In the summer of 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania tested the new American nation when they resorted to armed insurrection, prompting a speedy and decisive military response by President George Washington. The rebellion stemmed from an unpopular direct excise tax levied on whiskey by Congress in 1790. The issue of “no taxation without representation” was part of a national mindset dating back to the causes of the American Revolution.
In 1794, as in the coming decades of an expanding nation, angry citizens revived the pre-revolutionary liberty poles, drawing inspiration from past motives associated with arbitrary and unfair taxes imposed by a government that appeared remote and authoritarian.
The Whiskey Tax Rebellion in the Historical Record
Although Congress actually lowered the tax placed on whiskey in early 1792, farmers in western Pennsylvania were still angry. They refused to pay and intimidated federal agents sent from Philadelphia to diffuse the situation and collect the tax. Whiskey production was directly linked to surplus grain and liquor was easier to transport to markets using the river systems. The issue was not the production of whiskey as much as a federal tax placed on the commodity. George Washington himself built a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon, producing several grades of the iconic frontier liquid.
Following the farmers’ actions towards tax collectors and federal marshals, Congress submitted a proclamation calling upon the Pennsylvania insurgents to disband and submit to federal authority. It should be noted that frontier farm families had opposed the new Constitution, fearful that the central government would usurp powers at the expense of the states.
The rebellion grew among the western counties and garnered sympathy in Maryland, where farmers were also converting grain to whiskey. Washington secured a statement from the new Supreme Court granting him the power to deal with the rebellious farmers directly.
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The Commander-in-Chief called upon the governors to turn out their militias and, joining the troops at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, led the troops alongside Alexander Hamilton. It was the one instance angry farmers in Pennsylvania and Maryland compared the President to King George of England.
The Resolution Defends the Sovereignty of the Central Government
Washington’s army, comprised of 13,000 militia men, came from New Jersey, Virginia, and – reluctantly – from eastern Pennsylvania under the conflicted command of Pennsylvania Governor Mifflin. Although President Washington shortly returned to Philadelphia to preside over the next session of Congress, the militia army moved into the insurgent counties and arrested several leaders, who were subsequently marched to Philadelphia for trial.
These were the first federal “treason trials.” Far more than refusing to pay the tax, the farmers were accused of having taken up arms against the lawful agents of a Constitutional government. Several of their number had disrupted and stolen the mails. Two particularly vocal leaders were finally sentenced to hang, although they were eventually pardoned by President Washington.
The entire event involved the Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, citizens on both sides of the issue, the militia, and a host of reporters who sent human interest stories back to readers in the east. The rebellion had all of the components of a uniquely American experience and one that strengthened the central government and the power of the President. It also demonstrated the power of everyday citizens.
Motives of Governmental Taxation Schemes
The earlier taxation motive associated with the American Revolution involved the British Parliament’s efforts to recoup monies spent on protecting the American colonies, first from the French, and later from the on-going threats of Native American attacks. Taxes such as the Stamp Act dramatically altered colonial loyalties to the Crown. The tax placed upon East India tea led to the colorful Boston Tea Party, a name adopted by twenty-first century conservative Republicans seeking to identify with their colonial forefathers who were concerned with unbridled government spending and the levying of highly unpopular taxes.
The great tax debate helped define a moment in history that radically changed Americans’ perception of the role of government. When President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives failed to produce a robust and growing economy, a new recession resulted in 1937-1938. Roosevelt rejected the “balanced budget” notion being explored by Congress and instead embarked upon a plan to tax wealthier Americans at a higher rate, as well as increasing taxes on corporate earnings not redistributed to shareholders.
Taxes are traditionally raised to pay for government debt or to permit the government to spend on services and what contemporary Americans call entitlement programs. The 1790 excise tax on whiskey was to pay for the consolidated debt incurred not only by the government under the Articles of Confederation, but the war debts incurred by individual states.