The Whiskey Rebellion (less commonly known as the Whiskey Insurrection) was a popular uprising that had its beginnings in 1791 and culminated in an insurrection in 1794 in the locality of Washington, Pennsylvania, in the Monongahela Valley. The rebellion was the result of tax imposed on whiskey. The rebellion occurred shortly after the Articles of Confederation had been replaced by a stronger federal government under the American Constitution in 1789.
The 1791 tax
The new federal government, at the urging of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, assumed the states' debt from the American Revolutionary War. In 1791 Hamilton convinced Congress to approve taxes on distilled spirits and carriages. Hamilton's principal reason for the tax was that he wanted to pay down the national debt, but he justified the tax "more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue." But most importantly, Hamilton "wanted the tax imposed to advance and secure the power of the new federal government."
Congress designed the tax so smaller distillers would pay by the gallon, while larger distillers (who could produce in volume) could take advantage of a flat fee. The net result was to affect smaller producers more than larger ones. George Washington, the president at the time, was one such large producer of whiskey. Large producers were assessed a tax of 6 cents per gallon, while small producers were taxed at 9 cents per gallon. But Western settlers were short of cash to begin with and, being far from their markets and lacking good roads, lacked any practical means to get their grain to market other than fermenting and distilling it into relatively portable distilled spirits. Additionally, whiskey was often used among western farmers as a medium of exchange or as a barter good.
The tax on whiskey was bitterly and fiercely opposed among the Cohee on the frontier from the day it was passed. Western farmers considered it to be both unfair and discriminatory, since they had traditionally converted their excess grain into liquor. Since the nature of the tax affected those who sold the whiskey, it directly affected many farmers. Many protest meetings were held, and a situation arose which was reminiscent of the opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 before the American Revolution.
From Pennsylvania to Georgia, the western counties engaged in a campaign of harassment of the federal tax collectors. "Whiskey Boys" also made violent protests in Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina.
By the summer of 1795, tensions reached a fevered pitch all along the western frontier as the settlers' primary marketable commodity was threatened by the federal taxation measures. Finally, the civil protests became an armed rebellion. The first shots were fired at the Oliver Miller Homestead in present day South Park Township, Pennsylvania, about ten miles south of Pittsburgh. As word of the rebellion spread across the frontier, a whole series of loosely organized resistance measures were taken, including robbing the mail, stopping court proceedings, and the threat of an assault on Pittsburgh. One group, disguised as women, assaulted a tax collector, cropped his hair, coated him with tar and feathers, and stole his horse.
George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, remembering Shays' Rebellion from just eight years before, decided to make Pennsylvania a testing ground for federal authority. Washington ordered federal marshals to serve court orders requiring the tax protesters to appear in federal district court. On August 7, 1794, Washington invoked martial law to summon the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia and several states. The rebel force they fought was likewise composed of Pennsylvanians, Virginians, and possibly men from other states.
The militia force of 12,950 men was organized, roughly the size of the entire army in the Revolutionary War. Under the personal command of Washington, Hamilton and Revolutionary War hero General Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, the army assembled in Harrisburg and marched into western Pennsylvania (to what is now Monongahela) in October of 1794. The rebels "could never be found," according to Jefferson, but the militia expended considerable effort rounding up 20 prisoners, clearly demonstrating Federalist authority in the national government. The men were imprisoned, where one died, while two, including Philip Vigol (later spelled Philip Wigal), were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Washington, however, pardoned them on the grounds that one was a "simpleton," and the other, "insane."
Only two were actually arrested and jailed: judge Robert Philson and devout Quaker Herman Husband. Philson was released by Washington, but Husband died in jail before he could be released.
By November, some individuals were fined and charged with "assisting and abetting in setting up a seditious pole in opposition to the laws of the United States," and in January 1796 the following were fined five to fifteen shillings each: Nicholas Kobe, Adam Bower, Abraham Cable Jr, Dr. John Kimmell, Henry Foist, Jacob Holy, Adam Holy, Michael Chintz, George Swart, and Adam Stahl of Brothers Valley township; John Heminger, John Armstrong, George Weimer, George Tedrow, Abraham Miller, John Miller Jr, Benjamin Brown and Peter Bower of Milford township; Emanuel Brallier, and George Ankeny, of Quemahoning township; Peter Augustine, James Conner, Henry Everly, Daniel McCartey, William Pinkerton, and Jonathan Woodsides of Turkeyfoot township.
