CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action
Fall 2007 (Volume 23, No. 3)
A few years after the Constitutional Convention, the new American republic faced a serious threat: Frontier farmers rebelled against a whiskey tax and threatened to secede.
In 1790, George Washington was president, and the first Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, the new nation's capital. In the western counties of Pennsylvania, however, many frontier settlers grew increasingly unhappy with the new federal government.
After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, hardy settlers had begun to move into the area surrounding Fort Pitt, where two rivers joined to form the Ohio River. Settlers soon called the four Pennsylvania counties in the area the Forks of the Ohio, or simply the Forks. Fort Pitt became the town of Pittsburgh, with a population of about 1,000 in 1790.
Most people living in the Forks were poor farmers. Some were squatters, who illegally farmed land owned by eastern speculators. Many men had fought in the American Revolution. They were tough and often uneducated, but they valued their freedom.
When soldiers returned to the Forks from the Revolutionary War, Indian raids were a serious problem. The national government failed to stop them. The men of the Forks defended themselves by forming militias, which included every adult male with a musket.
The farmers grew corn and other crops but had no practical way to ship them to cities and seaports. The rough dirt tracks over the Allegheny Mountains to Philadelphia made transporting bulky freight by land too expensive. In addition, the Spanish, who then possessed New Orleans, blocked American shipping coming down the Mississippi River. The new federal government gave little priority to building western roads or negotiating access to New Orleans.
The people of the Forks manufactured one valuable and easily transportable product. They distilled whiskey from grains like corn and rye. They not only consumed whiskey themselves (and in large quantities) but also used it as money since currency and especially coins were always in short supply.
Traders could tie whiskey kegs on the backs of horses and mules to take over the mountains to the Eastern cities. Distillers sold whiskey directly to the army, which was trying to establish forts along the Ohio River.
Some distilleries were large operations, but nearly all farmers of the Forks made at least a few gallons of whiskey each year at harvest time. They bartered the whiskey for needed supplies or sold it for cash. Many depended on this income to avoid foreclosure on their farms.
Henry Hugh Brackenridge was among the few well-educated men west of the Alleghenies. Born in Scotland, he attended Princeton to train as a minister, but also became a lawyer. He was a chaplain in Washington's army during the revolution, and afterward moved to Pittsburgh to practice law.
Brackenridge puzzled his neighbors. He defended squatters against Eastern speculators who bought Western land at pennies to the acre in hopes of selling it for a big profit. But the lawyer also represented speculators who wanted to evict the squatters. In one case, he defended a dozen squatter families when George Washington, before he became president, purchased the title to the land they were working. Brackenridge sided with the settlers in their battles with the Indians, but also defended an Indian who murdered a carpenter working on his own house.
Brackenridge sympathized with the grievances of the frontier settlers but also favored a strong federal government under the new Constitution. This baffling man became a central figure in the dramatic events that threatened to rip apart the new American republic.
Hamilton and the Excise on Whiskey
In Philadelphia, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton faced the problem of the Revolutionary War debt. The national and state governments had borrowed tens of millions of dollars from foreigners and American citizens.
Hamilton worried that if the United States failed to meet its debt obligations soon, the federal government would have difficulty borrowing in the future. Paying off the debt, argued Hamilton, would inspire the confidence of creditors who would be more willing to finance roads, ports, and other projects necessary for the new nation to grow.
In 1790, Hamilton proposed a bold financial plan to Congress. He wanted to consolidate all national and state debts and pay them off as quickly as possible. But where would the government get the money?
Almost all revenue that the United States collected came from customs duties on foreign imports. Therefore, Hamilton recommended new duties on wine and liquor from foreign countries. He also wanted to impose an excise tax on products made within the country, specifically on the distilling of whiskey.
The proposed excise on whiskey provoked great controversy in Congress. This would be the first time a tax would apply to a product made in the United States. Americans remembered the long history of resisting excises in England because tax collectors searched people's homes for taxable items and had the power to impose fines without a trial. In America, the Stamp Act was an excise on various documents and helped bring on the American Revolution.
Western representatives in Congress opposed the excise on whiskey, calling it the leading edge of tyranny. They claimed that the burden of this tax would fall most heavily on poor frontier settlers. Others charged the whiskey tax was a plot by Hamilton and his Eastern merchant friends to shift taxes from the rich to the poor.
Hamilton responded that the frontier settlers should share the tax burden with Eastern merchants, who were already paying import duties. He insisted that the whiskey tax rate was equal for rich and poor alike. Hamilton also saw the excise as an opportunity to establish firm federal authority in the states.
