Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey Rebellion

December 3, 2021 1 By Editor

A 1791 federal tax on whiskey and distillers led to citizen petition writing and mass protests. In the Fall of 1792, the protest turned violent. The Federal government implemented some changes in the tax and agreed that tax violators would be tried in state (as opposed to Federal) court; however, violence flared again when government agents tried to serve warrants to offending distillers.

Tar and feathering of tax collectors; slaves using guns to defend their owner/taxmen, burning of a tax man’s home, shootings (including a mob of 500 taking on ten federal soldiers protecting a tax man’s home). 

Whiskey Rebellion Flag, 1792
Whiskey Rebellion Flag, 1792

In September 1794, George Washington used the Militia Act of 1792 to form a 12,000 member Federal Militia. In October 1794 Washington led the 12,000 soldiers to stop the rebellion in central Pennsylvania. Washington met with local Whiskey Rebellion leaders and they agreed to accept government authority. Satisfied that violence was avoided, Washington returned to Philadelphia leaving Alexander Hamilton in charge. 

In November Hamilton sent troops across the countryside to arrest those who had participated in the rebellion; 150 men were arrested. With little evidence and lacking witnesses, most of the arrested were released. At the end of November 1794 a General Pardon was issued for all rebellion participants except 33 men named in the pardon. Most of the Federal forces returned home but 1,200 Federal troops remained in the area until the spring to ensure the peace.

George Washington reviews troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before marching to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.
George Washington reviews troops before marching to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion [1]George Washington reviews troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before marching to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania / Unknown, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer

Twenty of the men arrested were taken back to Philadelphia to face treason charges — and marched through the city parade style. After six months in jail, ten were tried for treason. Two were found guilty of federal treason. In November 1795 George Washington, deciding that one of the men was a “simpleton” and the other “insane”, issued the first presidential pardon to both men. The Whiskey Tax remained in place. 

The next US president, John Adams, also faced violent opposition to the Whiskey Tax. Responding to violence against the tax, Adams sent Federal forces to eastern Pennsylvania where they arrested 60 men. 31 of the men were indicted for treason; their leader, John Fries, was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The case was appealed, retried, and again Fires was sentenced to death by hanging. President Adams disagreed that Fries had commented treason saying there was “great danger” in declaring treason for “every sudden, ignorant, inconsiderable act among a part of the people wrought up by a political dispute.” 

In May 1800 President Adams pardoned Fry. Adams also pardoned David Bradford, a leader in the Whiskey Rebellion who had escaped arrest by fleeing to New Orleans (then under Spanish control).

Opposition to internal taxes, such as the Whiskey Tax, helped Thomas Jefferson defeat Adams in the election of 1800. President Thomas Jefferson repealed the Whiskey Tax in 1802.

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