By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
Alexander Hamilton’s Report on the Public Credit proposed to fund the national government’s debt on the back of an excise tax on whiskey. The “Whiskey Rebels” defied the excise and rebelled. The connection of Democratic-Republican Society with the rebels made Washington call for the services of the militia and take control.
Lenox and Neville against the “Whiskey Rebels”
In July of 1794, when a newly-appointed federal marshal, David Lenox, arrived with 39 summonses for defiers of the excise to appear in federal court in Philadelphia, he turned to John Neville, a veteran officer of the Revolution, for aid in serving his writs.
However, Lenox and Neville were shot at, and on July 16, a band of 50 armed men showed up at Neville’s farm, Bower Hill, just southwest of Pittsburgh. Neville armed his slaves, barricaded himself in his house, and shooting began, leaving five attackers wounded. The next day, the attackers returned, now swollen to between 400–800. Neville fled, and Bower Hill was burnt to the ground.
A week and a half later, on August 1, an angry mass meeting of 7000 “Whiskey Rebels” was called at Braddock’s Field, urging defiance of the excise and promising to march on Pittsburgh. The most hotheaded of the rebels, David Bradford, one of the leaders of the Mingo Creek Democratic-Republican Society, openly called for “secession from the Union” and praised the French “system of terror” as a means of intimidation.
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“Whiskey Rebels” and the Connection to the Societies
The connection to the societies explained everything to Washington and Hamilton. The Pennsylvania Democratic-Republican Societies had been eager in denouncing the excise for “the ruin of many individuals and the impoverishing of the country”, and similar riotous meetings had occurred in Morgantown and Martinsburg, Virginia.
On August 7, Washington issued a proclamation, announcing that “the very existence of Government and the fundamental principles of social order” were in jeopardy and calling for the services of the militia of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland to assemble at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Washington himself proposed to take direct command, with Alexander Hamilton as his second-in-command.
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Talks between Washington and Findley
William Findley was no lover of the excise, but he also had no desire to see property destroyed or have his western Pennsylvania district become a theater of civil war.
He talked the rebels into appointing him as an emissary to meet with Washington at Carlisle. And when Findley arrived there on October 9, as the militia was massing in force, Washington received him with “politeness and attention”. Findley promptly blamed the entire outburst on Hamilton, and accused Hamilton of having used the excise to provoke the frontier and “inflame the army in a high degree”.
But Findley also insisted that he spoke for the majority of Western Pennsylvanians in expressing “unfeigned satisfaction” at Washington’s response. And he assured the president that “in future, the laws would be obeyed and the officers protected”.
The End of Whiskey Rebellion
Washington was not entirely mollified, and the march on Pittsburgh began on October 12. But at every point, Washington encountered, not resistance, but cheers and hospitality. And on October 20, Washington had grown sufficiently confident that no fighting would occur that he turned over command to Hamilton and Light Horse Harry Lee of Virginia and returned to Philadelphia.
In the meantime, Findley managed to isolate the hotheads like Bradford and persuade the rank and file of the rebels to disperse. Twenty of the rebels were eventually arrested. Two were convicted of treason, but pardoned by Washington. As he explained to Congress in November, the real culprits were “certain self-created societies”.
The great Whiskey Rebellion was over, more with a whimper than a bang.
Avoiding Anarchy and Confusion
In retrospect, it has been easy to dismiss the Whiskey Rebellion as a tempest-in-a-teapot. Jefferson joked that “an insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, and marched against, but could never be found”.
But Washington had a point worth hearing when he warned, back on August 10, that “if the laws are to be so trampled upon with impunity and a minority is to dictate to the majority, there is an end, put at one stroke, to republican government; and nothing but anarchy and confusion is to be expected hereafter.”
Anarchy and confusion was what had prevailed under the Articles. Anarchy and confusion were what the Constitution had been designed to dispel, but anarchy and confusion could still gain the upper hand if the lessons of the Confederation were forgotten so quickly.
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The Impact of the End of Whiskey Rebellion
Washington may have been wrong about a Genet-inspired conspiracy at work in Western Pennsylvania—the Whiskey Rebels were, after all, landowners who simply objected to having more pieces of their property pried away from them through the tax than they thought fair. All the same, Washington did have to reckon with the possibility that on the other side of the Appalachians, the Spaniards still controlled the Mississippi Valley, and disgruntled westerners might decide that that their interests dictated a shift of their political allegiance closer to where their economic interests might lay.
One thing Washington could at least take satisfaction from—the “self-created” Democratic-Republican Societies dissolved in embarrassment over the Whiskey Rebellion like melting snow. The problem was that the spirit of party, of which they had been a symptom rather than a cause, was ready to assume a newer and more intense form.
Common Questions about the Conclusion and Impacts of the Whiskey Rebellion
David Bradford was one of the leaders of the Mingo Creek Democratic-Republican Society. He participated in the Whiskey Rebellion, openly calling for “secession from the Union”.
When Washington called for the services of militia, Findley, though being against the excise, had no desire to see property destroyed or have his western Pennsylvania district become a theater of civil war. He thus talked the rebels into appointing him as an emissary to meet with Washington.
Findley accused Hamilton of having used the excise to provoke the frontier and “inflame the army in a high degree”. But he also expressed satisfaction at Washington’s response and assured the president that “in future, the laws would be obeyed and the officers protected”.