In 1791, Congress passed the whiskey excise. Under the law, federal officers would register stills and collect taxes from those who made the whiskey. The law required the tax be paid in coins, not paper notes that were often worthless. The officers themselves took a 1 percent commission on the taxes they collected.
Distillers could pay the tax at nine cents per gallon or buy a license for a yearly flat fee. Large distillers, who had the advantage of operating more efficiently during most of the year, could reduce the tax they paid to six cents per gallon. Those violating the whiskey tax law faced heavy fines.
Rebellion in the Forks
John Neville, the son of a Virginia planter and a general in the Revolutionary War, dominated the economy of the Forks. He owned 10,000 acres of farmland worked by slaves. Using his political connections, Neville headed a network of relatives and friends who held many of the supply contracts for the army in the Ohio Valley. He lived with his family in a mansion called Bower Hill.
Neville also operated the largest whiskey distillery in the Forks, selling mainly to the army. He did not, however, have a monopoly on whiskey sales because nearly every farmer in the region, rich and poor, operated a still. Neville favored the whiskey tax as a way of driving the small producers out of business. In 1791, Hamilton appointed him head of whiskey tax collections for the Forks.
From the start, Neville had trouble hiring deputy tax collectors. The few who took on this unpopular job faced attacks by mobs of armed men. The attackers painted their faces black and further disguised themselves as Indians or by wearing women's dresses. These "Blackface Raiders" stripped the tax collectors naked, covered them with tar and feathers, and left them in the forest.
Soon mysterious notes circulated from "Tom the Tinker" who threatened not only the taxmen but also anyone who paid the hated whiskey excise. Blackface Raiders burned their barns and shot up their stills. "Liberty Poles," with flags and other symbols of dissent attached to them, appeared in the towns. A mob burned John Neville in effigy.
The men of the Forks organized themselves into armed militias. They also gathered at meetings to petition Congress. They protested the whiskey excise as an unequal tax that burdened the poor, who did not have the hard cash to pay it.
Hugh Brackenridge attended an early protest meeting in Pittsburgh. He spoke against the whiskey tax, but objected to violence and worried about a civil war between the East and West. People wondered on whose side he really was.
Petitions against the tax came not only from the Forks but also from throughout the Western frontier. Hamilton dismissed them. By 1793, whiskey tax collections were at a standstill everywhere. John Neville urged Hamilton to send troops to the Forks to enforce the law.
In February 1794, 500 militiamen from Mingo Creek near Pittsburgh formed an organization with bylaws and even a court to enforce their stand against the whiskey tax. They continued to meet and petition Congress with all their grievances against the federal government. Hugh Brackenridge attended some meetings, representing a small group of Pittsburgh moderates. In Philadelphia, Hamilton considered such assemblies unlawful attempts to destroy federal authority.
In July 1794, Hamilton sent a U.S. marshal to assist John Neville serve court papers on farmers who had refused to register their stills and pay the tax. The Mingo Creek group met and decided to arrest the marshal and put him on trial. About 600 militiamen marched to Bower Hill, Neville's home, where they believed the marshal was staying.
A two-day battle erupted between the militiamen and Neville, a handful of federal troops from Pittsburgh, and Neville's armed slaves. Only a few men died in the battle, including the militia leader. In the end, Neville escaped. The militiamen ransacked his house, drank his whiskey, and burned the place down. The marshal had never been at Bower Hill.
At a Mingo Creek meeting, militia members asked Hugh Brackenridge if what they had done was "right or wrong." He replied they were morally right but legally wrong. Privately, he feared they had committed treason. The rebels decided to call a large convention of delegates from the four counties of western Pennsylvania plus part of Virginia to consider seceding from the Union.
Up to 7,000 militiamen from the Forks and beyond gathered a few miles from Pittsburgh. Brackenridge and other moderates feared the militiamen might burn the town where Neville and his allies were hiding. Brackenridge, however, negotiated a deal with the rebel leader for Pittsburgh to banish Neville and his supporters. A town committee agreed, the Neville faction left, and Pittsburgh did not burn.
Submission and Amnesty
On August 14, 1794, 225 delegates and many armed guards met in a convention at Parkinson's Ferry, south of Pittsburgh. The slogan of the American Revolution, "Don't Tread on Me," appeared. The rebels produced their own flag. The Forks was on the verge of declaring independence. Then word came that a commission sent by President Washington to negotiate peace had suddenly arrived.
