Whiskey Insurrection/Rebellion

Liberty flags of the Whiskey Insurrection - note the fifteen stripes for the fifteen states, at that time

Reasons for Dissension and the Insurrection
(Democracy or Aristocracy)

Picture, for the moment, the conditions here in southwestern Pennsylvania during the 1770's through the 90'S. The United States had been just born. Indian attacks such as the attack on Massy White and her children and the Russ massacre were common in western Pennsylvania. Local battles had been going on with the Indians with no support from the eastern peoples who also were busy with the British until the late 1770's and then had a government to put together. The Scot's/Irish background of many of the settler's may have led to their apparent lack of respect for authority. The Washington County Militia was involved in the massacre at Gnadenhutten and the burning of Schoenbrunn in March of 1782. The last official battle of the American Revolution didn't occur until September 13, 1782. This conflict pitted a company of British Rangers and 238 Indians against six settlers near the Dutch Fork region in Washington County, PA. The fact that the British and Indians withdrew is an example of the independent nature and fighting ability of the settlers of the area. Another skirmish the next day apparently involved only Indians and settlers with no British troops seen.

While the country we know as the United States of America existed on paper, citizens of all states considered themselves part of their state first, and associated with their country second. When roll was called in the Continental Congress, the question was always, whether the state was at hand, not whether a particular person was present. State rights was considered a natural right by most, and people hesitated to surrender their state rights to a union of states because of the danger of giving the "control of the purse and sword" to the single group. Basically, it took a long while for the states to accept the fact that they were not separate countries. The eastern peoples were quicker to accept the ideas of states, "subservient to the country" than the people west of the mountains. Even in the East, the separatist ideas slowly came to an end after the Mount Vernon Compact in 1785 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787 The Shay's rebellion in western Massachusetts occurred from August 1786 to early 1787. Additional attempts to separate occurred in western N. Carolinain 1776 and late in the late 1780's in Kentucky.

Western Pennsylvania had a history of wanting to be separate. As early as 1775 the Transylvanians petitioned the Continental Congress to be recognized as the fourteenth colony. In 1776 the people in the region claimed by both Pennsylvania and Virginia, announced that they were the new state of Westsylvania. They said that "no country or people can be either rich, flourishing, happy or free . . . whilst annexed to or dependent on any province, whose seat of government is . . . four or five hundred miles distant, and separated by a vast, extensive and almost impassible tract of mountains . . ." With both states claiming this land, many peoples took advantage of the difficulty in enforcing state laws in this area until 1781 when Pennsylvania was given control. With this history, is it any wonder that unrest might occur here again in 1794?

In the East, the anti-constitutionalists attempted to minimize the powers of the state and people within the federal government. They proposed an "upper house" as a check upon the democratic assembly. This proposal was intensely resisted by the West. Alexander Hamilton was probably the strongest supporter of the trend towards aristocratic government. By early 1789 he was the treasurer of the U.S. and continually used all his influence to work toward a aristocracy. According to Hamilton, only the "well bred and rich" as he expressed it, were to be recognized in governmental circles. "Lower" people, as he called them, were to have little or no part in government and would be held in check by "coercion of laws and coercion of arms". Hamilton's party became known as the Federalists and attempted to install a more powerful federal government (aristocracy) as opposed to Thomas Jefferson's Antifederalist party which was pushing for state's rights.

Decisions made along the East Coast had little support or effect on the highly independent people west of the mountains. Crime was of little importance because of the attitude of the masses, and courts were few and far between. This independence, naturally, resulted in a political feeling of local power as opposed to federal power. The Democratic Society was strong west of the mountains and emphasized democracy and a strong local government, which they felt was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The separatist attitude of the states was slow to disappear. Even after the Constitutional Convention on May 14, 1787, while the bickering and competition between the states decreased somewhat, it was retained in the West. In addition, there was little loyalty between the eastern and western regions of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

 On January 15, 1788, Lord Dorchester, the governor-general of Canada, (aware of the strong feelings against the East) sent his friend John Connolly (previously in charge of Ft. Pitt) to Western Pa. to talk to General John Neville, General Samuel Parsons and other Pittsburghers sympathetic to the British cause to determine the likelihood of the West separating from the East. He then sent a letter to Lord Sydney advising him to aid the West in separating from the Union. Among the names of the influential people considered sympathetic to the plan to separate the western areas from the rest of the Union was a General John Neville who later became an important individual against the whiskey rebellion. Active encouragement began in 1789 and 1790, but seemed not to be a key factor in the coming disagreement.

Indians, often led by the British still raided the areas west of the mountains. The Indian problem could no longer be ignored by the young country. They sent two major military expeditions against the eastern Indians. The first, in 1790, was led by General Josiah Harmer and the second, in 1791, was led by General Arthur St. Clair. Both expeditions were defeated by the Indians. To pay for the military activity against the Indians (on the our side of the mountains) and other things, it was decided to put an additional tariff on the sale of whiskey at the source. It wasn't until 1794 that General Anthony Wayne defeated the British at Fallen Timbers and the British actually withdrew from the region, giving up on any hope of claim to the areas west of the mountains. Had Wayne struck with the same success a year earlier when he was first ready, it is likely that the western people would have had more faith in the new government and the rebellion probably would not have occurred.

