Hamilton, Congress and the Whiskey Tax


The Causes of that so called Whiskey Insurrection of 1794

By C. M. Ewing (1930)

Congress, upon seeing the weakness of the judicial arm at so great a distance, and the cruelty to alleged, and so far as tried, innocent defendants, and the hardship to witnesses of dragging them over the mountains, did, on March 2, 1793, enact a law, authorizing special sessions of the United States Circuit Court to be hold for the trial of criminal- offences at any convenient place within the district. However, the action of Congress was evidently not in accord with the vindictive policies adopted by the Secretary, as no steps were taken under the act.

 "Those who anxiously wished to see the dignity and authority of the law supported, expected that a special session would be held in the western counties with all convenient speed. If this had been done, I am certain there would have been no Insurrection." - Page 73, William Findley's "History of the Insurrection.''

 With the rebuffing of their benignant enactment of March 2, 1793, Congress appointed a committee on February 7, 1794 to report "if any and what further legislative provisions may be necessary for the securing and collecting the duties on foreign and domestic distilled spirits, stills, wines, and teas." On April 4, a bill containing the further provisions was presented and read twice; and on May 24, it was read the third time and passed. On the 30th of May it passed the Senate with amendments, on the third reading. The following day, May 31, both Houses appointed managers for conference. On June 3, proceedings were had in each House and an agreement effected. President Washington approved the bill on June 5. The 9th Section of this act is as follows: "That it shall and may be lawful for the Judicial Courts of the several States, and the Territory of the United States Northwest of the river Ohio, and of the Territory of the United States South of the river Ohio, to take cognizance of all and every suit and suits, action and actions, cause and causes, arising under or out of the was for collecting a revenue upon spirits distilled in the United States, and upon stills, which may arise or accrue at a greater distance than fifty miles from the nearest place established by law for holding a District Court."

 It is apparent that Congress had determined that in the future all such suits should be tried in the State courts. However, Hamilton, watching the progress of the legislation and noting its trend, was equally determined to forestall this by bringing actions under the old law of March 3, 1791. Thus, while the bill. was in progress through Congress, the District Court of the United States, at Philadelphia, issued process against some seventy-five non-complying distillers, fifty of whom were in Washington, Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Bedford counties. These writs are entered in the Docket "Issued 31st May, 1794." Particular attention is called to the fact that Hamilton caused these writs to be rushed through the Federal Court on the very day, May 31, on which both Houses of Congress took almost their final action on the measure. Incredulous as-this action may seem, the fact that he retarded the serving of the writs until the harvest, the period upon which the very existence of the people depended, damns his name throughout the duration of man's memory.

 As if to elude the intent of Congress and deliberately aggravate one of the greatest grievances, the Secretary, through District Attorney Rawle, caused United States Marshal David Lenox to proceed to the western country fortified with writs to be served upon an indignant people, which were made returnable on the twelfth day of August, at which time the District Court would not be in session. Completely blinded by their spirit of vindictiveness, some one or all of these arch-conspirators had overlooked the fact that by an Act of June 9, 1794, the time for holding sessions was altered from the second Tuesday to the third Monday, which in August 1794 was the eighteenth day of the month. However, this error was overcome by a special written order of Judge Peters, by which the Court convened in accordance with the return date of the writs. The question may arise as to whether this Act of June 9 was passed before the marshall departed from Philadelphia. There is not the slightest doubt but that the Treasury Department and the marshal knew of its passage a considerable time before he started upon his, what was considered seven days journey, bringing him into the western country a four days before the middle of July.

Return to the Whiskey Rebellion