Over the next few days, the president's commission met with a small committee from the Parkinson's Ferry Convention. The commissioners demanded that the rebels submit to the laws of the United States and renounce violence. In exchange, President Washington would grant an amnesty to all who had participated in the rebellion. There was one catch. The rebel submission had to be unanimous.
Back at the convention, a committee of 60 debated the commission's offer. Many expressed outrage at the terms. Radical Mingo Creek militiamen boasted they would defeat any federal army coming over the mountains. Moderates also spoke, including Hugh Brackenridge.
Brackenridge went right to the point. "We must therefore either overthrow [the United States] or it must overthrow us." He argued that to reject the commission's proposals was a declaration of independence, which was neither practical nor possible. "It is, therefore, the last and only advice I have to give," he said, "that you acquiesce [agree] with the propositions of the commissioners and accept the amnesty offered you." Brackenridge with his appeal to reason and reality appeared to turn the tide against secession.
Fearing the armed and angry Mingo Creek radicals, the committee of 60 at first did not even want to vote. Finally, someone proposed a secret ballot by writing both "yea" and "nay" on slips of paper. Each voter would tear the ballot in half, drop his vote in a hat, and eat the other half. To the shock of the radicals, the vote was 34 "yeas" to accept the commission's offer and 23 "nays."
The commissioners, however, rejected the vote as not being close to unanimous. Even so, they agreed to hold a referendum, asking every male over 18 in the rebellious counties to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. This resulted in a strong majority in favor of ending the rebellion, but a stubborn minority refused to sign the oath.
Occupation of the Forks
In Philadelphia, Washington and Hamilton prepared to invade the Forks with a federal army to suppress the rebellion and re-establish federal authority. Neither believed the loyalty oath referendum resulted in a large enough majority. In a proclamation he issued on September 25, 1794, Washington declared that it was clear "violence would continue."
Washington federalized militias from four states to assemble an army of 13,000, larger than the force he commanded at Yorktown. Washington personally led this army part of the way. He returned to Philadelphia when it became clear there would be no organized resistance.
General Henry Lee then took command of the federal army, accompanied by Hamilton and a triumphant John Neville. Meanwhile, about 2,000 rebel radicals fled down the Ohio River and disappeared forever into the wilderness.
The federal troops quickly occupied Pittsburgh and the four counties of the Forks. They met no armed resistance. Hamilton launched a program of mass arrests. Soldiers rounded up hundreds of men from their homes, sometimes in the middle of the night, and marched them to primitive lockups where guards often abused them. Hamilton and army officers interrogated the prisoners, especially about the role of Hugh Brackenridge who they believed was the mastermind of the rebellion. Ironically, many of the rebels now considered him a traitor to their cause.
John Neville fed Hamilton incriminating evidence about Brackenridge, some of it invented. Finally, Hamilton personally interrogated the lawyer and got his side of the story. After some checking, Hamilton discovered Brackenridge's actions had been "horribly misrepresented." Hamilton released him.
In the end, only 12 rebels faced trial in Philadelphia. Juries convicted two for relatively minor offenses, and Washington pardoned them (the first use of a presidential pardon).
In the Forks, a small occupation force remained for a while to ensure federal authority. John Neville restored his dominance in the local economy. Hugh Brackenridge later became a member of the state supreme court. Finally, after the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, Congress repealed the whiskey excise.
Brackenridge wrote his own account of the Whiskey Rebellion to help clear his name. He ended up agreeing with the actions of Washington and Hamilton. He also, however, admired the spirit of the people. "And I will pledge myself," he wrote, "they will not disgrace you in any enterprise it may be necessary to undertake for the glory of our republic however daring and hazardous it may be."
For Discussion and Writing
1. Write a petition to Congress, listing the grievances the settlers of the Forks had against the federal government in 1794.
2. Why did Hamilton propose a whiskey excise? Do you think it was a fair tax? Why?
3. Do you think the Whiskey Rebellion was justified? Explain.
For Further Reading
Brackenridge, Hugh Henry. Incidents of the Insurrection. New Haven, Conn.: College & University Press, 1972 [originally published 1795].
Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion. New York: Scribner, 2006.
A C T I V I T Y
Evaluating the Major Participants in the Whiskey Rebellion
Seven small groups should each evaluate one of the following participants by discussing this question: Does the record of this participant in the Whiskey Rebellion show that the participant was right or wrong? Groups may decide that some participants had a mixed record. Each group should then report its conclusion with reasons to support it.
1. Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton
2. John Neville
3. Blackface Raiders
4. Mingo Creek Militiamen
5. Committee of 60
6. President Washington
7. Hugh Brackenridge