The 21 million dollars of expected income could then be used to support the military actions against the Indians. The locals, however, did not look at it this way. Previously, around 1790, the eastern rich (friends of Hamilton) bought western script which was nearly worthless. The government then purchased the script from everyone (the easterners had most of it by then) at face value. This cost the government 21 million dollars. Many westerners looked upon this as a method of having them pay for the script out of which they were cheated.

A serious problem existed when transporting goods by water down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then over to the people on the East Coast. New Orleans was under Spanish control and they put a very heavy tax on goods passing through New Orleans. In 1790, P. Alaire urged the British to take an active role in opening the Mississippi to free navigation. He advised, "Open a free navigation of the Mississippi for the western inhabitants, and you bind that country and its inhabitants forever in spite of Congress, or all the world, for without the Mississippi, its fruitfulness is useless --." This problem was so severe that by March 1794 the British Ambassador to the United States said that two thousand militia had begun gathering in Kentucky in preparation of attacking New Orleans and freeing the navigation on the Mississippi. This, of course, was likely to start a war with the United States and Spain.

An additional slap in the face was the rich easterners buying land in western Pennsylvania and western Virginia even though it was already occupied and farmed. The settlers then either had to move or buy their land from the outsiders who may have never left their home in the East. This was permitted by the state of Pennsylvania as a means of producing funds and, at the urging of Hugh H. Brackenridge, a Pittsburgh attorney, and school roommate of attorney-general William Bradford, the state took steps to outlaw the secessionist activities assuring a continued flow of income.

The whiskey tariff, which is often incorrectly thought of as being the only cause of the coming disagreement, was seven cents a gallon (the price actually varied depending on the capacity of the still, not what was actually produced). If the settlers were able to sell the whiskey in Washington County, it would bring about twenty-five cents a gallon. Selling whiskey on the eastern side of the mountains would normally bring around fifty cents a gallon. By collecting the tax at the source instead of the point of sale, the western whiskey was taxed 28% while the eastern whiskey had a 14% tax. Collecting the tax based on the output of the still also meant that the farmers had to pay tax on the whiskey which they consumed themselves. The registration of stills had to occur in June at the one tax office per county. Washington County had no tax office due to the sentiment against the East and the whiskey tax. If one were to register the still, they would have to go to one of the neighboring counties to do so. Few Washingtonians registered because of the distances involved and the individualistic principles they espoused.

Trials of excise (whiskey) cases were not permitted to be held in the local counties. Instead, the trial was held in the Federal Court in Philadelphia. The time to go to Philadelphia, the costs involved in travel, lawyers and witnesses made the westerners feel that they were being picked on deliberately.

A meeting at Redstone Fort in July of 1791 began the organized resistance to the collection of the excise tax. The few attempts at enforcing the excise often resulted in humiliation and sometimes tarring and feathering.

One might say that the insurrection really began in mid August 1791 when a number of armed men painted as Indians were reported to be lurking in some bushes between Pittsburg (now Pittsburgh) and Washington, PA, in an attempt to waylay Neville, but the first tarring and feather actually occurred a month earlier.. By the summer of 1792 Captain Faulkner was tarred and feathered for trying to open a Washington county tax office. Alexander Hamilton, in spite of the wishes of the congress, set about forcing western farmers to come to Philadelphia for trial.

A confrontation between Marshall Lennox and Gen. Neville and William Miller and some friends occurred at William Miller's home in Allegheny County. At least one shot was fired by Miller's (Allegheny County) group during the visit by Neville (serving writs) but no one was injured. Alexander Hamilton claimed that the shots missed their targets but most historians assume that no one was aimed at. This same day the Mingo Creek Militia was gathered to fulfill a request for Indian fighters. Two groups of militiamen were selected to pursue the Marshall. They went to Neville's house on the assumption that Lennox had returned there with Neville. The next morning (July 16), thirty men approach Neville's home demanding an interview. Neville apparently turned and shot and killed Oliver Miller, the nephew of William Miller, and then blew a horn upon which his slaves opened fire from their quarters at the back of the crowd. The militia suffered a number of wounded and retreated to Couche's Fort for another meeting and to recruit more men.

On July 17 1794 with James McFarlane in command, around 500 met at Couche's fort and advanced on Bower Hill (Neville's home). The attack began after women and children were permitted to leave. According to legend, a white flag was thought to be seen in a window of Nelville's home or someone from the house called out for a truce. McFarlane ordered firing stopped, in the process exposing himself. A shot from the house killed James McFarlane. The attacking troops were outraged and burned the barn, home and several outbuildings after releasing the people in the house unharmed. The militia attacking Bower Hill thought that a Abraham Kirkpatrick, in command of the eleven soldiers protecting Bower Hill, had shot and killed McFarlane.

