The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794: The First Government Tax on a New Nation

| | January 29, 2024

Near the banks of the river, mosquitoes swarm, flying about your head, threatening to plunge into your skin. 

Standing where the slow slope of your eight-acre farm meets the Allegheny River, your eyes pass over the buildings your neighbors call home, searching. 

Your view of town — which, in the next few years, will be incorporated as the city of Pittsburgh — is barren streets and quiet docks. Everyone is home. Everyone is awaiting the news.

The wagon you and your neighbors loaded is click-clacking up the hill. The rebels it passes through, who have swarmed at the edges of town over the previous few days, threatening violence, are regular people just like you — when they don’t face oppression and restrictions on their freedom. 

If this plan fails, they will no longer only threaten violence. They will unleash it.

Many members of the angry mob are veterans of the Revolution. They feel betrayed by the government they fought to create and now choose to confront the authority they’ve been told to answer to. 

In plenty of ways, you sympathize with them. But many of your wealthier, Eastern neighbors do not. And so, this town has become a target. A crowd of angry men awaits to slaughter all you hold dear. 

The plea for peace — scrambled together by desperate residents who wished blood not be shed — is now climbing its way towards the rebel leaders, where they wait across the river.

You can see the boxes, the sacks, the barrels, wobbling in the back of the cart; a king’s bounty of salted meats, beer, wine… barrels and barrels of whiskey. You’d piled and stacked plenty yourself, your hands shaking, your mind numb with adrenaline and fear, praying all the while this idea would work.

If this failed…

You blink the gathering sweat out of your eyes, swatting at a handful of encroaching mosquitoes, and strain to see the faces of the soldiers waiting. 

It is the morning of August 1, 1794 and the Whiskey Rebellion is underway.

What Was the Whiskey Rebellion?

What started as a tax in 1791 led to the Western Insurrection, or better known as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, when protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting. The Whiskey Rebellion was an armed insurrection against a tax imposed by the federal government on distilled spirits, which, in 18th century America, basically meant whiskey. It took place in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, between 1791 and 1794. 

More precisely, The Whiskey Rebellion developed after the First United States Congress, seated at Congress Hall at Sixth and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia, passed an excise tax on domestic whiskey on March 3, 1791.

This legislation, pushed through Congress by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), was designed to help pay off state debts assumed by Congress in 1790. The law required citizens to register their stills and pay a tax to a federal commissioner within their region.

The tax that had everyone up in arms was known as “The Whiskey Tax,” and it was charged to producers based on how much whiskey they made. 

It was as controversial as it was because it was the first time the newly-formed US government imposed a tax on a domestic good. And since the people the tax hurt the most were many of the same people who had just fought a war to prevent a far-off government from imposing excise taxes on them, the stage was set for a showdown. 

Due to its unfair treatment towards small producers, much of the American West resisted the Whiskey Tax, but the people of Western Pennsylvania took things further and forced President George Washington to respond. 

This response was sending federal troops to disperse the rebellion, pitting Americans against Americans on the battlefield for the first time as an independent nation.

As a result, the emergence of the Whiskey Rebellion can be seen as a conflict between differing visions Americans had of their new nation in the immediate aftermath of independence. Older accounts of the Whiskey Rebellion portrayed it as being confined to western Pennsylvania, yet there was opposition to the whiskey tax in the western counties of every other state in Appalachia (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).  

The Whiskey Rebellion represented the largest organized resistance against federal authority between the American Revolution and the Civil War. A number of the whiskey rebels were prosecuted for treason in what were the first such legal proceedings in the United States.

Its result — a successful suppression on behalf of the federal government — helped shape American history by giving the infant government the chance to assert the power and authority it needed to take on the process of nation building. 

But asserting this authority was only necessary because the citizens of Western Pennsylvania chose to shed the blood of government and military officials, which turned the area into a scene of violence for the better part of three years between, 1791–1794. 

The Whiskey Rebellion Begins: September 11, 1791

The echoing snap! of a twig sounded in the distance, and a man whirled towards it, breath catching, eyes frantically searching in the darkness. The road he traveled on, which would eventually descend into the settlement known as Pittsburgh, was shrouded by trees, preventing the moon from breaking through to guide him.

