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This Month in Business History

The Whiskey Rebellion

Donna Scanlon
Business Reference Section
December 2009

      Overview             Print Resources
Internet Resources     LC Catalog Searches

Overview

It all started with a tax. What came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, or the Western Insurrection, took place over a period of time beginning in 1791 by most accounts. While some would say the roots go back much further, it was not until March 3, 1791 that Congress instituted an excise tax on distilled liquors that set the rebellion of 1794 in motion.

What was the root cause of this rebellion?

 

Famous Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania

Above:
Famous Whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania. A large mob with tarred-and-feathered tax collector riding on a rail. 1794

Prints & Photographs Division
Library of Congress
Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-75625

The western part of Pennsylvania at this time was separated from the east by the Allegheny Mountains. With the majority of the population being farmers, there was often a limited market for the sale of their grain locally and it was difficult to transport the grains to the east for sale. The goods had to be transported by pack horse over the mountains and along dirt roads and the horses could only carry limited amounts at a time. Converting the grain to whiskey made it more transportable and there was a better market for this product.1

Having assumed the debts of the colonies from the Revolution, the government found itself deep in debt. In 1791 Congress approved a bill putting an excise tax on all distilled spirits. The tax, based on the capacity of the still rather than the quantity produced, was required to be paid in cash - something unusual for the time as whiskey was often the monetary unit westerners used to pay for their goods and services - not cash. The tax for the smaller producers was required to be made throughout the year and their cost was about nine cents per gallon. The large producers in the east took less exception to the tax, their cost to get the goods to market was less and they could decrease their tax by increasing their volume, something the farmers in the west were not able to do. They were also able to make annual payments for the tax that amounted to six cents per gallon.2

Already at odds with the government with regard to Indian attacks, the farmers felt that this interference into their business was unjust and encroached upon their rights.3 A meeting at Redstone Fort in July of 1791 began the organized resistance to the collection of the excise tax. Many of the westerners refused to pay the tax and those coming to collect the tax were often ambushed or humiliated, some were tarred and feathered.

Violence continued to escalate and spread to other counties over the next few years. President Washington's proclamation, in 1792, condemning interference with the "operation of the laws of the United States..." did not calm matters.4 Despite appeals for a peaceful resolution, a militia gathered at Braddock's Field during the last week in July 1794. On August 7, 1794 the President issued another proclamation calling for the rebels to disperse and return to their homes as well as invoking the Militia Act of 17925 which allowed the President to use State military (militiamen) to put an end to the rebellion.

Approximately 13,000 militiamen from surrounding states marched with President Washington to put down the rebellion. While no real battle ensued, about 150 rebels were arrested. Most were released due to lack of evidence, 2 were convicted of treason and then later pardoned.6

Why was this rebellion significant in our history?

The Whiskey Rebellion was the first test of federal authority in the United States. This rebellion enforced the idea that the new government had the right to levy a particular tax that would impact citizens in all states. It also enforced the idea that this new government had the right to pass and enforce laws impacting all states.

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Internet Resources

There are many websites available for the Whiskey Rebellion. Using your favorite search engine, type whiskey rebellion as the search term and explore the many different websites. The sites below are just a sampling of what is available:

Archiving Early America: The Whiskey Rebellion
http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/whiskey/ External Link

A brief account of the events leading up to The Whiskey Rebellion, including a link to the full text of President Washington's proclamation on the rebellion. The Archiving Early American site, published by Don Vitale, and supported by advertising, is dedicated to making primary source material on 18th century America more widely available to the public.

"The Whiskey Rebellion," in The History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, by E. Howard Blackburn and William H. Welfley. New York, Lewis Publishing Company. 1906. Chapter 10, pp. 149-154.
http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pasomers/hbs/chapter10.htm External Link

Made available through the Sommerset County USGenWeb project External Link and hosted by RootsWeb External Link, an Ancestry.com community.Transcribed and donated by Batha Karr

Heritage Series: ...To execute the Laws of the Union by Donna Neary
https://www.flickr.com/photos/thenationalguard/4101113956/ External Link

The Heritage Series from the National Guard Image Gallery is an extensive collection of paintings depicting the National Guard in military action from earliest colonial times to Operation Desert Storm. Click on thumbnails of each painting for brief details of the events.