On July 18 or 19th at a meeting at Mingo Creek Meeting house, David Bradford, a successful attorney, businessman and Deputy Attorney General assumed leadership of the rebels (some claim he did so because he was blackmailed and "forced" to take an active role). Shortly there after occurred series of meetings at Bradford's home to consider the problem of the easterners knowing what was happening almost before it happened. As a result of these meetings, the mail from Pittsburg to Philadelphia was robbed on July 26th and taken to the Blackhorse Tavern in Canonsburg to be examined.

Because of the knowledge gained from the mail, Bradford and his group sent a letter to the local militias requesting a gathering on Aug 1, 1794 on Braddock's field to begin a possible four day military excursion. Five to seven thousand troops gathered at Braddock's field, eight miles from Pittsburg, on the first. Brackenridge convinced leaders to warn Pittsburg to banish all obnoxious characters within eight days or face destruction The farmers and militia marched through Pittsburg in protest with no problems or damage done. The lack of problems during the march was influenced by the 379 residents of Pittsburg supplied the "invading army" with food and whiskey. The "army", as many of the easterners termed it, crossed the Monongahela and torched Kirkpatrick's barn near Mt. Washington as they were leaving the city.

By August 7, 1794, George Washington began mobilizing 12,950 troops from eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey under Gen. Harry Lee, the Governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee.

Amnesty was offered to those involved in the various acts of defiance by a presidential commission on August 21, 1794. The required number of signatures was not obtained, in part, because that many felt that by signing they would be admitting guilt. The terms required that the leaders openly declare their submission to the laws in general, and the excise law in particular. A member of the President's commission, by the name of General William Irvine, sent a note to Washington after examining the facts in western Pennsylvania in which he stated "I do not mean now either to condemn of justify the proceedings here, but I may safely venture to say, that people on the west of the mountains labor under hardships, if not grievances that are not known, or at least not understood, in other parts of the United States, in more instances than the excise; but in this particular it can be demonstrated that they labor under particular hardships, for instance, carrying a man to Philadelphia or York to be tried for crimes, real or supposed, or on litigations respecting property, perhaps under the value or forty shillings: THIS IS INTOLERABLE."

At the urging of Hamilton, George Washington determined that troops would be needed to put down the, so called, insurrection. The troops, largely from New Jersey, arrived in Carlisle Pennsylvaniain late September 1794. Washington and his troops arrived in Bedford, Pennsylvania on October 19th. By early and mid November the "Watermelon Army" began rounding up suspects in western Pennsylvania. These people, suspects and witnesses together, many of the barefoot and lacking winter clothing, were then marched to Philadelphia to stand trial. David Bradford, one of the leaders of the insurrection, escaped and fled to a location near what is today called St. Francisville, LA (about one hundred miles from New Orleans) where he built Bradford's second home and moved his family. Most of the army began the trek home on November 19th with the suspects and their guards following six days later. It is often rumored that the remaining troops spent the winter on the campus of Washington Academy, now known as Washington and Jefferson College. The school closed down during this short time, in part, because a number of the students and the trustees of the college were known sympathizers with the rebels.

Secretary of State Edmund Randolph asked by President Washington to defend himself in relation to a letter from the French Minister to the French Government which analyzed the causes of the Whiskey Rebellion. The dispatch apparently implied that Randolph was the source of the information. Because the letter refereed to the repressive means that the U.S. Government was using to put down the rebellion and the referral to Washington as a puppet of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington was noticeable upset. Randolph was offended by the accusations and immediately resigned from his position (the letter may have been fairly truthful). These factors were reasons enough for the people of Western Pennsylvania to be unhappy with the new United States government. Because of their unwillingness to submit to the federalist principles of a strong central government, we may thank the independent people west of the mountains for our present day democratic society. Thomas Jefferson resigned his post of Secretary of State in 1793, in part, in protest because George Washington was agreeing too much with Hamilton and the Federalists. He may have been a fellow member of the Virginia House of Burgess with David Bradford of Washington and it is thought that this insurrection may have been strongly influenced by Jefferson and his friends.

Some feel that Alexander Hamilton caused the Whiskey Rebellion purposefully. At this point in time, while there were valid the reasons for his wanting an excuse to send federal troops to western Pa, whether or not he took the actions he did for the purpose of starting an insurrection would be hard to prove.

Some people today feel that David Bradford (with his opulent Washington, Pennsylvania house), after being blackmailed and forced to get involved in the dispute, may have gotten somewhat carried away with dissent. If it were not for Bradford and the other dissenters, helping to bring the state's right's/democracy issue to the attention of the easterners and lending support to Jefferson's position, the government of today might be the aristocratic monarchy that Hamilton and the Federalists tried so hard to install. Thankfully, the rebellion failed, almost before it began. It did publicize some of the problems the settlers were having with the government, gave the newly formed government a chance to flex its muscles and, in a sense, redefined the word treason to permit disagreement with the government without being considered treasonous.

Main Menu Time Line