Bears, mountain lions, a wide range of beasts all lurked in the woods. He wished that was all he had to fear. 

If word got out who he was and why he was traveling, the mob would surely find him. 

He probably wouldn’t be killed. But there were worse things.


Another twig. The shadows shifted. Suspicion loomed. Something is out there, he thought, fingers curling into a fist.

He swallowed, the sound of the saliva pushing down his throat echoing in the barren wilderness. After a moment of silence, he continued along the road.

The first high-pitched scream hit his ears, almost throwing him to the ground. It sent a wave of electricity through his entire body, freezing him. 

Then they emerged — their faces painted with mud, feathered hats atop their heads, chests bare — howling and banging their weapons together, sending sound far out into the night.

He reached for the pistol strapped to his waist, but one of the men swooped in, grabbing it from his hands before he had a chance to draw it. 

“We know who you are!” one of them shouted. His heart stuttered — these were not Indians. 

The man who spoke stepped forward, moonlight touching his face through the bows of the trees. “Robert Johnson! Tax collector!” He spat on the ground at his feet.

The men encircling Johnson began to jeer, feral grins smeared across their faces.

Johnson recognized who was speaking. It was Daniel Hamilton, a man who’d grown up near his own childhood home in Philadelphia. And off to the side was his brother, John. He found no other familiar face. 

“You’re not welcome here,” Daniel Hamilton snarled. “And we’re going to show you what we do with unwelcome visitors.”

This must have been the signal, for as soon as Hamilton stopped speaking, the men descended, their knives drawn, lugging forward a steaming cauldron. It bubbled a hot, black tar, and the sharp scent of sulphur cut through the crisp forest air.  

When the crowd finally dispersed, traveling into the darkness once again, their laughter echoing, Johnson was left on the road by himself. His flesh seared in agony, feathers soldered to his bare skin. Everything pulsed red, and when he drew breath, the motion, the pull, was excruciating. 

Hours later, accepting no one was coming — either to his aid or to further torment him — he got up, beginning to limp slowly towards town. 

Once there, he would report what had happened, and then he would issue his immediate resignation from the post of tax collector in Western Pennsylvania.

Violence Intensifies Throughout 1792

Before this attack on Robert Johnson, the people of the West sought to have the Whiskey Tax repealed using diplomatic avenues, i.e. petitioning their representatives in Congress, but few politicians cared much about the issues of the poor, unrefined frontier-folk. 

The East was where the money was — as well as the votes — and so the laws coming out of New York reflected these interests, with those not willing to abide by these laws deserving to be punished in the eyes of Easterners.

So, a federal marshall was sent to Pittsburgh to issue arrest warrants to those known to have been involved in the brutal assault against the tax collector. 

However, this marshall, along with the man who served as his guide through the backwoods of Western Pennsylvania, suffered a similar fate as Robert Johnson, the first man who tried to collect this tax, making the intentions of the frontier folk quite clear — diplomacy was over. 

Either the excise tax would be repealed or blood would be shed.

This violent response hearkened to the days of the American Revolution, the memories of which were still very fresh for the majority of people living in the newly-born US at this time. 

During the era of insurrection against the British Crown, rebellious colonists frequently burned British officials in effigy (dummies made to look like real people) and would often take things even further — tar-and-feathering those they deemed evil representatives of the tyrant King George.  

Tar-and-feathering is exactly what it sounds like. An angry mob would find their target, beat them, and then pour hot tar over their body, tossing on feathers as their flesh bubbled so as to burn them to the skin. 

(During the American Revolution, the wealthy aristocrats in charge of the revolt against the British government had made use of this rampant mob mentality in the colonies to build an army to fight for freedom. But now — as leaders of an independent nation — they found themselves responsible for suppressing this very same mob that had helped them into their position of power. Just one of the many wonderful paradoxes in American history.)

Despite this barbarity on the Western frontier, it would take time for the government to carry out a more aggressive response to the attack on the marshall and other federal officials. 

