Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
WHISKY INSURRECTION (IN
—The series of disorders to which the above general name is given, were the outcome of a number of moving causes. 1. The western counties of Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, among or beyond the Alleghanies, were far removed from the main body of American civilization. The distance to the seaboard was three hundred miles; roads were few and bad; to secure any profit from grain it was necessary to convert it into the more portable form of whisky; and whisky was the money of the community, in the general scarcity of cash. Under these circumstances a tax levied specially upon the distillation of whisky seemed to the mountaineers an invidious selection of themselves for imposition, a singling out of a few counties for taxation in order to relieve the richer east. 2. The people of these counties had been so long exempt from the fetters of the law that they felt the first touch keenly. Lying within an area whose jurisdiction had long been disputed by Virginia and Pennsylvania (see
—Hamilton's reason for insisting upon the passage of an excise law must be judged from the standpoint of the statesman, not from that of the financier, though a hope of future revenues might have been considered. If we take into account the expense of suppressing the inevitable insurrection which it provoked the excise cost as much for collection as it produced, and the sides of its account were fairly balanced. Hamilton had prescience enough to forecast this immediate result, and yet he felt that great gain would come from the passage of the law. His reason, as given in the letter to Washington cited below, was, that it was necessary to assert at once the power of the federal government to lay excises, which the people were accustomed to look upon as a state prerogative, and that "a thing of the kind could not be introduced with a greater prospect of easy success than at a period when the government enjoyed the advantage of first impressions, when state factions to resist its authority were not yet matured, and when so much aid was to be derived from the popularity and firmness of the actual chief magistrate." But this last paragraph shows that there was an ulterior design, and that Hamilton was endeavoring to find the line of least resistance in exhibiting to the states for the first time that which had never before been heard of, "the authority of the national government." Heretofore, "authority" had been in the state governments, and the functions of the national government, if there ever was any, were to recommend, to remonstrate, to soothe, and to bear rebuffs with patience and becoming humility. Somewhere the new national authority must be first brought upon the stage, and no safer or more undeniably legal opportunity could be imagined than in the suppression of an insurrection against an excise law. To assert that Hamilton willfully sought to provoke as weak a sedition as possible in order to make its suppression easy and certain, would be a hard saying if his object had been personal advantage, or if a hecatomb of innocent victims could be invoked in condemnation of his plans. But neither was true: not only was the success of his plan perfect and bloodless, but there seems to have been no trace of self-seeking in it. He was playing for high stakes (see
—Had Hamilton's purpose been plainly stated, to force an issue on which he could safely introduce the "authority of the national government" to popular view, the excise law would have received little support from a people or from politicians accustomed to regard the states as sovereign and independent, and the federal government as their creature. (See
—The excise bill became a law March 3, 1791. Little open resistance was made to it in Virginia or North Carolina, but in Pennsylvania the agitation was headed not only by violent men, one Bradford being the most noted, but by abler and quieter leaders, such as William Findley, then and for many years afterward a member of congress; John Smilie, also a member of congress after 1792, and Albert Gallatin. (See his name.) The first meeting to protest against the law was held at Redstone old fort, now Brownsville, July 27. Its proceedings were moderate; but another meeting, Aug. 23, in Washington county, nearest to the Virginia line, and most disordered, resolved to consider as an enemy any person who should take office under the law. Violence could not but follow this, and it began Sept. 6, with the tarring and feathering of a revenue officer. Throughout the winter the disturbance smoldered, but it was so threatening that an act was passed, May 2, 1792 (see
—The insurgents, two days after the outbreak, seized the mail from Pittsburgh, in order to ascertain the names of those of their fellow-citizens who were opposed to them. A mass meeting was called for Aug. 1, on Braddock's field. Some 7,000 armed men were present; a county judge presided, and Gallatin acted as secretary; none, even of those who disliked the posture into which affairs were growing, dared to remonstrate; and a reign of terror was begun, Bradford being the ruling spirit. Personal violence was offered to any person suspected of obeying the law, and the more reckless spirits began active preparation to call out the whole force of the counties for a defensive war against the United States.
