In 1791, the first Congress passed an excise tax on distilled alcohol, the first tax ever levied by the national government on a domestic manufacture. Farmers in the nation’s frontier counties (who commonly turned much of their grain crop into whiskey for easier transportation to eastern markets) bore the brunt of the tax and rapidly made their dissatisfaction with the policy known. Resistance was best organized in the four western counties of Pennsylvania, whose residents held a series of public meetings to draft petitions urging their representatives to repeal the law. At the same time, these meetings adopted resolutions advising individual non-compliance with the law, framing it as an unjust imposition upon the liberties of the people.
The conflict dragged on for several years, and when their initial efforts at peaceful non-compliance failed to secure the repeal of the excise, some western Pennsylvanians adopted tactics of violent resistance to the enforcement of the law. A number of excisemen were accosted in the line of duty, tarred and feathered and (in at least one instance) tied up outside overnight in an attempt to coerce them into renouncing their commissions. When accounts of the violence reached the national government in Philadelphia, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (whose department was ultimately responsible for the revenues collected by the excise) prepared a report for President George Washington.
Hamilton’s report begins by describing the situation as a “disagreeable crisis” but ends by labeling the parties involved as insurgents, and their resistance as a domestic insurrection. He is frequently credited with convincing the president that matters would not be resolved apart from the use of military force, with the result that Washington issued a presidential proclamation to that effect. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s pseudonymous Tully essays were meant to turn public opinion against the rebellion and bolster public support for the president’s decision to send in the militia. (In actuality, Washington himself took command of the nearly 13,000 troops that were marched to the West in October 1794, the only time an American president has actually served as a combat commander while in office; see Frederick Kemmelmeyer’s painting of the event, Washington Reviewing the Western Army at Fort Cumberland, Maryland).
Hamilton’s essays and the marshaling of troops succeeded in quelling the rebellion without further violence. Yet the central question raised by the insurgency remained: to what extent and in what ways can citizens in a republic organize to resist laws they find unjust or immoral before becoming rebels or traitors? In the years following the incident, moderate opponents of the excise tax and other strongly national policies like it would offer opposing narratives of the insurrection in which they attempted to present the national government as oppressive.
William Findley (a Republican from Western Pennsylvania who served as a long-time member of the House of Representatives), for example, downplays the violence of the rebels and instead focuses on the government’s attempt to restrict the freedoms of speech and association of individual citizens in his Defense of the Insurgents. Such interpretations were repeated by many others over the course of John Adams’s presidency and doubtlessly helped to bolster the rise of the Jeffersonian Republicans as a substantial opposition party within national politics.
A. What are some of the grievances raised by opponents of the excise tax? In what ways do they attempt to make their feelings known to the new government? What are some of the justifications offered to support those activities? How do supporters of the government’s right to issue the tax view these arguments? How might we evaluate the role of the public gatherings in advancing the cause of the insurgency?
B. How might we compare the Whiskey Rebellion to the Hartford Convention or the Nullification Crisis, focusing particularly on the question of the federal government’s right to regulate commerce? How does the image of President George Washington leading the militia to put down the rebellion compare with the image of the president as peacekeeper presented by Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address?
C. What do both President Washington’s decision to call out the militia to end the Whiskey Rebellion and the dropping of the atomic bomb tell us about the evolving understanding of executive power in the United States? Would the organized dissent meetings discussed here have been “legal” under the terms of the National Security Act?