George Washington, the president at the time, didn’t want to resort to using force just yet, despite the fact Alexander Hamilton — the Secretary of Treasury, a member of the Constitutional Convention, a man known to be loud and outspoken about his opinions, and one of his closest advisors — was strongly urging him to do so.

As a result, over the course of 1792, mobs, left to their own free will thanks to the absence of federal authority, continued to intimidate federal officials sent to Pittsburgh and the surrounding area on business related to the Whiskey Tax. And, for the few collectors that managed to escape the violence intended for them, they found it nearly impossible to obtain the money. 

The stage was set for an epic showdown between the United States citizens and the United States government.

The Insurgents Force Washington’s Hand in 1793

Throughout 1793, resistance movements sprung up in response to the Whiskey Tax across nearly the entire frontier territory, which at the time was made up of western Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Kentucky, as well as the areas that would later turn into Alabama and Arkansas. 

In Western Pennsylvania, the movement against the tax was the most organized, but, perhaps because of the territory’s proximity to Philadelphia and abundant farmland, it was confronted by an increasing number of wealthy, Eastern Federalists — who had moved west for the cheap land and resources — who wanted to see the excise tax imposed. 

Some of them wanted it because they were in fact “big” producers, and therefore had something to gain from the law’s enactment, which charged them less than those who ran a whiskey still out of their home. They could sell their whiskey for cheaper, thanks to a lower tax, and undercut and consume the market. 

Native American tribes also presented a great threat to settler safety on the frontier, and many felt that growing a strong government — with a military — was the only way to achieve peace and bring prosperity to the then unruly West, hopefully bringing order to the region. 

In this vision, they supported General John Neville, a senior officer in the army and one of the wealthiest men in the Pittsburgh area at the time, in his job of overseeing the collection of the Whiskey Tax in Western Pennsylvania. 

But Neville was in danger. Despite the existence of a strong movement in favor of the tax by 1793, he was often burned in effigy at protests and riots in the area speaking out against the tax. Something that would make even a stoic Revolutionary War general’s knees tremble.

Then, in 1794, the federal courts issued subpoenas (official summons by Congress that must be obeyed or else you go to jail) to a large number of distilleries in Pennsylvania for not complying with the Whiskey Tax. 

This outraged Westerners to no end, and they could see that the federal government was not going to listen to them. They were being given no choice but to do their duty as citizens of a republic by standing up to this perceived tyranny. 

And because Western Pennsylvania had a strong group in support of the excise tax, there were plenty of targets for the rebels to set in their sights.

The Battle of Bower Hill 

It’d been nearly an hour since word had reached John Neville — an armed mob of over three hundred, so organized it could be called a militia, was headed towards his home, which he’d proudly named Bower Hill. 

His wife and children were hiding deep inside the house. His slaves were stowed in their quarters, ready for orders. 

The din of the advancing crowd was growing louder, and when he peered out his window, he could see the first row of men already well onto his 1,000 acre property, within firing range of his home. 

He was an experienced war general, having fought first for the British and later for the United States Patriots under George Washington. 

Stepping out onto his porch, musket loaded and cocked, he stood defiantly atop the stairs.

“Stand down!” he yelled, and the heads of the front line lifted to look. “You are trespassing on private property and threatening the safety of an officer of the United States Army. Stand down!”

The crowd drew closer — there was no doubt they could hear him — and he yelled out, once again. They didn’t stop. 

Eyes narrowing, Neville drew his musket, took aim at the first man he could see within reasonable distance, and jerked the trigger back. The resounding CRACK! thundered through the air, and an instant later, through the lingering smoke, he saw his target hit the ground, the man’s pained scream almost drowned by the crowd’s surprised and outraged shouts. 

Wasting not a second, Neville spun on his heel and slid back into the house, closing and bolting the door. 

The mob, now provoked, paid him no attention. They marched forward, fuming for revenge, the ground shaking beneath their boots.

The blare of a horn trilled over the cacophonous thud of their march, the source a mystery, causing some to look around in bewilderment. 

