On This Day….
On this day 223 years ago, a pivotal event occurred in American history that has been largely forgotten about today. In 1791, a controversial tax was passed, leading to aggressive resistance later that year. On August 1, 1794, that resistance came to a head. The first official uprising against the United States Federal Government began. It would test the authority of our government and set precedent that shaped history. This was the Whiskey Rebellion.
In the early years after the United States of America came into existence, the nation only spanned from the East coast to Appalachia. The westernmost frontier at this time was Western Pennsylvania. This land was populated almost entirely by farmers who were virtually isolated from the rest of the country by the rugged Allegheny Mountains. One of the main crops grown by these farmers was wheat. Selling the wheat was difficult, however. Since everyone in the area grew wheat, there was little demand for it. To make up for this, the wheat was usually distilled into whiskey. Whiskey was easier to transport over the mountains to market and there was a higher demand for it. Whiskey was so prominent in this region, that it was often used as currency, rather than American Dollars.
In a strange twist of fate, the man who had to oversee the official American currency would help bring an end to the use of whiskey as replacement currency. This man was Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. As the first Treasury Secretary, every policy he had implemented was a milestone in the American experiment. Hamilton’s roles ranged from overseeing international trade, keeping American credit competitive abroad, and advising President George Washington on economic matters.
After the Revolutionary War, the United States government was left in massive financial debt. Tariffs on imports had already been levied, and no expert thought it wise to raise them any higher without a risk of reducing trade. It fell upon Alexander Hamilton to find a way to dig the government out of debt. In January 1791, he proposed his solution. A tax on goods produced by citizens, specifically liquor, otherwise known as an excise tax. An excise tax seems unsurprising to us now, but at the time, it was the first Federal tax ever forced upon citizens of every American State.
This tax did not affect the country equally. The coastal states had little trouble with it. The tax was based upon the capacity of the still used to distill the liquor, rather than the amount of liquor created. So Eastern distillers simply made more batches of spirits to sell.
Along the frontier, however, the tax caused significant civil unrest. Since distillers had to haul their whiskey all the way over the Allegheny Mountains, they tended to brew less batches, but in higher quantities. This meant that the capacity of their distilleries tended to be higher than those in other states and thus they had to pay higher taxes. This couldn’t be solved by simply brewing more spirits either, since more time & resources had to be spent transporting the spirits over the mountains.The response to this groundbreaking tax in the Appalachian regions was almost immediate.
“The radicals had scattered when they heard the news of an approaching army led by George Washington.”
Within months, representatives from different parts of Western Pennsylvania met to organize resistance to it. This resistance quickly turned to violence. Federal tax collectors were harassed and assaulted when they came to collect. Some were even tarred and feathered. When Federal Marshal Lenox was eventually sent in an attempt to enforce the tax, hundreds of armed men surrounded the house he was staying at, and began firing upon it. Although the men were unable to get to Lenox, one of their leaders was killed in the fray, inciting them with an even deeper anger.
President Washington’s initial response to this resistance was nothing more than a public statement that the violence needed to stop as it was violating the laws of their nation. This was, unsurprisingly, highly ineffective. Unfortunately for the violent resistors, Washington’s patience had a limit. On August 1st, 1794, over 7,000 Western Pennsylvanians gathered outside of Pittsburgh. On this day, the radicalized leaders of this crowd declared themselves independent from the United States of America, creating their own flag and even discussing joining with Spain or Britain. The Whiskey Rebellion had begun.
This armed rebellion put pressure on President Washington to end the violence, and fast. As the first president in American history to confront such a problem, any steps he took would set a precedent. After major deliberation and urging from Alexander Hamilton, who had served under Washington in the Revolutionary War, the Militia Act of 1792 was invoked. This allowed the President to form a standing army to oppose the rebels. An army of 13,000 militiamen was gathered, creating the first standing army in our nation’s history.
Under the authority of President Washington, with now Secretary General Hamilton by his side, the army marched onto Pittsburgh. When the army arrived, there was not a rebel in sight. The radicals had scattered when they heard the news of an approaching army led by George Washington. His image alone had been enough to bring an end to the uprising. In the end, only two men were found guilty of treason. Washington pardoned them both. The Whiskey Rebellion was over almost as quickly as it had started.
Despite being small in scale and seemingly inconsequential on the surface, the Whiskey Rebellion had an enormous impact on American politics. The excise tax implemented by Treasury Secretary Hamilton was the first Federal tax that was imposed on every single state. When Washington’s army ended the rebellion, it set the precedent that the Federal government could not only create taxes that affected everyone, but that those taxes could be enforced. When Washington responded to the rebellion with an army, he created the standard that the Federal Government could use military force not only to enforce laws, but also to prevent citizens from leaving the Union. This precedent would be used later, when President Lincoln called for military might to end another, much larger rebellion. Despite being mostly glossed over in our history classes, the Whiskey Rebellion was a major turning point for our nation.
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