The Whiskey Rebellion was a popular uprising in 1794, but its roots go back to the Revolutionary War. The war created a huge amount of debt to the 13 states, and the federal government agreed to take on that debt in exchange for an agreement to move the new nation’s capital to what is now Washington, D.C., from Philadelphia. To raise money to pay down the debt, in 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton imposed an excise tax of 25 percent on “spirits distilled within the United States and upon stills,” the devices used to turn grain into whiskey. Hamilton knew taxes were unpopular, but as liquor was a “luxury,” he believed it would not raise major objections.
The tax was supported by large distilleries that hoped it would put their smaller competitors out of business. However, it was strongly opposed by other members of the federal government, such as Thomas Jefferson, and by citizens who were reminded of similar fiercely opposed taxes that the British government had imposed on stamps, tea and cider in the 13 colonies.
But nobody was more angered by the whiskey tax than grain farmers who sold their crops to make whiskey and also frequently operated their own stills to make extra money. In many states west of the Appalachian Mountains, whiskey was even used as a form of currency to pay workers. The whiskey tax, then, was a sort of income tax on these workers, and it threatened to wipe out their employers’ profits. The Whiskey Rebellion was further fueled by anger among the Western frontier farmers about unwanted governmental intrusion into their lives. The grain farmers did not feel their interests were being represented in the East-based government, and so did not feel it was right for their tax dollars to support that government.
In Kentucky, and in “back country” areas of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, no whiskey tax was ever collected, simply because nobody was willing to work as a tax collector, and nobody was willing to pay the tax. But in Western Pennsylvania, particularly, where some people did step forward as tax collectors, rebel farmers began rioting and threatening them.
What Caused the Whiskey Rebellion?
The Whiskey Rebellion came to a head in 1794, when Pennsylvania tax collectors were routinely met with physical resistance and abuse. There was even serious talk of seceding from the new republic. In July, a local militia commander in Allegheny County was shot to death by federal troops who were trying to protect a tax collector. An angry mob then attacked a regional inspector and burned down his property. In response to this provocation, President George Washington mobilized a militia of about 13,000 soldiers under the leadership of General Harry Lee, then governor of Virginia. Washington dressed in his Revolutionary War uniform and rode at the head of the militia to Western Pennsylvania. This marked the only time a sitting United States president ever led a military action. The militia succeeded in ending the rebellion and thereby helped establish the power of the federal government. Some of the rebels and their leaders were arrested, but virtually all were either released for lack of evidence or pardoned by George Washington.
However, the victory in the Whiskey Rebellion did not belong only to the federal government. Opposition to the whiskey tax and other federal excise taxes was so strong that it formed a plank in the platform of the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800. One of his accomplishments as president and leader of the new Democrat-Republican party was to repeal the Federalist excise tax program. Liquor was again subject to a tax, however, after the Civil War, along with tobacco.