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The Whiskey Rebellion
Pennsylvania and the New Nation’s Debt
During the American Revolution, eastern Pennsylvanians were so preoccupied with suppressing (holding back) the loyalists and fighting the British that they did little to defend the frontier. So by 1780, it was almost impossible for the new government of 1776, who were eager to make changes in their new, independent country, to collect excise (taxes on commodities or items traded for income) and property taxes in the western regions. After the American Revolutionary War, many of the states in the new nation were faced with taxation to help pay the debt caused by the war, as well as for the expense of fighting Native Americans in an attempt to open the frontier. However, between 1780 and 1790 Pennsylvania raised almost all of its money to help pay the debt by selling state land. This action meant that Pennsylvanians were relieved of taxation, which also helped the government from being attacked by unhappy citizens.
Pennsylvanians enjoyed this privilege until 1791 when Congress approved Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s national excise tax that included whiskey. Whiskey and other grain products were major economic activities of western Pennsylvania. Two of the nation’s major distilling regions, western Pennsylvania and Kentucky, regarded this as an unfair burden. Why, they asked, should we be exclusively and unfairly taxed to pay off the national debt and benefit wealthy easterners and foreigners?
Western Pennsylvanians Say “NO” to the Tax
There were several reasons why some western Pennsylvanians saw the tax as being unfair. First, the cost of the tax was 54 cents per gallon for those who operated stills that produced less than 400 gallons of whiskey per year. Small manufacturers in the West felt they were paying a higher tax than the large manufacturers of whiskey in the East. Large manufacturers not only paid a flat tax regardless of the amount they produced, but also had more resources than the poor farmers of the West. Second, unlike their eastern neighbors, farmers in the West had fewer workers from which to hire; therefore, their services were more expensive. Farmers had little cash; therefore, they used whiskey as a form of payment. Why should they pay a tax on money (regardless of its form, cash or grains) that they had already earned and were using as payment for services? Or, why should they pay a tax that was more than they earned. Third, western Pennsylvanians felt that the government had failed to protect them from the Native Americans in the West who threatened their lives, families, and property. Another result of the Native American presence was that the farmers did not have access to the rich lands of the Ohio Valley that could benefit them economically. Fourth, they felt the government had failed in their negotiations with Spain who would not permit the farmers to use the Mississippi River to float their grains down to New Orleans and to the rich markets in Europe and the West Indies that lay beyond. This would have been faster and cheaper then sending products through the mountains. Therefore, farmers petitioned the federal government to abolish the tax. They refused to pay the excise tax and threatened bodily harm to the tax collectors. Political leaders such as Albert Gallatin, David Bradford, and a noted Baptist Minister, Rev. John Corbley, supported the farmers.

Federal Government Says “YES” to the Tax
The federal government saw justification in the excise tax. Some Federalists (supporters of the national government) were eager to use the rebellion as a way to test or demonstrate the new power of the federal government. Others like George Washington, the president of the new nation, simply wanted western Pennsylvanians to make some contribution toward the government that was spending so much of its energy and money to secure their interests. In other words, these western Pennsylvanians seemed unwilling to pay a tax that was mainly created on their behalf for the purpose of ridding the Ohio Valley of Native Americans. After all, these Pennsylvanians had provoked wars with the Indians and ignored the treaties. The government was also negotiating with the Spanish and the British to make sure the Ohio Region could be settled and its products shipped down the Mississippi.