Flashes of light and loud bangs splintered the still air. 

Unmistakable yells of pain halted the mob in its tracks. Orders were shouted from all directions, tangling together in the confusion. 

Muskets drawn, the men scanned the building where the shots seemed to sound from, waiting for the slightest movement to fire upon.

In one of the windows, a man pivoted into view and fired all in one motion. He missed his target, but was followed by countless others who had better aim. 

Those whose death had whistled by yet again tripped in their haste to turn and run, hoping to get out of range before the home’s defenders had time to reload.

After the crowd dispersed, ten Black men emerged from the small building located next to Neville’s home. 

“Masta’!” one of them yelled out. “It’s safe now! They gone. It’s safe.”

Neville emerged, leaving his family inside to survey the scene. Working hard to see through the looming musket smoke, he watched the invaders disappearing over the hill on the other side of the road. 

He exhaled heavily, smiling at the success of his plan, but this moment of peace soon slipped away. He knew this was not the end. 

The mob, which had been expecting to secure an easy victory, was left wounded and defeated. But they knew they still had the advantage, and they regrouped to bring the fight back to Neville. People nearby were outraged that federal officials had fired on regular citizens, and many of them joined the group for the second round of the Battle of Bower Hill. 

When the mob returned to Neville’s home the next day, they were more than 600 strong and were ready for a fight.

Before the conflict resumed, the leaders of both sides agreed, in a most gentlemanly move, to allow the women and children to leave the house. Once they were to safety, the men began raining fire upon one another. 

At some point, as the story goes, the rebel leader, Revolutionary War veteran James McFarlane, put up a ceasefire flag, which Neville’s defenders — now including a whopping ten US soldiers from nearby Pittsburgh — seemed to honor as they stopped shooting. 

When McFarlane stepped out from behind a tree, someone from the house shot him, mortally wounding the rebel leader.

Immediately interpreted as murder, the rebels resumed the attack on Neville’s home, setting fire to its many cabins and advancing on the main house itself. Overwhelmed, Neville and his men had no other choice but to surrender.

Once having captured their enemies, the rebels took Neville and several other officers prisoner, and then sent the rest of the people defending the property away. 

But what felt like a victory would soon not seem so sweet, as such violence was sure to catch the eye of those watching from the nation’s capital in New York City.

A March on Pittsburgh

By framing McFarlane’s death as a murder and coupling that with people’s increasing discontent for the Whiskey Tax — which many saw as an attempt by another aggressive, authoritarian government, different only in name from the tyrannical British Crown that had ruled the lives of colonists only a handlful of years before — the rebel movement in Western Pennsylvania was able to attract even more supporters. 

Through August and September, the Whiskey Rebellion spread from Western Pennsylvania into Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina , and Georgia with rebels harassing whiskey tax collectors. They increased the size of their force from 600 at Bower Hill to more than 7,000 within just a month. They set their sights on Pittsburgh — recently incorporated as an official municipality that was becoming a trading center in Western Pennsylvania with a strong contingent of Easterners who supported the tax — as a good first target. 

By August 1, 1794, they were outside the city, on Braddock Hill, ready to do whatever it took to show the folks in New York who was in charge.

However, a generous gift from the scared and desperate citizens of Pittsburgh who had not yet fled, which included copious barrels of whiskey, stalled the attack. What started as a tense morning that led many Pittsburgh residents to come to terms with their own deaths dissipated into a peaceful calm. 

The plan worked, and the citizens of Pittsburgh survived to live another day.

The next morning, a delegation from the city approached the mob and expressed support for their struggle, helping to diffuse tensions and reduce the attack to a peaceful march through town.

Moral of the story: Nothing like free whiskey to calm everyone down.

More meetings took place to discuss what to do, and secession from Pennsylvania — which would give the frontier-folk representation Congress — was discussed. Many also threw out the idea of seceding from the United States as a whole, making the West its own country or even a territory of either Great Britain or Spain (the latter of which, at the time, controlled the territory west of the Mississippi). 

That these options were on the table demonstrates how disconnected the people of the West felt from the rest of the country, and why they resorted to such violent measures. 

