to make whiskey, utilizing it as a form of exchange in place of money. Tax collectors and officers sent to serve warrants for failure to pay were often met with violence. Some were tarred and feathered while others were accosted by angry mobs. Western Pennsylvanians went so far as to create their own assembly in place of Congress. Some urged that they move towards rebellion, but others wanted to seek conciliatory measures.

Violence escalated in 1794 when a mob attacked federal marshal David Lenox at his home. Lenox’s slaves fought back, wounding six. Later, another large mob gathered at the home of John Neville, a rich landowner who had served as a guide for Lenox. Once they discovered that he wasn’t home they burned it to the ground. A mob of 7,000 men then gathered to attack Pittsburg, hoping to strike before Washington called for the militia. The city offered a message of peace and a gift of whisky, ultimately leading the crowd to march through the city peacefully instead.

Washington called for the militia, gathering over 12,000 men from Pennsylvania and the surrounding states. Washington met with the rebels and the militia saw little resistance. While there was no violence, several suspected rebels were arrested to stand trial in Philadelphia. Only two were found guilty and Washington decided to pardon them. The tax was eventually repealed by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, but the Whisky Rebellion set an important precedent for the use of federal authority.

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