Whiskey Rebellion (1794)


Popular revolt in western Pennsylvania brought about by a federal tax on distilled spirits.

Since 1791, back-country farmers in all of the states had been seething about the federal excise tax on distilled alcohol, proposed by Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury. The tax charged small producers nine cents a gallon on their product while taxing larger distillers only six cents. This measure made the alcohol almost impossible to sell at a profit, cut into the hard currency available to the farmers, and became the focus of rural discontent across the western frontier. In 1794, efforts to more strongly enforce the tax sparked violent protest in Pennsylvania, where angry farmers attacked, tarred, and feathered a tax inspector and then burned his house. The government, afraid of the violence contemporaneously sweeping the French Revolution, quickly summoned 13,000 militia from Pennsylvania and the surrounding states, under the command of General Henry Lee, but with George Washington riding at their head to confront the protesters.

Meanwhile, the “whiskey rebels” in Pennsylvania had elected an assembly to broadcast their grievances, and although many members were moderates like Albert Gallatin, the violence continued until the militia arrived. Faced with federal force, the protesters melted away, although the forces arrested 12 men who they sent to Philadelphia for trial. All but one received presidential pardons shortly thereafter. The Whiskey Rebellion tested the new constitutional government of Washington for the first time, required the initial use of the 1792 Militia Act, and resulted in the widespread outpouring of anti-Federalist sentiment from the western counties of every state but New York.

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