Tom the Tinker
"Tom the Tinker" assumed the leadership of the Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790s. He came about after it was decided that to merely attack tax collectors or those who rented offices and lodging to tax collectors wasn't enough; pressure needed to be applied to those who had registered their stills and were paying the tax. In essence, Tom the Tinker illuminated the point that compliance with the law was as contemptible an action as collecting the whiskey tax. William Hogeland has described the situation thus:
You might find a note posted on a tree outside your house, requiring you to publish in the Gazette your hatred of the whiskey tax and your commitment to the cause; otherwise, the note promised, your still would be mended. Tom had a wicked sense of humor and a literary bent: "mended" meant shot full of holes or burned. Tom published on his own too, rousing his followers to action, telling the Gazette's editor in cover notes to run the messages or suffer the consequences.
Groups formed calling themselves Tom the Tinker's Men. They assured Tom the Tinker's threats were carried out. Some believe John Holcroft, a leading member of the Mingo Creek Association and veteran of Shays' Rebellion, was Tom the Tinker, or perhaps the author of the letters attributed to Tom, but this has never been proven. It is not known whether Tom was an actual individual or a character created by the leading members of the Whiskey Rebellion to serve as their leader, much like Ned Ludd's role as leader of the Luddites. Hogeland takes issue with the notion that "Tom the Tinker" was a pseudonym or nom de guerre for one of the other participants in the rebellion, saying, "Tom wasn't an alias for a person. He was the stark fact that loyal opposition to the resistance was disallowed. Tom was Mingo Creek personified."
This marked the first time under the new United States Constitution that the federal government used military force to exert authority over the nation's citizens. It was also one of only two times that a sitting President personally commanded the military in the field; the other was after President James Madison fled the British occupation of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812.
The military suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion set a precedent that U.S. citizens who wished to change the law had to do so peacefully through constitutional means; otherwise, the government would meet any threats to disturb the status quo with force.
The suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion also had the unintended consequences of encouraging small whiskey producers in Kentucky and Tennessee, which remained outside the sphere of Federal control for many more years. In these frontier areas, they also found good corn-growing country as well as limestone-filtered water and therefore began making whiskey from corn; this corn whiskey developed into Bourbon. Additionally, the rebellion and its suppression helped turn people away from the Federalist Party and toward the Democratic-Republican Party. This is shown in the 1794 Philadelphia congressional election, in which upstart Democratic Republican John Swanwick won a stunning victory over incumbent Federalist Thomas Fitzsimons, carrying 7 of 12 districts and 57% of the vote. The farmers were severely angered.
The hated whiskey tax was repealed in 1803, having been largely unenforceable outside of Western Pennsylvania, and even there never having been collected with much success.
References in popular culture
Susanna Rowson used the Whiskey Rebellion as inspiration for a musical farce for the stage called The Volunteers. The lyrics were set to music by Alexander Reinagle of the New Company, which performed the play in Philadelphia in 1795.
In L. Neil Smith's alternate history novel The Probability Broach, Albert Gallatin convinces the militia not to put down the rebellion, but instead to march on the nation's capital, execute George Washington for treason, and replace the Constitution with a revised Articles of Confederation. As a result, the United States becomes a libertarian utopia called the North American Confederation. Gallatin's decision comes as a result of an additional word in the Declaration of Independence, which in the parallel universe contains the phrase "deriving its just powers from the unanimous consent of the governed."
The rebellion is referenced in Albert Frank Beddoe's song "Copper Kettle" (1953), which has been recorded by Joan Baez, and by Bob Dylan on his 1970 album Self Portrait. The song contains the line "We ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1792".
The rebellion plays a central role in David Liss' novel, The Whiskey Rebels (2008), in which settlers and distillers seek revenge against Hamilton and the Bank of the United States.