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The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794


Considered as one of the most important events in America's early history, the Whiskey Rebellion began on March 3, 1791, when the U.S. Congress in Philadelphia passed a federal excise tax of seven cents per gallon on whiskey in an effort to pay off debts incurred by the Revolutionary War. While most Americans at that time felt negatively toward taxation, the intrepid farmers of Western Pennsylvania proved outright hostile to the idea.

Why Western Pennsylvania?

Because it was too difficult and costly to transport grain crops over the mountainous roads to larger Eastern markets, many frontier farmers converted their grain to whiskey, thereby increasing its value and marketability. The new excise whiskey tax ignored these necessities of pioneer life, however, leaving farmers with no means to pay the tax at the still long before a sale was made over the mountains to the east.

Resistance to the whiskey tax stretched from Western Pennsylvania, through the western frontiers of Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, with most farmers believing that a government which played little part in their frontier life had no right to "steal" money that they themselves had earned. When the tax collectors came around, these pioneer farmers refused to pay. Over the next three years, farmers who tried to obey the law were ridiculed; tax collectors were tarred and feathered; government officials were threatened; and mail delivery was disrupted. Public protests and riots further disrupted peace in the region.

The Insurrection

On August 1, 1794, events came to a head as a group of farmers in Washington County, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, challenged and then burned down the mansion of President George Washington's friend and Inspector of Revenue in southwestern Pennsylvania, Brig. Gen. John Neville.

On August 7 President Washington, recognizing that he must maintain control if the fledgling government was to survive, issued the Whiskey Rebellion Proclamation ordering the insurgents to go home and calling out a militia force of several thousand from four states. After efforts of negotiators to try and calm the insurrection failed, President George Washington, acting upon the advice of Federalist Alexander Hamilton, decided to make an example of the rebels and rode to Western Pennsylvania with 13,000 militia troops to quash the rebellion. Washington accompanied the troops as far as Bedford, where he spent the night at the house of David Espy on October 18. The next day, he reviewed the assembled troops, issued orders to General Lee, and then started back to Philadelphia. This was to be the last time George Washington personally led troops on the field, and the only time he did so as President.

By the time the federal force arrived in Western Pennsylvania, the rebellion had collapsed and most of the rebels had fled. The Whiskey Rebellion officially ended on the night of 13 November, 1794, with the arrest of approximately 150 remaining rebels. It was not until 1801 that the excise tax on whiskey was officially ended, however.

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