The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion was the first test of power for the newly formed federal government. In 1791 the Excise Tax was passed in an effort to generate revenue to help recuperate the debt incurred from the Revolutionary War. The tax was placed on distilled spirits, but quickly caught backlash from farmers in Western Pennsylvania who felt they were underrepresented.

Farmers in Western Pennsylvania frequently used whiskey to trade and essentially as a form of currency. The number of stills in the area made it difficult for the appointed tax collectors to get to all of them. Instead of making it to collect the tax monthly, the collectors were only coming every couple of months and charging farmers for the stills distilling capacity whether or not the farmer had distilled any whiskey that time. This put an unbearable financial burden on the farmers and the dissent began to grow.

The farmers began to organize by holding local meetings, intercepting mail, and interfering with the tax collectors duties. Eventually tensions came to a head when writs were issued to send violators of the tax to trial in Philadelphia. On July 16, 1794, 150 angry farmers led by Oliver Miller, Jr. and James McFarlane marched to Bower Hill to demand John Neville’s resignation from his position as Federal Inspector of Revenue.

The ensuing two day battle resulted in three deaths and sparked action by President George Washington. Washington organized 20,000 militia men to march across the Alleghenies to Western Pennsylvania to quash the rebellion. Though the farmers had organized to fight back when word of the number of Washington’s troops reached them they decided to surrender. A couple men were charged with treason, but all except David Bradford were pardoned. (Bradford would eventually be pardoned by President Adams) And the rebellion was essentially over.