However, this violence also made it crystal clear to George Washington that diplomacy simply would not work. And since allowing the frontier to secede would cripple the United States — mainly by proving its weakness to the other European powers in the area and by restricting its ability to use the bountiful resources of the West for its economic growth — George Washington had no choice but to listen to the advice Alexander Hamilton had been giving him for years. 

He summoned the United States Army and set it on the people for the first time in American history. 

Washington Responds

However, while George Washington likely knew he would need to respond with force, he made one last-ditch effort to solve the conflict peacefully. He sent a “peace delegation” to “negotiate” with the rebels. 

Turns out this delegation didn’t present peace terms that could be discussed. It dictated them. Each town was instructed to pass a resolution — in public referendum — showing a commitment to ending all violence and complying with the laws of the United States government. In doing this, the government would generously provide them with amnesty for all the trouble they’d caused in the previous three years. 

No indication was made of a desire to talk about the citizen’s primary demand: the unfairness of the Whiskey Tax.

Still, this plan was somewhat successful as some townships in the area chose and were able to pass these resolutions. But many more continued to resist, carrying on with their violent protests and attacks on federal officials; eliminating all of George Washington’s hopes for peace and giving him no other choice but to finally follow Alexander Hamilton’s plan of using military force. 

Federal Troops Descend on Pittsburgh

Calling on the power given to him by the Militia Act of 1792, George Washington summoned a militia from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey, quickly amassing a force of around 12,000 men, many of whom were veterans of the American Revolution.

The Whiskey Rebellion proved to be the first, and only, time in American history during which the constitutional Commander-in-Chief accompanied the Army in the field as it prepared to move against the enemy.

In September of 1794, this large militia began marching west, pursuing rebels and arresting them when they were caught. 

Seeing such a large force of federal troops, many of the rebels scattered throughout Western Pennsylvania began dispersing into the hills, fleeing arrest and an impending trial in Philadelphia. 

The Whiskey Rebellion trickled to a halt without much bloodshed. There were only two fatalities in western Pennsylvania, both of them accidental—one boy was shot by a soldier whose gun went off accidentally, and a drunken rebel supporter was stabbed with a bayonet while resisting arrest.

A total of twenty people were caught during this march, and they were tried for treason. Just two were convicted, but they were later pardoned by President Washington — it was widely known these convicts had nothing to do with the Whiskey rebellion, but the government needed to make an example of someone.

After this, the violence was essentially brought to an end; the response from George Washington had proven that there was little hope of making change by fighting. The tax still remained impossible to collect, though residents stopped physically harming those who made an attempt to do so. Federal officials also backed off, recognizing a lost cause. 

However, despite the decision to back down, the movement in the West against the imposing government of the East remained an important part of frontier psyche and symbolized a powerful division in United States politics. 

The nation was split between those who wanted a small, consolidated country powered by industry and ruled by a powerful government, and those who wanted a large, Westward-expanding, sprawling nation held together by the hard work of farmers and artisans. 

The Whiskey Rebellion ended not because of the threat posed by Alexander Hamilton’s army, but because many of the concerns of the frontiersmen were finally addressed.

This division would go on to have a profound impact in American history . Westward expansion forced Americans to ask difficult questions about the purpose of government and the role it should play in people’s lives, and the ways in which people have answered these questions helped to shape the nation’s identity — both in its early stages and the present day.

Why Did the Whiskey Rebellion Happen?

The Whiskey Rebellion occurred, on the whole, as a protest to a tax, but the reasons for why it happened went much deeper than the general distaste everyone shares for paying their hard-earned money to the federal government. 

Instead, those who carried out the Whiskey Rebellion saw themselves as defenders of the true principles of the American Revolution. 

For one, due to its significance in the local economy — and the conditions of that economy — the excise tax on whiskey placed considerable hardship on the people on the Western Frontier. And because most of the population of Pennsylvania and other states was consolidated in the East, citizens on the frontier felt they were left out of Congress, the very body that was created to be able to respond to the demands and concerns of the people.

