The Whiskey Rebellion

It was the winter of 1791 when Congress met to discuss the Excise Whiskey Tax, a bill put in place to help pay off the immense debt that had piled up from the Revolutionary War, which would be placed on distilled liquor. An excise tax is a tax that is placed on a specific good or product. Large producers of liquor were able to pay less than smaller producers because they only had to pay an annual tax, which was roughly six cents per gallon while smaller producers had to pay a year rate of roughly nine cents. These smaller producers mainly existed in western counties of Pennsylvania and the tax was detrimental because they only made whiskey occasionally. Needless to say, these small time producers were enraged at the newly placed tax.[1]

Rebellion 1

“Famous Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania, 1794”

Concerns arose because the revenue from the tax was going to the government, and at the time, the people believed that their government was not representing them well. Liquor was a part of everyday life, and putting a tax on such a high demand product felt like oppression to the people in the western counties. The government required each county to establish an office from which an officer could collect the tax. The easiest way for people to avoid paying the tax was by preventing an officer from residing in a citizen’s home through threats and fear to keep the officer out. If the officer was successful in securing a home to reside in, rebels resorted to humiliation by tarring and feathering the officer, or in severe cases, torturing the official.[2]

Whiskey 2

“Capture of the Whiskey-Tax Collectors”

The Whiskey Rebellion was an important moment in western Pennsylvanians’ history due to its role in instigating Congress to repeal the excise tax in 1802.[3] On July 16, 1794, a group of roughly 400-500 men marched on Bower Hill, out of anger at the oppressive government, located in Allegheny County, southwest of Pittsburgh. The planned assault was against General John Neville, who was a military officer and excise tax collector and served in both the French and Indian war and the American Revolutionary war. Rebels met resistance at the home of Neville, as he had armed his slaves and had a few soldiers guarding the property. The fighting commenced and by the end the mansion on Bower Hill was burned to the ground to send a message of fear to other tax collectors.[4] In August, about 5,000-7,000 men met in Braddock, PA to protest the tax. Because of the violent attack on Neville’s home, and mounting protests of anger that the tax was still in place, these rebellions caused the government enough concern that President George Washington would have to intervene and stop the revolt.[5]

Because of the rebel’s behavior, President George Washington organized a militia of 12,950 men and led them towards Western Pennsylvania. Rebels, fearing the militia, dispersed and hid. President Washington was only able to capture 150 men, who were charged with treason. However, because of the lacking evidence and witnesses, only two men were found guilty of treason and were later pardoned by President Washington on the grounds that they would submit to the laws of the United States.[6] In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax due to the rebels’ challenge of federal authority.[7]

I became interested in the Whiskey Rebellion after reading The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss. The novel delves into the time period of the whiskey tax and provides an image of what life was like for those living on the frontier in western Pennsylvania. The Whiskey rebels helped create the new American nation through perseverance for change, to not be used by the government as a way to pay off debt from the Revolutionary war, showing that the American people are a force to be reckoned with.

Whiskey 3

“George Washington reviewing the troops being deployed against the Whiskey Rebellion.”

 

[1] Thomas Slaughter, “The Whiskey Rebellion,” last modified November 20, 2014, http://home.nps.gov/frhi/historyculture/whiskeyrebellion.htm. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Kotowski, “Whiskey Rebellion,” last modified 2014, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/whiskey-rebellion/. Accessed November 18, 2014.

[4] “Bower Hill Historical Marker,” last modified 2011, http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-29C. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[5] “Braddock’s Field,” last modified 2014, http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM4GJ. Accessed November 21, 2014.

[6] George Washington, “Proclamation of Pardons in Western Pennsylvania (July 10, 1795),” last modified 2014, http://millercenter.org/president/washington/speeches/speech-3460. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[7] Kotowski, “Whiskey Rebellion”.

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