A summary of the Whiskey Rebellion, which traces the events associated with this tax protest that took place in the United States between 1790 and 1794.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a tax protest launched by farmers of the western frontier in a bid to oppose the new excise tax on whiskey. Though the various events associated with this protest took place over a period of four years between 1790 and 1794, it reached its climax in 1794, and thus, is also referred to as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. This was the period when George Washington was the President of the United States.
Back when the ‘Articles of Confederation’ was the constitution of the United States, the federal government had no right to levy taxes on its citizens. This resulted in accumulation of national debt of $54 million. So the then Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton proposed the idea of utilizing this debt to create a financial system that would help the nation get rid of all its debts.
The import duties, which were the primary source of revenue for the federal government back then, had been hiked to an extent wherein it was not possible to hike them any further. With that in mind, Hamilton proposed the idea of levying an excise tax on domestically distilled spirits. He thought that levying a tax on whiskey, which was more of a luxury, would not attract much objection from the citizens. That, however, turned out to be a misconception, as this federal government initiative was met with severe opposition on various fronts and eventually resulted in violent protests in various American states.
While Hamilton was of the opinion that levying an excise tax on whiskey would help the federal government do away with the accumulated debt, his decision met stiff resistance from the farmers of western frontier states, who used to operate small stills and distill excess grain produced into whiskey to facilitate easier transportation. More importantly, the western frontier was still stuck in the barter system, and whiskey was one of the main commodity of exchange in this region. This region was not as developed as the eastern region, which made the farmers believe that the administration was biased towards their well-to-do eastern counterparts.
While the western farmers operated small stills, the eastern farmers had large distilleries to their credit. Owing to this large-scale production of whiskey, it was easy for the eastern farmers to pay excise. There were two means of paying excise on whiskey: a flat fee or a gallon. While that was not a significant amount for owners of large distilleries who produced whiskey in bulk, those farmers who produced it in small amounts were to bear the brunt of this newly levied tax. This, and other grievances on the part of the westerners, resulted in tension, which eventually resulted in violent protests when the tax collectors turned up for the collection.
Whiskey Rebellion: 1791-1794
After several extralegal conventions and numerous petitions to advocate repeal of this excise law, it was finally modified in May 1792. The new excise law, in which the tax was reduced by 1-cent, didn’t go down well with the westerners and sparked some violent protests in the region. In the first reported incident of violence, the new tax collector Robert Johnson was tarred and feathered in Washington County on September 11, 1791. (Tarring and feathering was a humiliating form of punishment carried out in public, wherein hot tar was poured on the person’s body and he was made to roll on feathers.) The official who went to serve warrants for this incident of violence met the same fate.
Such violent incidents continued, owing to which the federal authorities were not able to collect excise tax for a brief period. By then the opposition to this tax had spread to other regions of the United States, like Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Hamilton’s request of resorting to military action to deal with violent protesters was turned down due to lack of evidence. In the meanwhile, the protests continued and now even the locals who helped the authorities were targeted. These incidents of violence continued until July 1794 incident, wherein the mob torched General John Neville’s property.
July 1794 Incident
The battle of Bower Hill, wherein General John Neville’s home was attacked by a violent mob, was one of the most prominent incidents of violence in course of this Rebellion. (General Neville was a federal tax inspector for western Pennsylvania.) In cross firing that followed between the protesters and federal troops, James McFarlane―the leader of local militia―was shot dead by the federal troops. This angered the protesters even more and they set General Neville’s property on fire. In response to this, the federal government under the leadership of George Washington, sent three commissioners to the west to negotiate settlement.
The final reports given by the commissioners advocated the use of military for law enforcement in this region. An army of 12,950 soldiers was dispatched to the west to crush the rebellion. Washington himself went to the western frontier to oversee the progress of his army, thus becoming the first sitting US President to be on the field during a battle. The farmers from the west were no match for the huge federal army, and the Whiskey Rebellion finally came to an end in October 1794, without any resistance from protesters.
Most of the protesters who were arrested were eventually released for lack of evidence, while a few who were charged for treason were eventually pardoned by the President. Historians are of the opinion that President Washington took these measures to ensure that his regime was not marred by any more anti-social occurrences. As far as its significance in the history of America is concerned, it helped the federal government do away with the debt and, more importantly, send out a clear message that it is in charge of the nation.