Many living in the West in the early 1790s also happened to be veterans of the American Revolution — men who had fought against a government that made laws for them without consulting them. With this in mind, the Whiskey Tax was destined to meet opposition. 

The Western Economy

Most of the people living on the Western Frontier in 1790 would have been considered poor by the standards of the day. 

Few owned their own land and instead rented it, often in exchange for part of whatever they grew on it. Failure to do so would result in eviction or possibly even arrest, creating a system that somewhat resembled the despotic feudalism of the Middle Ages. Land and money, and therefore power, was concentrated into the hands of a few “lords” and so the laborers were bound to them. They were not free to sell their labor for the highest price, limiting their economic liberty and keeping them oppressed.  

Cash was also hard to come by in the West — as it was in most places in the US after the Revolution, before a national currency was established — so many people relied on bartering. And one of the most valuable items for barter happened to be whiskey. 

Nearly everyone drank it, and many people made it, as converting their crops into whiskey ensured it didn’t go bad while being shipped to market. 

This was necessary largely because the Mississippi River remained closed to Western settlers. It was controlled by Spain, and the US had yet to make a treaty to open it for trade. As a result, farmers had to ship their products over the Appalachian Mountains and to the East Coast, a much longer journey. 

This reality was yet another reason why Western citizens were so angry at the federal government in the years after the Revolution. 

As a result, when Congress passed the Whiskey Tax, the people of the Western Frontier, and in Western Pennsylvania in particular, were put in a difficult situation. And when it’s considered that they were taxed at a higher rate than industrial producers, those who made more than 100 gallons a year — a stipulation that allowed large producers to undercut smaller ones on the market — it’s easy to see why Westerners were angered by the excise tax and why they went to such measures to resist it.

Westward Expansion or Eastern Invasion?

Although the people of the West didn’t have much, they were protective of their lifestyle. The ability to move westward and find one’s own land had been restricted under British rule, but after the hard fought freedom won by the American Revolution, it wasn’t. 

Early settlers established themselves in seclusion, and they grew to see individual liberty and small local governments as the pinnacles of a strong society. 

However, after independence, the wealthy from the East also began to look to the frontier. Speculators bought land, used the law to remove squatters, and had those behind on rents either thrown off the property or in jail. 

Westerners who had been living on that land for some time felt they were being invaded by Eastern, big-government industrialists who wanted to force them all into wage-labor bondage. And they were exactly right. 

The people from the East did want to use the resources of the West to get richer, and they saw the people living there as perfect to work their factories and enlarge their wealth. 

It’s of no wonder the citizens of the west chose to rebel. 

READ MORE: Westward Expansion

Growing the Government

After independence, the United States operated under a governmental charter known as the “Articles of Confederation.” It created a loose union among the states, but it generally failed in creating a strong central authority that could defend the nation and help it grow. As a result, delegates met in 1787 to amend the Articles, but they instead wound up scrapping them and writing the US Constitution.

READ MORE: The Great Compromise

This created the framework for a stronger central government, but early political leaders — such as Alexander Hamilton — knew the government needed to take action to make the words in the Constitution come to life; creating the central authority they felt the nation needed.

Alexander Hamilton made his reputation during the Revolutionary War and became one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers.

But being a numbers man (as a banker by trade), Alexander Hamilton also knew this meant addressing the nation’s finances. The Revolution had put the states into crippling debt, and getting people to support a strong central government meant showing them how such an institution could support their state governments and those with the right to vote — which really only included, at this point in time, White landowning men. 

So, as Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton presented a plan to Congress in which the federal government would assume all the debt of the states, and he proposed paying for all of this by implementing a few key taxes. One of them was a direct tax on distilled spirits — a law that eventually became known as the Whiskey Tax. 

Doing this would free state governments up to focus on strengthening their societies while also making the federal government more relevant and powerful than ever before.

Alexander Hamilton did know this excise tax would be unpopular in many areas, but he also knew it would be well-received in the parts of the country he considered to be the most politically important. And, in many ways, he was right on both accounts.

