Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Whiskey Rebellion

My dad and I like to stay up late together and watch TV to help unwind after our long days of work and school. One of the shows we love to watch together is "Moonshiners" on the Discovery Channel. Over the course of the two seasons, all of the cast members have said at least once each that alcohol is a major part of America's history, and they're right. In fact, we nearly had a full-blown war over alcohol.

Following the ratification of the Constitution, a new federal government began operating in 1789. Under the previous government whose laws were based on the Articles of Confederation, the government did not have the right to levy taxes and thus had to resort to borrowing money to meet expenses, accumulating over $54 million in debt with the individual states accumulating another $25 million (today, that would be $1,450,000,000 and $672,000,000 respectively). Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, wanted to use this debt to create a financial system that would promote American prosperity and national unity. Hamilton urged Congress to consolidate the debts into one large national debt, and Congress approved these measures.

To pay off the debt, a source of government revenue was needed. Believing that import taxes had been raised as high as possible, Hamilton came up with the idea to pass an excise tax on distilled spirits. This was the first tax levied on a domestic product, and was considered a luxury tax (a tax on products that were seen as non-essential). The Whiskey Act became a law in March 1791 and after George Washington, then the President, drafted the revenue districts and appointed the revenue supervisors and inspectors, the tax was set to be collected in November of that year.

The tax was controversial immediately, with many believing that it unfairly targeted Westerners who used the alcohol as not only a popular drink but as a medium of exchange. Because of the tax, those who used whiskey as a medium of exchange were reasonably upset and refused to pay. Many of these men were veterans of the American Revolution and used their ideals from that of "No taxation without representation" as the reason for not paying their taxes. Also, as was also seen in the Revolutionary era, these people, mostly farmers, would tar and feather the tax collectors who came to collect their payments.


In 1794, the farmers' resistance to the tax came to a climax. In May of this year, William Rawle, a federal district attorney, issued subpoenas for more than 60 distillers in Pennsylvania who had not paid the tax. Under the law, the distillers who received these writs were obligated to travel to Philadelphia to appear in federal court. Many farmers could not afford the trip so Congress modified this law in June of that year to allow the tax trials to be held in local courts.

Federal Marshal David Lenox delivered most of the subpoenas without incident. However, on July 15th, he was joined on his rounds by General John Neville, who had offered to act as Lenox's guide through Allegheny County. That evening, warning shots were fired at the men at the Miller farm, about 10 miles south of Pittsburgh. Neville returned home, while Lenox retreated to Pittsburgh.

The Battle of Bower Hill

On July 17th, the rebels who had fired upon the Miller farm returned with a force of nearly 600, commanded by Major James McFarlane who was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. However, General John Neville had received reinforcements as well--10 U.S. Army soldiers from Pittsburg under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick, who was a brother-in-law of Neville's wife.   Before the rebel force arrived, Kirkpatrick had Neville leave the house and hide in a nearby ravine. David Lenox and General Neville's son, Presley Neville, also returned to the area, though they could not get into the house and were captured by the rebels.

Following some fruitless negotiations, the women and children were allowed to leave the house, and then both sides began firing. After about an hour, McFarlane called a cease fire; according to some, a white flag had been waved in the house. As McFarlane stepped into the open, a shot rang out from the house, and he fell, mortally wounded. The enraged rebels then set fire to the house, and Kirkpatrick surrendered. The number of casualties at Bower Hill is unclear; McFarlane and one or two other militiamen were killed; one U.S. soldier may have died from wounds received in the fight. The rebels sent the U.S. soldiers away. Kirkpatrick, Lenox, and Presley Neville were kept as prisoners, but they later escaped.

The March on Pittsburgh

On July 18th, Major James McFarlane was given a hero's funeral. His death further radicalized the countryside.

On August 1, about 7,000 people gathered at Braddock's Field. At this point in history, this was the largest gathering of protesters. The crowd consisted primarily of poor people who owned no land. Most did not own whiskey stills. The furor over the whiskey excise had unleashed anger about other economic grievances. By this time, the victims of violence were often wealthy property owners who had no connection to the whiskey tax. Some of the most radical protesters wanted to march on Pittsburgh, which they called "Sodom", loot the homes of the wealthy, and then burn the town to the ground.

At Braddock's Field, there was talk of declaring independence from the United States, and of joining with Spain or Great Britain. Radicals flew a specially designed flag that proclaimed their independence. The flag had six stripes, one for each county represented at the gathering: five Pennsylvania counties (Allegheny, Bedford, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland) and one Virginia county (Ohio County).

Pittsburgh citizens helped defuse the threat by banishing three men whose intercepted letters had given offense to the rebels, and by sending a delegation to Braddock's Field that expressed support for the gathering. Brackenridge prevailed upon the crowd to limit the protest to a defiant march through the town. In Pittsburgh, only the barns of Major Kirkpatrick were torched.

On August 14, a convention of delegates from the six counties was held at Parkison's Ferry, present-day Monongahela. The convention adopted resolutions, which were drafted by Brackenridge, Gallatin, David Bradford, and an eccentric preacher named Herman Husband, a delegate from Bedford County. Husband, a well-known local figure, was a radical champion of democracy who had taken part in the Regulator movement in North Carolina 25 years earlier. The Parkison's Ferry convention also appointed a committee to meet with the peace commissioners who had been sent west by President Washington.

** Due to a lack of time to do research (I'm on vacation visiting family at the moment), the majority of research for this post was done through Wikipedia, which is not a valid source. Usually my research is comprised of information from both primary and secondary sources, not Wikipedia.**

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