As discussed in our post about Johnny Appleseed, hard cider and whiskey were both an important part of early frontier life. Both could be used as a preservative, for barter and trade as well as a drink. Whiskey was used in place of money in the western counties of Pennsylvania as coin or currency was seldom seen by farmers living in this remote area. The estimate was twelve hundred pounds of wheat, oats , or rye could be distilled into 20 gallons of spirits. Those spirits could be poured into jugs and hauled by mule 300 miles from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, where they could be sold at the high price of $1 per gallon. Much easier than trying to transport wagon loads of raw grain or produce over the rough mountain roads. Since it was portable and profitable, whiskey took the place of cash as farmers paid for dry goods and seed. Merchants traded it for supplies. Even ministers accepted payment in jugs of whiskey. Not only that it had an important social role as well. It was used to toast the happy couple at weddings and mourn the dead at wakes. Whiskey was believed to warm the body in winter and rejuvenate health in the summer. That is why when a tax was proposed on this life giving necessity all hell broke loose.
It was nearly twenty years after the American Revolution began, and the new country was struggling with a staggering war debt. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, knew that for the young country to be self sustaining, it needed to find a source of income. A tax on whiskey would raise $800,000 a year, which would pay off the national and state debts. However, Hamilton was not dumb. He knew the independant western farmers would not like the tax, but the country needed revenue more. They would have to suck it up for the good of the country.
In 1790, he proposed an excise tax on all distilled spirits produced in the United States, which was instituted by Congress in 1791. Large scale producers of alcohol accepted the tax, as they had to pay an estimate of 6 cents per gallon they produced. This cost got smaller the more spirits they made. A smaller producer, such as a family farmer, had to pay about nine cents per gallon produced. That amounted to about $6 of the $20 these families received in income per year. The farmers of Western Pennsylvania threw back their heads and howled. Taxes? What did we fight the revolution for if we are going to have taxes again. This government doesn’t represent us. We rebelled once, let’s do it again!
The rebellion spread like wildfire. There was not one state south of New York whose western counties did not protest the tax with violence. Protests ranged from simply not paying to forcibly preventing the excise officer from setting up an office in the county. The rebels threatened any family who offered to house the excite office as well as threatening the excise officer himself with bodily harm. Any officer who was brave enough to stay was tarred, feathered and tortured. Liberty poles with slogans against taxation were displayed.
Hamilton warned President Washington against the dangers of rebellion. He should know as he was part of a group that pulled off a successful one. However, Washington was still hoping to reason with the rebels. He issued a proclamation calling for the citizens to pay the tax and obey the law, and had Congress pass a law that anyone interfering with tax collection would be tried in Philadelphia. People threw a fit saying Washington was as bad as George III wanting to try colonists in England.
Stalemate lasted for two years with isolated incidents of violence, but in 1794 widespread violence broke out again. US troops were called in to protect the tax collectors and a federal marshal was killed in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Several hundred men burned the home of the regional inspector, and Pittsburgh was aflame in riots and mob violence. A rebel army 5,000 strong prepared to march on the city. On August 4, 1794, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson declared the western counties of Pennsylvania in open rebellion against the US government.
On August 7, 1794, President Washington issued a proclamation which called out a militia of 13,500 under the command of General Harry Lee, the Governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee. This was the same size as the army which defeated the British. Washington, himself, put his army uniform back on and set out at the head of the army to put down the rebellion. Whether it was the sight of Washington back in uniform or the threat of federal troops, the rebellion collapsed. Hamilton was thrilled, however, the other founding fathers not so much. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had remained silent on the issue as he had cut a deal with Hamilton. They agreed to assume for Hamilton’s plan of the federal government assuming the states’ unpaid revolutionary war debts in exchange for moving the nation’s capital to a more southern location. Those debts had to be paid somehow, so the two bit their tongues. Jefferson did resign from the cabinet and later said, “the first error was to pass it; the second was to enforce it; and the third, to make it the means of splitting this Union.”
Twenty rebels were put on trial in Philadelphia from the whole debacle, and only two of them were found guilty of conspiracy against the government. President Washington pardoned both men. The whiskey tax stood for six more years, and the farmers of western Pennsylvania headed further west where the long arm of the federal government could not reach them. This began the time honored tradition of moonshine. In 1801, then President Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax.
Sources available on request