Rebellion or Resistance
People in the western counties of Pennsylvania showed their disapproval in various ways. Some destroyed roads-in one case filling a mountain pass with dung—so tax collectors could not reach courthouses, while others formed crowds to prevent the loss of property by those who owed back taxes or private debts.
On July 16th, some Whiskey “rebels” marched to Bower Hill, the home of Revolutionary War general John Neville. Neville was a wealthy landowner, a Virginian, and a friend of President Washington. He had agreed to take the job of a tax collector. As the “rebels” approached, Neville’s supporters and his armed slaves fired on the crowd, killing popular Revolutionary War veteran John McFarland. The crowd demanded Neville’s resignation, but he refused. Therefore, the crowd burned his house to the ground. The famous Whiskey Rebellion was on.
The Whiskey Rebellion
In August of 1794, 500 angry farmers led by David Bradford met at Bonnet Tavern in Bedford County. There they agreed to raise a force to resist the tax. They vowed to kill tax collectors and withdraw from the union if President George Washington tried to enforce the despised tax. Others intercepted (cut off) federal mails and destroyed letters that provided the names of rebels. Some 7,000 western Pennsylvanians then marched on Pittsburgh where they threatened the citizens and to take control of the federal arsenal at Fort Pitt. They also threatened Fort Lafayette, which was the supply depot for the federal army who were out fighting the Indians who threatened their security and trade to the west.
Federal Government Reaction
On August 14, 1794, Pennsylvania State Representative Albert Gallatin, although he also opposed the tax, met with rebels at what is now Whiskey Point and tried to convince them to give in to federal laws, but it was too late. President Washington feared that if the government failed to suppress or stop the actions of the rebels, that the government would be viewed as weak and collapse. Washington also feared that the western territories would secede; therefore, he drafted a proclamation requesting that the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia place a force of 12,950 men into federal service. He joined his troops, named the “Watermelon Army” by the rebels, near Carlisle and marched them out of Bedford County. On November 13, 1794, federal troops arrested 150 rebels. Twenty key leaders were sent to Philadelphia to stand trial. The Federal District Court of Philadelphia found most of the rebels not guilty. Although two men were sentenced to death, Washington later pardoned them. His show of force in raising an army and compassion in pardoning the offenders strengthened the new government.
Impact of the Whiskey Rebellion on Pennsylvania’s History
The Whiskey Rebellion was the first large-scale resistance by American citizens against the United States government under the new federal constitution. It was also the first time the president exercised the internal police powers of his office. Within two years of the rebellion, the grievances of the western farmers were quieted. Just before the outbreak of the “rebellion,” General Anthony Wayne had defeated the Ohio Valley Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, thereby ending the raids into western Pennsylvania and opening much of what is now Ohio to white settlement. In 1796 a new treaty with Spain, which allowed American citizens to sell their goods through New Orleans, opened a grain trade to the west, and brought new prosperity to the region.
“Material Adapted From Whiskey Rebellion Story Chapter of ExplorePAhistory.”

Primary Source--Petition against the Excise Tax by Western Pennsylvania Farmers
"Our peculiar situation renders this duty (tax) still more unequal and oppressive to us. Distant from a permanent market, and separate from the eastern coast by mountains which render the communication difficult and almost impracticable, we have no means of bringing the produce of our lands to sale either in grain or in meal. We are therefore distillers through necessity, not choice, that we may comprehend the greatest value in the smallest size and weight.

"The inhabitants of the eastern side of the mountains can dispose of their grain without the additional labor of distillation at a higher price than we can, after we have bestowed that labor upon it. Yet with this additional labor we must also pay a high duty from which they are exempted, because we have no means of selling our surplus produce but in a distilled state.

"Another circumstance which renders this duty ruinous to us is our scarcity of cash. Our commerce is not, as on the eastern coast, carried on so much by absolute sale as by barter, and we believe it to be a fact that there is not among us a quantity of circulating cash sufficient for the payment of this duty alone.

"We are not accustomed to complain without reason; we have punctually and cheerfully paid former taxes on our estates and possessions, because they were proportioned to our real wealth. We believe this to be founded on no such equitable principles, and are persuaded that your Honorable House will find on investigation that its amount of duty collected, will be four times as large as any tax which we have hitherto paid on the whole of our lands and other property.

"Submitting these considerations to your honourable body, we respectfully apply for a total repeal of the law, or for such modifications thereof as would render its principles more congenial to the nature of a free government, and its operation upon us less unequal and oppressive. And as in duty bound shall forever pray, andc."


Credit: Henry Adams, The Writings of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia, 1879), I , 2-4