The Whiskey Tax and John Neville


The Causes of that so called Whiskey Insurrection of 1794

By C. M. Ewing (1930)

In Accordance with the law before mentioned, providing a permanent home for the government, the Third Session of the First Congress sat in Philadelphia, Monday, December 6, 1790. Here, in January 1791, Hamilton introduced the notorious omnibus revenue bill that contained so much poison within the vitals of its sixty-two sections.

 Profiting by the experience of his bill of June 1790, and with a full knowledge that Congress and the President favored a reenactment of the tariff upon imported spirits, the wily Secretary tricked his opposition by joining incongruous subjects in the same bill. Thus strengthened by its inharmonious form, the excise law, Hamilton's favorite financial measure, struggled through a stormy career in Congress and became a law March 3, 1791. Thus the people were taxed to pay the thief who had robbed them.

 Quoting from an original copy before me, the preamble of this bill reads as follows: "An act repealing, after the last day of June next, the Duties heretofore laid upon distilled Spirits imported from Abroad, and laying others in their Stead, and also upon Spirits distilled within the United States, and for appropriating the same."

 While pending, the Legislature of Pennsylvania took the alarm and on January 22, 1791, passed the following resolutions condemning an-excise: "the Legislature of this Commonwealth, ever attentive to the rights of their constituents, and conceiving it a ,duty incumbent on them to express their sentiments on such matters of a public nature as in their opinion have a tendency ,to destroy their rights, have agreed to the following resolutions:

 "Resolved, That any proceeding on the part of the United States tending to the collection of revenue by means of excise, established on principles subversive of peace, liberty and the rights of the citizens ought to attract the attention of the House."

 "Resolved, That no public urgency within the knowledge or contemplation o this House can, in their opinion, warrant the adoption of any species of taxation which shall violate those rights which are the basis of our government, and which would exhibit the singular spectacle of a nation resolutely oppressing the oppressed of others, in order to enslave it-self.,'

 "Resolved, That these sentiments be communicated to the Senators representing the State of Pennsylvania in the Senate of the United States, with a hope that they will oppose every part of the excise bill now before the Congress which shall militate against the rights and liberties of the people."

 These resolutions were adopted by a large majority, and among the names of those supporting their adoption we find that of John Neville. That is to say, our John Neville voted for the above resolutions.

 "During the continuance of the state excise general Neville was one of the greatest declaimers against it, and of the most open encouragers of opposition to it. When Graham, the state excise-man was shaved, had his hair cut, and expelled from the country, if he did not patronize that outrage he openly approved it, and said they did not use the rascal half as bad as he deserved. In the assembly of the state, which preceded that which sat when the excise law was enacted by Congress., he voted against the repeal of the state direct tax in order to make way for repealing the state excise. In the subsequent assembly he voted for the resolutions against the passage of the excise law then before Congress. He and I sat and together for them, and we had always agreed in our principles respecting excise, though I never agreed with him in opinion that the excise officers ought to be ill-treated."

 The above quotation is from page 79, "History of the Insurrection" published in 1706 by William Findley, member of the House of Representatives of the United States and formally of the state legislature.

 As a specific form of taxation, excise is one that is levied upon the products of domestic manufacture, usually at the place whore produced, or first exposed to sale. Its very nature demands for its levy and collection a systematized espionage upon the industries of the people from whom it is to be collected. In every country whore it has ever ben resorted to it has resulted in a demoralizing influence and either resistance or evasion. Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries refers to it as "odious and hardly compatible with the temper of a free nation."

 The Federal Constitution provides that all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States, but it does not require them to be specific; that is, a uniform rate upon the taxable article, irrespective of its relative value. However, the law as designed by Hamilton and adopted by Congress presented the excise in its most objectionable form, in that it was made to be specific, thereby not only giving it an odious name and mode of collection, but excluding all equity of allotment, according to the relative values of distilled spirits as between one part of the country and another. Whiskey manufactured in Washington County sold for twenty-five cents per gallon, thus a tax of seven cents consumed more than one-fourth of its value, while the eastern product of double that value lost but one-eighth. Thus another differential was established favoring the East as against the West. By an act of May 8, 1792, the tax rates were lowered a little, but the penalty for non-entry of stills was increased from $100 to $250. It also provided that offices of inspection and entry be opened in each county where all entries should be made yearly in June, and only then.

 While the original bill was pending in Congress, Hamilton provoked by the action of the State Legislature, came forward with new schemes which he wished introduced into the law, the most obnoxious of which was the dividing of the United States into fourteen districts, each under the control of a supervisor, and each State into surveys under the control of an inspector. The limitation of State government was the intent of this clause.

 One of Hamilton's predominant characteristics was his ability to detect irresolution. He had evidently been looking for material fitted to his purpose, for shortly after the passage of the excise law he sent for John Neville and offered him the position of inspector of the Fourth Survey of Pennsylvania, comprising the counties of Allegheny, Washington, Fayette, Westmoreland, and part of Bedford. He could not have made a more impolitic selection, for Neville's character lacked sufficient strength to bear the loathsome load. Notwithstanding his avowed opposition to the law and mouthy approbation of the disorderly demonstrations against those sent to perform the duties he now; elected to assume, Neville promptly accepted the appointment. Of course, if we are to follow the teachings of the keeper of the family honor, Mr. Neville accepted the appointment out of pure devotion to the Commonwealth, that vigorous sense of duty to her wellbeing. We leave it for the reader to reconcile these teachings with the following additional quotation from the before mentioned letter written by Mr. Neville to General Clark: " --- and tho I am unfortunate enough to fall in to Pennsylvania I shall live and Die in the interests of Virginia."

Return to the Whiskey Rebellion