In 1794, the United States had two major political parties: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republicans. At the time, both parties were part of the establishment, and preferred to align with each other on major issues. But as the political landscape began to change, unsettling movements emerged that threatened the stability of the Federalist Party, and the Democratic-Republicans, too.
When the Sons of Liberty sought to overthrow the British government, their call was answered and they were ready to take up arms. The Whiskey Rebellion was a disastrous attempt by the American colonists to disrupt the British government through widespread tax evasion and rebellion.
In the early 17th century, the United States was a new country with a fledgling government. The new nation was still mired in the violence of the French and Indian War, as well as the First Anglo-Dutch War. The people were in desperate need of a new way forward without civil unrest or bloodshed, and a new brand of whiskey was the answer.
America was saddled with a $79 million debt in 1789, which is about $2.4 billion today. The Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was the catalyst.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) proposed that the federal government absorb the debt and repay it via different taxes, such as the Excise Whiskey Tax of 1791.
The bill imposed a tax on both domestic and imported alcohol, and it was met with instant opposition in places like western Pennsylvania. Small producers, such as grain farmers, were forced to pay as much as 9 cents per gallon ($2.73 now) due to the structure, while bigger, specialized distilleries paid as low as 6 cents per gallon ($1.82 today).
Farmers manufactured whiskey against the tariff for a variety of reasons. It was difficult to get foreign spirits like rum due to the war’s effect on alcohol imports. Meanwhile, storing and transporting alcohol over the Allegheny Mountains proved difficult. Local corn whiskey, on the other hand, lasted well and enabled farmers to do something useful with excess grain that would otherwise go to waste.
During the Whiskey Rebellion, a still / Getty
Tax payments had to be made in cash, but the use of cash was a rarity the further west in Pennsylvania one traveled, where people often paid for goods and services partly or wholly in whiskey. Whiskey was the informal medium of exchange. Many families only saw a few actual dollars during the year and paying the tax in cash could’ve severely impacted their ability to make other cash purchases.
Producers in western Pennsylvania had to transport their whiskey up to 300 miles before it could be sold, reducing their profits even further. Distilleries closer to cities didn’t have that additional cost.
The tax was controversial not just because of the financial strain it imposed on producers, but also because the prospect of paying a distant sovereign and being hauled 300 miles to face trial if you refused was reminiscent of how English colonists were handled.
Many people first refused to pay. Some said that the system was unfair to smaller producers and that sending in money was too difficult.
It was difficult to collect taxes as a result of this. Robert Johnson, a tax collector, was famously tarred and feathered on his collection route in Washington County on September 11, 1971. Later, a cattle driver named John Conner attempted to collect on the warrants issued for two individuals that Johnson identified during the assault. He was also tarred and feathered before being hung for many hours from a tree.
On the morning of July 16, 1794, a crowd approached Bower Hill, the house of tax collector John Neville outside Pittsburgh, bringing the situation to a climax. Neville had tried to serve a distiller with a summons to appear in court for failing to pay his tax the day before but had been chased from the premises. One of the guards assigned to guard his property, however, told the crowd that Neville had already left.
The crowd became enraged and demanded that the troops surrender; when they refused, they set fire to the property and began fire on Neville’s house. The mob’s commander, Revolutionary War veteran James McFarlane, was slain during this fight.
Thousands of soldiers marched on Pittsburgh to seize the city immediately after the event at Neville’s house, outraged by the murder of McFarlane. While the mob was defeated and the issue was eventually resolved, Philadelphia authorities determined that something needed to be done about the series of violent incidents.
President George Washington sent state and federal officials to attempt to settle the crisis. When they failed, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson declared the western counties of Pennsylvania to be in open rebellion.
To combat the insurgents, Washington enlisted the help of almost 12,000 militia men from the neighboring states.
When the two forces collided, there was minimal violence. Only 150 insurgents were apprehended after the bulk of the rebels had dispersed. Two were accused with treason and condemned to death, but President Washington ultimately pardoned them.
The historical event showed that the federal government not only had state government backing, but was also capable of crushing armed insurrection.
The whiskey tax was eventually abolished in 1802 during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, after many manufacturers refused to pay it. Despite his initial opposition to the tax, he cited the problems in collecting it to support its repeal.
If you’ve ever wondered how a small group of farmers and distillers that mostly lived in the western mountain states of Virginia and Kentucky ended up in a violent, military conflict with the government, then this is the article for you. The Whiskey Rebellion was one of the most important events in the history of the United States and of the American frontier.. Read more about who do you believe was more influential in establishing the american political system in the 1790s and let us know what you think.
Frequently Asked Questions
How did the Whiskey Rebellion change America?
The Whiskey Rebellion was a tax protest in the United States that took place primarily in western Pennsylvania between 1791 and 1794. It is one of the first major events leading to the creation of the U.S. Constitution and is generally considered to be one of the most important events in American history.
What consequences did the Whiskey Rebellion have?
The Whiskey Rebellion was a tax protest in the United States from 1791 to 1794. It began as a protest against the newly enacted excise tax on distilled spirits, which were then sold by distillers who paid taxes based on their volume of production.
Why was the governments reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion important?
The Whiskey Rebellion was a tax protest in the United States that took place from 1791 to 1794. It began as a protest against the newly-instituted excise tax on distilled spirits, which was established by Congress under the Revenue Act of 1791.
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