—The emergency had now come, and the manner in which it was met showed to the dullest understanding the difference between the present government and that which had been balked by Shay's rebellion. (See
—The report of the commissioners was so unfavorable that the president issued a new proclamation, Sept. 25, giving notice of the advance of the troops, mostly volunteers. Washington accompanied them to Carlisle, where he left the chief command to Gov. Lee, of Virginia. The Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops were led by Govs. Mifflin and Howell; the Virginia troops by Gen. Morgan; and the Maryland troops by Samuel Smith, a member of congress from Baltimore. Hamilton accompanied the expedition throughout. In the meantime a new popular convention, Oct. 2, had sent Findley and another commissioner to the president with unanimous assurances of submission; but the president could see no evidence that the assurances represented any general feeling. Another meeting, Oct. 24, therefore declared that all suspected persons ought to surrender at once for trial, and that it would be perfectly safe to open inspection offices and put the excise laws in operation immediately; and four commissioners were appointed to carry these resolutions to the president. No halt took place in the movement of the troops, however. They arrived in the disturbed district early in November, and their commander, after giving the inhabitants time to obey his proclamation and take advantage of the proffered amnesty, arrested by a general sweep those accused persons who had not yet exonerated themselves. These culprits, however, were insignificant. Bradford and the more violent leaders had fled the country, and the more moderate leaders had protected themselves by taking advantage of the amnesty: as Wolcott, a warm federalist, expressed it, "all the great rogues, who began the mischief, had submitted and become partisans of the government." The result was, that two or three were tried and convicted, and these were pardoned. But there was for a long time an angry feeling that Hamilton, Knox and Judge Peters had acted as a "star chamber" in their manner of taking testimony, and in their sending a number of accused persons to Philadelphia, "to be imprisoned for ten or twelve months without even an indictment being found against them."
—The first show of force had suppressed the insurrection, and the troops returned home, leaving 2,500 men, under Morgan, who encamped in the disturbed district throughout the winter. Its suppression had been almost bloodless, but two persons having been killed, and these in personal conflicts with soldiers for which the soldiers were punished. But the effects were greater than if a "Peterloo" battle had been fought. The early political struggles of the United States are none the less important because they were peaceful; and the bloodless suppression of the whisky insurrection is as significant in its way as the bloody emergence of the English nation from the chaos of the heptarchy. For five years the people had been enjoying all the comforts of a national government without feeling any of the responsibilities which accompanied them; and the politicians had been developing the idea that individual obedience to the federal government under the constitution was to be as fundamentally voluntary as state obedience had been under the confederation, that all Americans were by nature good citizens, and that discontent with a law was prima facie evidence that the law was bad and ought to be repealed. The year 1794 completed what the year 1787 began; it revealed a power which, though seldom exerted, must always be finally decisive. The swiftness and thoroughness with which the resistance had been put down; the evident fact that, as Wolcott said, "the whole resources of the country would be employed, if necessary"; and the reflection that a part can never be equal to the whole: all combined to show the hopelessness of any future insurrection which individual dissatisfaction could be expected to produce. It is clearly within bounds to say, that this single lesson would have been sufficient to free the United States from future danger of insurrection but for the influence of slavery in binding together a number of states in organized insurrection. Its influence is certainly evident in a comparison of the congressional debates before and after it occurred. Before 1794 there is in many of the speakers almost an affectation of voluntary obedience to federal laws, and of monition to others not to provoke resistance. After that year, this characteristic disappears almost entirely, and the debates have no longer the background of possible club law.
—A broader result is easily visible now, though few others than Jefferson and Hamilton saw it then. If a federal army, without the summons of the governor or legislature, was to march through a state to suppress resistance to federal laws within the state, state sovereignty, in its hitherto accepted sense, could hardly be found by searching. Little was said at the time, but when the federal party was finally overthrown, one of the first steps in reform was the abolition of the excise laws by the act of April 6, 1802. (See
—See 4 Hildreth's United States, 498; 1 von Holst's United States, 94; 1 Schouler's United States, 275; 2 Pitkin's United States, 421; 1 Tucker's United States, 552; Bradford's Federal Government, 84; 1 Gibbs' Administrations of Washington and Adams, 144; Wharton's State Trials, 102; authorities under GALLATIN, HAMILTON and JEFFERSON; 3 Jefferson's Works (edit.1833), 308; 4 Hamilton's Works, 231 (letter to Washington); 6 Pennsylvania Hist. Soc. Memoirs, 117 (Ward's "Insurrection of 1794") 188 (James Gallatin's "Memoir on the Insurrection"); Findley's History of the Insurrection; Brackenridge's Incidents of the Insurrection; 11 Pennsylvania Archives; the acts of March 3, 1791, May 8, 1792, June 5, 1794, and April 6, 1802, are in 1 Stat. at Large, 202, 267, 380, and 2:148; the proclamation of Sept. 25, 1794, is in 1 Statesman's Manual, 54.
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