The Whiskey Rebellion (includes role of Albert Gallatin)
http://home.nps.gov/frhi/historyculture/whiskeyrebellion.htm

Albert Gallatin, not a name commonly known today but well known in the Jeffersonian era, was a notable statesman, diplomat, financier, historian, ethnologist, industrialist and farmer. This Friendship Hill National Historic Site provides insight into Albert Gallatin's role in the whiskey rebellion as well as other events during his lifetime.

Espy House
http://www.visitbedfordcounty.com/espyhouse/index.html External Link

The Espy House served as President Washington's Headquarters during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. This page from the Bedford County, Pennsylvania Visitors Bureau External Link provides a brief history and the text of President Washington's address to General Henry Lee External Link, the commander and chief of the militia army.

The Whiskey Rebellion by Michael Hoover, Regulations & Rulings Division
http://www.ttb.gov/public_info/whisky_rebellion.shtml

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury presents an account of the this rebellion from the time of the distilled spirits tax in 1791. The site also provides links to other sites with information and a short bibliography for further reading.

A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html

From the American Memory collection, this site provides information on the tasks before Congress. Within these documents you will find discussions of the distilled spirits tax and many other items put before Congress. The excise tax was referenced in a number of ways throughout the text. A browse of the Journals and Debates of Congress by date range may be more effective than a keyword search.

An advanced, full text, search of Google Books External Link for 'whiskey rebellion' or 'whiskey insurrection' returns a number of works from the period.

Print Resources

Books

Boyd, Steven R. (Ed.) The Whiskey Rebellion : past and present perspectives. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1985.
LC Call Number: E315 .W65 1985
Catalog Record: 84022437

Brackenridge, H. H. History of the Western Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, Commonly Called the Whiskey Insurrection, 1794. W.S. Haven, 1859
LC Call Number: E315 .B78 1969
Catalog Record: 72090167

Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion : George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the frontier rebels who challenged America's newfound sovereignty. New York : Scribner, c2006.
LC Call Number: E315 .H64 2006
Catalog Record: 2005056340

Papers relating to what is known as the Whiskey Insurrection in western Pennsylvania, 1794.
LC Call Number: F146 .P41 2d ser., vol. 4
Catalog Record: 19007842

Article/News Databases

A search for articles in the following business and historical newspaper databases will produce results. Some search suggestions:

  • excise tax
  • distilled spirits tax
  • whiskey insurrection
  • whiskey rebellion
  • whiskey tax

Some recommended databases are listed below. Please note that these are subscription products. To access these databases, users must be onsite at the Library of Congress or obtain access through another subscribing institution. To locate a library in your area which may subscribe to some or all of these products, try searching portals such as PublicLibraries.com External Link, Search for Public Libraries, or Find a Federal Depository Library

  • Accessible Archives
  • America's Historical Newspapers, 1690-1922
  • America: History & Life
  • Annals of American History
  • Early American Imprints, Series I Evans 1639-1800
  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Library of Congress Catalog Searches

Additional works on this topic in the Library of Congress may be identified by searching the Online Catalog under appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. Choose the topics you wish to search from the following list of Library of Congress subject headings to link directly to the Catalog and automatically execute a search for the subject selected. Please be aware that during periods of heavy use you may encounter delays in accessing the catalog. For assistance in locating other subject headings that may relate to this subject, please consult a reference librarian.

Whiskey Rebellion, Pa., 1794.

Pennsylvania --History --1775-1865 --Sources.

Pennsylvania --Politics and government --1775-1865.


 1. The History of Bedford and Somerset Counties by Blackburn and Welfley, published in 1906. Chapter X pages 149 - 154. Transcribed and donated by Batha Karr.
http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pasomers/hbs/chapter10.htm External Link

 2. The Whiskey Rebellion, Friendship Hill National Historic Site. National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
http://home.nps.gov/frhi/historyculture/whiskeyrebellion.htm External Link

 3. Creigh, Alfred. History of Washington County. Appendix, Chapter IV, p 61. Accessed from Google Books:
http://books.google.com/books?id=qEsVAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=history+of+washington+county External Link

 4. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Whiskey Rebellion,
http://www.ttb.gov/public_info/whisky_rebellion.shtml

 5. Militia Act of 1792, Available online from the Constitution Society at:
http://www.constitution.org/mil/mil_act_1792.htm External Link

 6. The Whiskey Rebellion,
http://www.ttb.gov/public_info/whisky_rebellion.shtml

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