Bottling a Battle: Whiskey Rebellion of 1794

Why It All Began

1794 saw an insurgence in western Pennsylvania, a reaction to the imposition of excise tax on spirits distilled within the US. The decree was proclaimed to reduce the financial burden, inflicted by the debt of 454 million incurred during the Revolutionary War. While levying taxes, the government failed to gauge the repercussions the legislation would instigate. It was not only shunned by farmers, but they also took up arms against the enforcement of the law.

The Taxing Policy

Taxes were imposed on distillers based on the size of their stills. Those having the capacity to produce 400 gallons were asked to pay taxes worth 7 to 18 cents a gallon. However, the amount was decided based on the proof of the liquor. Distillers manufacturing stronger spirits had to pay higher tariff. The rates were only a few dollars when considered individually. However, even an annual tax of $5 meant a large chunk of the earnings of the farmers. As farmers living in the west of Allegheny Mountains followed barter system as the main means of trade, distilled alcohol was favored as opposed to hard cash. Monongahela Rye was held in high esteem for its extensive use in cooking and manufacturing medicines, apart from being a key constituent of social gatherings.

The Rebellion…

The uprising took place in Pittsburgh, during October 1791. A group of men disguised as farmers grabbed a federal tax collector from his house, and took him to a blacksmith shop. He was stripped of his clothes and burnt with a poker. Similar incidents were reported over the next three years, leading several collectors to resign from their posts. Scenario became grimmer with the feathering and tarring of a revenue inspector, post which the revolutionaries formed a military association declaring themselves to adhere to the state law only, and not that of the United States.

Owing to the growing discontent, tax collection could not be optimized in the Pennsylvania region. The deficit in national budget kept soaring as a consequence, and the federal government was on the verge of losing its esteem. Rebels rose in number and violence escalated despite President George Washington, denouncing the interference with the operations of the United States. The President urged for a peaceful settlement of matters. But, the plea fell on deaf ears for the rioters who gathered at Braddock's Field during the end of July. On August 7 1794, The President made a proclamation insisting the rebels to disperse and return home. Additionally, he invoked the Militia Act of 1792 that allowed him to deploy the State military to suppress the rebels.

Joseph Ellis, in his biography of George Washington, writes that the ageing President mounted on his horse to lead a force of 13,000 men on September 30, to disperse the rebellion. Although the rebellion was short-lived, it was a huge source of inspiration for leaders across the world. This marked the very first instance when a sitting President of the US led his troops to fight a war.  

Suppressing the Rebellion

The federal troops were led by Washington’s Secretory of State, Hamilton. The revolutionaries dispersed and gave up, unable to match the mighty federal forces. A few soldiers were retained in Pennsylvania to oust possibilities of further disturbances, and the rest departed from the state. Around 150 were arrested, of which most had to be released due to lack of evidence. Two rebels who were convicted, were later pardoned by the President.

As most rioters dispersed, bloodshed was avoided. Later, Washington declared that he was not in favor of the legislation, and intended to uphold the constitutional right of protesting against unfair laws. Nevertheless, the revolution had to be suppressed to help the newly formed democracy survive in the US. Although Washington’s act was applauded by the Congress, it was condemned by the former Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. It was viewed as an abuse of undisputed power by him.

And, that is how whiskey inspired a rebel against the state.