It’s probable that this understanding is what led him to advocate for the use of force so quickly after the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion. He viewed sending the military to assert the authority of the federal government as a necessary inevitability, and therefore advised George Washington not to wait — counsel the president didn’t heed until years later. 

So, once again, the Western people got it spot on. The people from the East wanted to impose a strong government that they controlled onto the people of the West. 

Seeing this as unfair, they did what they had learned was right thanks to a century-plus of Enlightenment thinking that taught the people to rebel against unjust governments — they grabbed their muskets and attacked the invading tyrants head on. 

Of course, an Easterner would see the Whiskey Rebellion as yet another example of why angry mobs needed to be quelled and the rule of law firmly established, suggesting this event, like most in American history, are not as black and white as they might first appear. 

However, no matter which perspective is taken, it’s clear the Whiskey Rebellion was about more than just whiskey.

What Were the Impacts of the Whiskey Rebellion?

The federal response to the Whiskey Rebellion was widely believed to be an important test of federal authority, one that George Washington’s neophyte government met with success.

George Washington’s decision to go along with Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists in using military force set a precedent that would allow the central government to continue to expand its influence and authority. 

Although initially rejected, this authority was later welcomed. Populations in the West grew, and this led to the formation of cities, towns, and organized territories. It allowed people on the frontier to obtain political representation, and as formal parts of the United States, they received protection from the nearby, often hostile, Native American tribes.

But as the early West became populated, the frontier pushed further across the continent, attracting new people and keeping the ideals of limited government and individual prosperity relevant in United States politics.

Many of these Western ideals were adapted by Thomas Jefferson — the author of the Declaration of Independence, the second vice president and future third president of the United States, and a fervent defender of individual freedom. He objected to the way in which the federal government was growing, leading him to resign his position in President Washington’s cabinet as Secretary of State — angered by the president’s repeated decision to side with his main adversary, Alexander Hamilton, on domestic issues. 

The events of the Whiskey Rebellion contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States. Jefferson and his supporters — which included not only Western settlers, but also small government advocates in the East and many slaveholders in the South — helped form the Democratic-Republican Party, which was the first party to challenge the Federalists, to which President Washington and Alexander Hamilton belonged. 

This cut into Federalists power and their control of the direction of the nation, and starting with Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800, Democratic-Republicans would quickly take control from Federalists, ushering in a new era in United States politics.

Historians argue that the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion prompted anti-Federalist westerners to finally accept the Constitution and to seek change by voting for Republicans rather than resisting the government. Federalists, for their part, came to accept the public’s role in governance and no longer challenged the freedom of assembly and the right to petition.

The Whiskey 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.

The whiskey tax that inspired the Whiskey Rebellion remained in effect until 1802. Under the leadership of President Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party , the whiskey tax was repealed after continuing to be almost impossible to collect.

As mentioned earlier, The first two convictions of Americans for federal treason in American history occurred in Philadelphia in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion.  

John Mitchell and Philip Vigol , were convicted due in large part to the definition of treason (at the time) that combining to defeat or resist a federal law was the equivalent of levying war against the United States and therefore an act of treason. On November 2, 1795, President Washington pardoned both Mitchell and Vigol after finding one to be a “simpleton” and the other to be “insane.”

The Whiskey Rebellion also occupies a distinguished place in American jurisprudence. Serving as the backdrop to the first treason trials in the United States, the Whiskey Rebellion helped delineate the parameters of this constitutional crime. Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution defines treason as “levying War” against the United States.

During the trials of the two men convicted of treason, Circuit Court Judge William Paterson instructed the jury that “levying war” includes armed opposition to the enforcement of a federal law. The Whiskey Rebellion enforced the right of the government to pass laws impacting all states.

Earlier, In May of 1795 the Circuit Court for the Federal District of Pennsylvania indicted thirty-five defendants for an assortment of crimes associated with the Whiskey Rebellion. One of the defendants died before trial began, one defendant was released because of mistaken identity, and nine others were charged with minor federal offenses. Twenty-four rebels were charged with serious federal offenses, including high treason.

