Pittsburgh and the Whiskey Rebellion

The James Miller House on the Oliver Miller Homestead located in South Park Township, site of the first shots fired.

The Whiskey Rebellion was an armed resistance movement against the fledgling United States government as it attempted to impose new tax laws on whiskey distillers. Protesters saw it purely as a case of taxation without representation, though the government deemed it a necessary tax to pay for the war debt incurred in the fight for independence from Great Britain.

Whiskey Tax Law

During George Washington’s presidency, the government needed funding, so Congress looked to American-distilled spirits and imposed the first tax enacted by the United States. Becoming the law of the land in 1791, Congress expected it to generate enough revenue to pay off Revolutionary War debt. Large producers were more likely to pay the tax, as they received more favorable terms, and this infuriated small producers.

Frontier farmers had been distilling surplus grain crops into whiskey and other spirits and using them as one of the main means of exchange. These farmers believed that this was akin to what many of them had just fought against the British to be free from: taxation without any local representation. In fact, they expected help from the national government on the Indian problem and opening the Mississippi River to navigation; neither of these things was a priority to Washington, and that fueled distrust.

All over the western frontier, and in particular Western Pennsylvania, whiskey tax protestors refused to pay the tax. Others openly rebelled and used intimidation tactics and violence when necessary to keep federal officials from collecting the tax money. Revenue officers were threatened, their homes were burned, and they were often tarred and feathered, causing them to give up and leave town. In this manner, the protesters prevailed for several years.

Suppressing the Insurgency

whiskey rebellion
“Famous Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania”, an 1880 illustration of a tarred and feathered tax collector being made to ride the rail.

In July 1794, Washington dispatched a United States Marshal to Western Pennsylvania to serve writs on distillers that were delinquent in their excise taxes. The people quickly put together 500 armed men and attacked the tax inspector’s home, burning it to the ground, and he narrowly escaped with his life.
Washington’s response was to send peace commissioners to deal with the rebels, while he also called on governors to enforce the tax with an armed militia force. Negotiations were begun in earnest by three commissioners that told the rebels they must renounce violence and submit to United States laws and those who agreed would be given amnesty. Though the rebels agreed in theory, opposition remained strong in poor areas and among those that did not own land.

Soon, George Washington himself lead an army of 13,000 militiamen into Western Pennsylvania. No confrontation occurred because the rebels disbanded before the army arrived. Still, a few dozen men were arrested, though they were later pardoned or acquitted.

Though violence was averted, for the most part, the Whiskey Rebellion showed the people that the new government had the means and the will to suppress resistance to laws that it made. Violent opposition to the whiskey excise tax ended after Washington’s militia expedition, but political opposition continued in earnest and the taxes were still just as difficult to collect.

The Whiskey Rebellion’s events contributed greatly to the formation of political parties in the United States by allying those who were of a like mind. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800 in large part due to opponents of internal taxes like the whiskey tax. By 1802, Congress had repealed the distilled spirits tax and all other internal taxes.

In today’s Western Pennsylvania, the Whiskey Rebellion Festival embraces the wonderful Pittsburgh weather to keep the spirit of the frontier alive every summer, with historic activities, music and family fun surrounding the events of 1791-1794.

The History of Pittsburgh, Part 1

The History of Pittsburgh, Part 2

Pittsburgh Growth in the 19th Century

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