In the early 1790s President George Washington and the United States faced a difficult test: a frontier rebellion. Just what caused the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and what was its significance in US history?
Following the Treaty of Paris in 1783 officially ending the American Revolution, the United States turned its attention to beginning a new nation. The government operated under the Articles of Confederation, which left the federal government extremely weak and the nation fractured.
There is no better indication of this weakness than the helpless response of the federal government to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786.
With the help of the persuasive Federalist Papers, the nation ratified the US Constitution in 1788. This new Constitution set up three distinct branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—each with separate responsibilities and duties.
Former Commander in Chief of the Continental Army George Washington was unanimously elected President in 1788. As the first executive, his term in office would set many precedents for his successors.
It is difficult to comprehend in the modern day, but this form of government was completely unique in the world and likely never had been done before. Essentially the Constitution was a grand experiment, and nobody was certain just as to how it would turn out.
The first real test of the new government came just a few years later. A frontier rebellion broke out in Western Pennsylvania following the introduction of a tax on distilled spirits.
Named the Whiskey Rebellion, the successful response of the federal government to end the rebellion would prove to be of utmost significance for the young nation.
Not only was the rebellion eventually suppressed, but Washington was able to do so in a way that successfully upheld the law and kept intact the trust of the nation.
Background on the Whiskey Tax
A key component of the new United States Constitution was that the federal government assumed all state debts from the American Revolution.
However, because of this the federal government was deeply in debt. The Constitution granted the federal government the power to authorize and collect taxes.
In 1791 Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed an excise tax on distilled spirits to help collect revenue to pay off these debts. An internal tax was needed as importation taxes were not enough to run the federal government and pay off war debts.
The tax passed through Congress and was to go into effect in 1792. Nicknamed the “Whiskey Tax,” it was really three separate taxes.
One tax was on all spirits distilled in the United States and made from US products. The second was a tax on spirits distilled in the US, but made with imported goods. The third was an import tax on foreign distilled spirits.
The tax was not equally spread across the three groups. Hamilton designed the tax to be protectionist in nature with domestic spirits being taxed the least and 100% foreign imported spirits taxed the most.
The domestic tax rate for domestic distilled spirits was set at nine cents per gallon and was to be implemented at the still, rather than at the sale of goods.1
Despite the inherent advantage the tax provided to domestic distillers, the passage of the tax led to widespread discontent throughout the United States.
The Whiskey Tax led to protests in several states including North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Western Pennsylvania.2
It was in Western Pennsylvania that the most extreme and violent reaction took place. The subsequent events that unfolded in the region are now known as the “Whiskey Rebellion.”
Whiskey Rebellion Summary
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a violent uprising of Western Pennsylvania frontier citizens in opposition to the Whiskey Tax implemented by the federal government in 1791.
The Whiskey Rebellion was an important event in the young history of the United States under the new Constitution. Just how would President George Washington respond to the rebellion and maintain the respect and trust of the citizens of the United States?
The population of Western Pennsylvania at the time was remote and agrarian in nature. Given their remoteness, it was difficult to transport agricultural products over land to eastern markets without the yield spoiling.
In order to avoid this, the farmers converted their agricultural products into whiskey. Whiskey was much easier to transport and did not spoil, which gave the farmers a marketable product to sell and make money.
As the excise tax focused on distilled spirits, Western Pennsylvanians felt they were unfairly targeted. Some outright refused to pay the tax and turned to violence when federal tax collectors attempted to collect what was owed.
As the situation escalated the federal government was carefully calculating its response. As early as 1792 Hamilton proposed to send in federal troops to enforce the tax in a show of strength. These powers were authorized by the Constitution, and well within the executive branch’s function. Washington subsequently ignored the proposal.3
By 1794, Washington was forced to make a decision as the region fell into open rebellion. The frontier citizens even sent emissaries to the British in a bid to enlist support for their rebellion.
Running out of options Washington called the militia from nearby states to march on the frontier settlements. Careful to not appear as a despot, Washington sent three prominent officials to attempt to negotiate one last time with the rebels as the ~13,000 militia troops were assembling.
After a month of negotiations, the two sides could not come to an agreement. Though there were far more moderates that sought a peaceful end, the minority of extremists wielded the threat of violence against their neighbors to silence the opposition.3
Washington was forced into action and ordered the militia to march on Western Pennsylvania, personally leading the troops.