The only true victim of the Whiskey Rebellion, besides the two who died, was Secretary of State, Edmund Randolf. Randolf was one of President Washington’s closest and most trusted advisors.

In August 1795, one year after the Whiskey Rebellion, Randolf was accused of treason. Two members of Washington’s cabinet, Timothy Pickering and Oliver Walcott, told President Washington that they had a letter. This letter said that Edmund Randolf and the Federalists had actually started the Whiskey Rebellion for political gain.

Randolf swore that he did nothing wrong and that he could prove it. He knew that Pickering and Walcott were lying. But it was too late. President Washington had lost trust in his old friend and Randolf’s career was finished. This shows how bitter the politics was in the years after the Whiskey Rebellion.

Shortly after the Whiskey Rebellion, a stage musical about the insurrection entitled The Volunteers was written by playwright and actress Susanna Rowson together with composer Alexanander Reinagle. The musical celebrates the militiamen who put down the rebellion, the “volunteers” of the title. President Washington and First Lady Martha Washington attended a performance of the play in Philadelphia in January 1795.

A Changing National Agenda

After Jefferson’s election, the nation began focusing more on expanding westward, shifting the national agenda away from industrial growth and the consolidation of power — the priorities set out by the Federalist party.

This shift played an important role in Jefferson’s decision to pursue the Louisiana Purchase, which was secured from Napoleonic France and more than doubled the size of the new nation in one fell swoop. 

Adding new territory made the growing pains of hammering out a brand new national identity that much more demanding. Issues about these new lands caused the Senate to churn for nearly a century until demographic differences pushed sectional divides so far that the North and the South eventually turned on one another, sparking the American Civil War

The Whiskey Rebellion in Context

The Whiskey Rebellion marked a significant change in the mood of the country. Like the Shays’ Rebellion eight years earlier, the Whiskey Rebellion tested the boundaries of political dissent. In both instances, the government acted swiftly — and militarily — to assert its authority.

Up until this moment, the federal government had never tried to impose a tax on its citizens, and it had never attempted, or been forced, to enforce a tax — or any law for that matter — with an army. 

Overall, this approach backfired. But by using force, President Washington made it clear that the authority of the United States government was not to be questioned. 

Western Pennsylvania’s Whiskey Rebellion was the first large-scale resistance by American citizens against the United States government under the new federal constitution. It was also the first time the president exercised the internal police powers of his office. Within two years of the rebellion, the grievances of the western farmers were quieted.

The Whiskey Rebellion provides an interesting glimpse into the way the role of the president of the United States, also known as the commander in chief, has changed since adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Militia Act of 1792, President Washington could not order troops to crush the Whiskey Rebellion until a judge certified that law and order could not be maintained without the use of armed forces. Supreme Court justice James Wilson made such a certification on August 4, 1794. After that, President Washington personally led the troops on their mission to crush the rebellion.

And this message was received loud and clear; from this point forward, although the tax remained largely uncollected, opponents of it began using diplomatic means more and more, until they had enough representation in Congress to repeal it during Jefferson’s administration. 

As a result, the Whiskey Rebellion can be understood as a reminder of how the framers of the Constitution laid out the foundation of a government, but not an actual government. 

Creating a real institution required the people to interpret the words written in 1787 and put them into action. 

However, while this process of establishing authority and a more powerful central government was at first resisted by Western settlers, it did help bring about more growth and prosperity in the early West. 

Over time, settlers began pushing past the regions which once needed to be quelled with federal troops to settle lands even deeper into the West, on the new frontier, where a new United States of America — wrought with new challenges — was waiting to grow, one person at a time.

The annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival was started in 2011 in Washington, Pennsylvania. This occasion is held in July and includes live music, food, and historic reenactments, featuring the “tar and feathering” of the tax collector.


The Three-Fifths Compromise

US History, A Timeline of America’s Journey

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

Matthew Jones, "The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794: The First Government Tax on a New Nation", History Cooperative, February 19, 2020, Accessed July 13, 2024

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:

3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="">The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794: The First Government Tax on a New Nation</a>

Leave a Comment