The Whiskey Rebellion: President Washington Takes Action

An unpopular tax led to a decisive moment in early American history.
The Whiskey Rebellion: President Washington Takes Action
An illustration of Washington first using Militia Law to "Execute the Laws of the Union," during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1974, by Donna Neary. The National Guard. (Public Domain)
2/4/2024
Updated:
2/27/2024

In 1794, western farmers in the newly minted United States reacted strongly against the tax imposed on whiskey by Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton, for his part, was up against a shortage of funds.  During the American Revolution, many of the colonies had spent all that they had and more. When the war ended, Hamilton as the new money man for the new country, pushed to take over the outstanding debts of the states to establish credit for the new nation. A worthy idea, but it didn’t solve the problem of the money shortage.

Searching for a solution, Hamilton had suggested an excise tax on whiskey in 1791. Washington journeyed to Virginia and Pennsylvania to sound out the citizens on the idea. Local government officials were enthusiastic, and Congress hastened to make Hamilton’s solution the law of the land.

The farmers of the area, however, saw it differently. Their chief crops were corn, rye, and grain. To earn a profit, they had to ship them east and risk losses due to storage problems and dangerous roads. Small farmers could be wiped out quickly by such conditions. Larger farmers could better absorb the losses. The solution for both was to distill their grains into whiskey for ease in shipping. Whiskey became the great equalizer.

But the liquor tax was a game changer. Large farmers could more easily absorb the additional cost of the tax, the smaller farmers could not. Many fell into dire financial straits. Protests arose. Washington, as president, sought to resolve the problem in an official way by proclaiming the farmers should respect the laws of the United States. The proclamation was ignored, regardless of the weight of the presidential name behind it.

The protests continued and increased in seriousness. In July of 1794, the whiskey rebels set fire to the house of a regional tax collection supervisor named John Neville. It was time for the federal government, young and inexperienced as it was, to take action. Local law enforcement was no longer sufficient. Court orders had been defied. A march on Pittsburgh was being planned. Washington reasoned that unless the new federal government held the line, chaos would reign. He personally took command.

According to historian William J. Bennett, writing in “America, The Last Best Hope,” Washington donned the uniform of a lieutenant general and led some 12,000 militiamen from four states to face down the rebels. In addition, he issued a warning to the locals that they would suffer the consequences if they gave any aid or comfort to the insurgents.  Washington’s actions and words had the desired effect.

By the time the militia reached Pittsburgh, many of the locals had faded away. Although there were arrests and shouts of “treason,” the Mount Vernon historians note that credible evidence and witnesses were in short supply. Only two men were found guilty, and both were pardoned by President Washington, who blamed the rebellion on fiery rhetoric.

The Whiskey Rebellion was a test of the stability of the new nation. Washington, to his great credit, had stood firm. And in the final analysis, an American precedent was set. The place to change federal law would be at the ballot box, not in the streets. It also set a precedent for presidential pardons, this being the first; and the federal authority’s response to lawbreakers, and the ability to organize militia from states to help protect federal laws. Washington undoubtedly knew he was breaking new ground, and he acted with wisdom every step of the way.

President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax on whiskey in 1802.

An illustration of Washington first using Militia Law to "Execute the Laws of the Union," during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1974, by Donna Neary. The National Guard. (Public Domain)
An illustration of Washington first using Militia Law to "Execute the Laws of the Union," during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1974, by Donna Neary. The National Guard. (Public Domain)