French/British Encouragement

The following is taken from The Whiskey Rebellion by Thomas P. Slaughter, 1986, by Oxford University Press:

The French menace in Europe drove American and British governments closer together during the summer Of 1794. After preparing for war against Great Britain earlier in the year, the Washington administration now feared the French Revolution on the one side and its own back country citizenry on the other even more than it resented British assaults on neutral trading vessels. For reasons having more to do with France than the North American wilderness, Britain had also decided to abandon, temporarily at least, its efforts to annex Vermont, western Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers came at a critical time in negotiations between the two nations, and it convinced British officials that an American treaty was more urgent, and more likely, than an Indian alliance to help dismember the United States.

Canadian officials and Tory refugees had collaborated since 1783 with disaffected citizens in western Pennsylvania for secession of the region and reunion with Great Britain. Canadian Governor Simcoe still hoped that there might be an American war, and continued during 1794 to shuttle agents into and out of the western country. He tried to capitalize on the fortuitous uprising of whiskey rebels during the summer, but he received no support from his superiors back in London. Indeed, his correspondence was leaked to the American government, thus providing the Washington administration with details of negotiations between rebel sympathizers and British agents. Simcoe exaggerated his possibilities for success, inflated the numbers of frontiersmen sympathetic to reunion with Great Britain, and minimized the costs of British connivance in such schemes. Washington and Hamilton took Simcoe's analysis at face-value, however, and this information became a source of fear and provided a justification for armed suppression of the insurgency.

As early as March 1794, British Ambassador to the United States George Hammond had reported that frontiersmen were arming for war. An estimated 2000 Kentuckians were poised to attack the Spanish out post at New Orleans, hoping to free the Mississippi for transportation of western crops to market. By June, Britain's ambassador was convinced that "the project of opening by force the navigation of the Mississippi is not merely a transient sentiment of individuals, but is the fixed universal determination of the great mass of the inhabitants of that part of the American territory." He conceived the federal government powerless to prevent such enterprises and interpreted the series of presidential proclamations forbidding such actions as futile. Hammond assessed the commercial interests Of western and eastern states as so utterly conflicting that the adherence of the former to the federal Constitution and the political connection itself between the two divisions of the continent depend on a very precarious sort of tenure."

When the Whiskey Rebellion erupted some months later, British observers were not in the least surprised. Although opposition to the excise provided an "avowed pretext" for hostilities, Hammond was convinced that the real cause was the same as in previous inter-regional conflicts, a rooted aversion" to central governance. Other British officials on the scene agreed that the United States now faced its gravest crisis since the Revolution; that events in western Pennsylvania during July and August were the culmination of western unrest over the past twenty years. Some predicted victory for the rebels in a frontier wide independence movement, while others anticipated that " a temporary suppression of this revolt may happen." But all commentators believed that the Union would not long survive in its present form.

The opinions of foreign observers were reinforced by persons claiming to be agents of the rebels. On two separate occasions, men "of very decent manners and appearance" contacted the British ambassador for the purpose of negotiating an alliance between the western country and his nation. The visitors told Hammond that "they were dissatisfied with the [U. S.] government and were determined to separate from it." In return for arms and perhaps other support, they were prepared to offer the allegiance of their region to the British monarch. The minister feared that word of this meeting would leak out and embarrass his nation's ongoing negotiations with the United States. He delivered the rebels a stern rebuff and apparently reported the unsolicited rendezvous to Alexander Hamilton as well as to London . The Washington administration thus had good reason to share Hammond's interpretation Of events on the frontier.

The Spanish minister in Philadelphia received similar visits by Kentuckians and western Pennsylvanians during 1794, and also assumed a connection between the whiskey rebels and other frontier conspirators. Since Ambassador Joseph de Jaudene's government was, for reasons similar to the British, uninterested in dismembering the American frontier at this time, he paid small sums to frontier agents in return for future information and good will, encouraged them in their pursuits, and promised Spanish interest in an alliance after they secured independence from the United States. Federal officials learned of these discussions as well, and thus knew that frontier incendiaries actively sought the assistance of European powers for secession attempts. They feared that fluctuations in European events might quickly lead to changes in policy. Overnight, Spanish and British officials could become more actively concerned in schemes to subdivide the United States.

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