By the time the troops arrived, the rebellion had dissipated and the leaders fled. The troops were able to restore order without firing a shot.
Soon after the militia captured and arrested nearly 150 rebels associated with the rebellion to be tried in federal courts. Two men were convicted for treason, though later pardoned by Washington while the remainder were released due to the lack of direct evidence.
What Caused the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794?
There were many causes of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. One cause commonly listed is that the tax itself was extremely detrimental to Western Pennsylvania and other frontier farmers.
Historians disagree as to just how true that statement is. While it is true that an excise tax such as whiskey would increase taxes on the distillers, it is debatable just how much it affected the distillers’ profits and thus their livelihoods.
The price inelasticity of whiskey suggests that a vast majority of the increased costs as a result of the tax could be passed on to the consumers. Thus, instead of increased costs, distillers’ profits would be unaffected by the tax.1
Perhaps the most objectionable part of the tax was the fact that it was implemented at the still instead of at the point of sale. It was difficult to determine just how much whiskey was produced this way which thus required closer surveillance to prevent evasion of the tax.
What’s more, most frontier farmers did not sell all of the whiskey they produced. Instead, a lot of whiskey was distilled to be used for gifts, barter, and personal consumption.
In this instance the distillers would also be the consumers and thus pay the full tax themselves. As historian Leland Baldwin remarked on whether Western Pennsylvanians paid more of the Whiskey Tax: “it was only because it used (consumed) more whiskey.”2
The likely primary cause of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was simply that the Western Pennsylvanians objected to the tax more based on political reasons than simply economic ones.
As prominent local businessman Albert Gallatin stated, “whatever opposition existed, was directed against the principle of the law itself.”2
Indeed, much of the literature from the rebels suggests that many were simply against all taxes, anti-government, and against the new Constitution.
Put in context, the Whiskey Rebellion was caused and led by a small faction of anti-government citizens that were likely to rebel against any tax implemented by the federal government.
The Significance of the Whiskey Rebellion
Regardless of the causes, the historical significance of the Whiskey Rebellion lies in Washington’s forceful response to end the rebellion.
It was the first time that federal military power was used to quell an internal revolt. It was also the first and last time that a sitting President personally led troops into battle.4
For Washington, responding correctly was of utmost importance to the young nation. Act too strongly or forcefully and he could be accused of being a tyrant brutally oppressing all opposition. Act too passively and the United States could crumble as various regions broke off to form their own countries.
Washington’s patience and attempts to negotiate with the rebels before sending in the militia showed the public he was doing everything in his power to avoid armed conflict.
As the rebels proved inflexible, public opinion turned in Washington’s favor to uphold the laws of the nation. Washington was generally applauded for his leadership during a difficult first test of whether the new Constitution would prove effective.
One other significant result of the Whiskey Rebellion was that the events helped lead to the formation of factions and political parties in the United States.
To be sure, factions and parties already loosely existed, chief among them the “Federalists” and “Anti-Federalists.” However, the event helped to widen the divide as each faction favored different federal responses to the rebellion.
In the midst of the rebellion a sort of paranoia took over with each side accusing the other of treasonous activities.
This paranoia is displayed perfectly in that by 1793 Thomas Jefferson (who would later go on to win the important Election of 1800) was known to be repeating third-hand, unsubstantiated claims that his opponents (the Federalists) believed in the necessity of a “President for life, and a hereditary Senate.”2
The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 caused a major test of the new Constitution and showed that despite the numerous factions of the early United States, the federal government was strong enough to survive a rebellion.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Whitten, David O. “An Economic Inquiry into the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.” Agricultural History, vol. 49, no. 3, Agricultural History Society, 1975, pp. 491–504, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3741786.
2) Cooke, Jacob E. “THE WHISKEY INSURRECTION: A RE-EVALUATION.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, Penn State University Press, 1963, pp. 316–46, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27770195.
3) Kohn, Richard H. “The Washington Administration’s Decision to Crush the Whiskey Rebellion.” The Journal of American History, vol. 59, no. 3, [Oxford University Press, Organization of American Historians], 1972, pp. 567–84, https://doi.org/10.2307/1900658.
4) Snyder, Jeffrey W., and Thomas C. Hammond. “‘So That’s What the Whiskey Rebellion Was!’: Teaching Early U.S. History With GIS.” The History Teacher, vol. 45, no. 3, Society for History Education, 2012, pp. 447–55, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23265898.