This Day in History: The Whiskey Rebellion “wantonly threatens” America

On this day in 1794, the so-called Whiskey Rebellion reaches its high point. The rebellion ultimately failed, but George Washington would later say that it had “wantonly threatened” America during her early years.

The American government was still very young, and it was looking for ways to raise revenue. One of the methods that it settled upon was an excise tax on whiskey. Unfortunately, the burden of this tax fell disproportionately on whiskey distillers along the western frontier. These Americans were already upset because they felt abandoned by the federal government on two other issues: First, they wanted the government to work out a treaty with local Indian tribes, thus lessening the violence on the frontier. Second, they wanted a treaty that would allow them better use of the Mississippi River.

Why should such an inattentive federal government now impose a new cost upon them?

Reaction to the tax was violent. Collectors were tarred and feathered. Homes were attacked. Liberty poles were erected. The tax became nearly uncollectable. When the tax was expanded in 1794, matters got even worse. People feared that the federal government would tax more and more over time. One Georgian said: “I plainly perceive that the time will come when a shirt shall not be washed without an excise.”

Opponents of the tax were furious. One subsequent incident led to the death of Whiskey rebel Captain James McFarlane, a Revolutionary War hero. He became a martyr for the anti-tax cause. Rebellion sympathizers decided to meet at Braddock’s Field on August 1. This was the same field where George Washington had fought so bravely during the French and Indian War. Now, nearly 7,000 men would meet there and march into Pittsburgh. They intended to torch the city.

That attack was averted, but the incident was the final straw for Washington. On August 2, he met with Cabinet members and Pennsylvania officials.

The circumstances of the rebellion, the President noted, “were such as to strike at the root of all law & order.” He believed that “spirited & firm measures were necessary to rescue the State as well as the general government from the impending danger, for if such proceedings were tolerated there was an end to our Constitutions & laws.” He concluded by declaring “his determination to go every length that the Constitution and Laws would permit, but no further.” He hoped that Pennsylvania would help.

In the end, Washington issued a proclamation giving the rebels until September 1 to disperse. When they did not do so, he authorized military action. Washington himself led the march of nearly 13,000 militia toward western Pennsylvania. The size of the federal army (led by Washington himself!) proved to be enough to defuse the remaining rebellion. The army returned home and Washington issued a proclamation declaring a day of Thanksgiving.

Washington knew that the Rebellion could have brought an end to the fledgling nation. “In such a state of things,” his proclamation stated, “it is in an especial manner our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to implore Him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience.”

The proclamation was typical Washington. He believed that America owed its existence to the intervention of Providence. And he expressed that sentiment yet again.