Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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WHISKY INSURRECTION (IN U. S. HISTORY), a revolt against the execution of a federal excise law, which came to a head in western Pennsylvania and was suppressed in 1794.


—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 VIRGINIA, TERRITORIES), they had generally escaped any troublesome interference from either state. In 1783 the supreme executive council of Pennsylvania had sent a special agent to remonstrate with "those deluded citizens in ye western counties who seemed disposed to separate from ye commonwealth and erect a new and independent state." Canada was not far away to the north; Spain not much farther to the southwest; and between the two lay the great and unoccupied "northwest territory," to the west of Pennsylvania. Who can tell how many abortive negotiations with agents of one or the other power, with the erection of a new and nominally independent northwestern power as an ultimate object, were never committed to paper, but died with the backwoodsmen who had conducted them? It is certain that, when Genet (see that title) reached the United States in 1793, his infallible instinct for troubled waters at once led him to send his agents to Kentucky and western Pennsylvania; and when the last scene in the present insurrection was being acted, the more reckless leaders showed their hand by urging the formation of a new state. When vague dreams of empire had been so long cherished, it was intolerable that they should be broken in upon by the summons of a federal exciseman, and this sudden dissolving of frontier independence had very much to do with the whole difficulty. 3. In any event, an excise law had always been odious to English and Americans from the necessary power given to officers to enter houses and search. Blackstone had curtly said that "from its original to the present time its very name has been odious to the people of England"; and Noah Webster's predecessor, Dr. Johnson, had defined it as "a hateful tax, levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid." The continental congress, in a proclamation to the people of Canada, in October, 1774, had warned them that they would be "subjected to the impositions of excise, the horror of all free states"; and an English pamphleteer, long before, had said, "We know what a general excise is, and can not be ignorant that it bath an army in its belly." The constitution plainly gave congress power to lay and collect excises; but it was certain that the exercise of the power would be difficult and dangerous; and the first project of an excise was defeated in congress, June 21, 1790. In the following year, when the project was revived, the Pennsylvania senators were instructed by their legislature to oppose such a law, "established on principles subversive of peace, liberty, and the rights of the citizens." 4. Complicated with all these reasons was a political opposition to the excise, which will be more in place under the main reason for its passage.


—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 NATION), and he played, as his antagonists did in 1800-1, with the rigor of the game. That he used opportunity, the disorganization of the opposition, the constitutional permission to lay excises, and the presidency of Washington, with such skill and effect, shows only what a master of the game he was.


—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 STATE SOVEREIGNTY.) But he took one step after another so skillfully that he ended, as he began, with the almost unanimous support of the people, who concurred in maintaining a national authority which they had hardly dreamed of ten years before. Nevertheless, there were some of the opposition, particularly Jefferson, who detected and vainly endeavored to counteract Hamilton's design. Their failure was one great moving cause of the rise of the new republican party (see DEMOCRATIC PARTY, I.), but it also helped to give the leaders of the new party the bitter dislike which they always cherished for Hamilton. That he had forced them to learn new ideas was bad enough, but it was intolerable that he should also compel them to kiss the rod to which they had unwillingly submitted. Their evident wrath has given some credence to a notion that some of them had been laying plans for a general disruption of the Union, and that Hamilton's shrewdness in provoking a premature explosion had balked them. The only documentary evidence to this effect is in a passage of an intercepted dispatch of Fanchet, Genet's successor, in 1794 (see RANDOLPH, EDMUND), that the insurrection was "indubitably connected with a general explosion for some time prepared in the public mind, but which this local eruption would cause to miscarry, or at least check for a long time." But the Frenchman's characteristic use of the word "indubitably," his failure to support it by any evidence from Randolph or elsewhere, and the failure of every other attempt to find any such evidence, put his passage out of court. Democratic anger came altogether from the discovery that the power of the federal government must thereafter be considered as a factor in American politics, together with the independence of the states and of the citizen. They could no longer say, as was said in congress in 1794, that their constituents "love your government much, but they love their independence more"; for the federalists could retort, as Tracy, of Connecticut, did to Gallatin in 1796, that, "whatever might be the case in other parts of the Union, his constituents were not of a temper to dance round a whisky pole one day cursing the government, and sneak the next day into a swamp on hearing that a military force was marching against them." In this alteration of the fundamentals of political discussion was the head and front of Hamilton's offending.


—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 INSURRECTION), empowering the president to use militia in suppressing disturbances within a state. With it went another act, May 8, reducing the duties. An attempt to hire an office in Washington county for the revenue officers, in August, led to renewed disorder, and the president felt compelled to warn the rioters, by a proclamation of Sept. 15, to abandon their unlawful combinations. Occasional tarrings and featherings followed throughout the year 1793, but the law itself was not as yet very effectively exercised. Early in 1794 the organization of secret societies began, coincident with the introduction into the house of representatives of a plan to secure and collect the excise duties; and these seem to have made full preparations for resistance. One great reason for the popular dislike to this particular law was, that offenses under it were cognizable only in federal courts, and that an accused person would therefore be compelled to journey to Philadelphia, at the other end of the state, to answer the charge. To backwoodsmen this was certainly no slight grievance; and congress very justly removed it in the act of June 5, 1794, giving state courts concurrent jurisdiction of excise offenses, so that accused persons might be tried in their own vicinage. But while the law was in process of passage, and before its mitigation could be taken advantage of, some fifty writs were issued at Philadelphia, May 31, against various persons in the western counties. These were served in July; as each was served, the person served joined the mob which followed the marshal; the cry was raised that "the federal sheriff was taking away people to Philadelphia"; and the short-lived whisky insurrection began. The marshal was captured, and sworn to serve no more processes; the inspector fled down the Ohio, and thence around through a wilderness to Philadelphia; and within two days the operation of the law was stopped. It is not known who was responsible for the issue of the writs of May 31, which were the spark for the explosion. There is no evidence whatever that Hamilton had anything to do with it.


—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 CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF.) The federalist members of the cabinet instantly advised the calling out of militia; and, when Gov. Mifflin of Pennsylvania declined to take the initiative, the "national authority" showed that it no longer was absolutely dependent on the state governments. A certificate of the existence of the insurrection was obtained from a federal judge; a proclamation from the president, Aug. 7, ordered the insurgents to disperse; a requisition for 15,000 militia was issued to the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland; and Sept. 1 was fixed as the date for the departure of the troops. A federal commission of three persons, and a state commission of two, preceded the troops with offers of amnesty on full submission. The mission was apparently a failure. It found Gallatin, Findley, Brackenridge and the other leaders of standing engaged in a desperate effort to induce submission, but impeded by Bradford and the reckless borderers, who terrorized every meeting they attended. Aug. 28, the controlling committee of sixty met at Redstone old fort. Bradford urged armed resistance, but Gallatin, by securing a secret ballot, obtained a resolution, 34 to 23, to accede to the proposals of the federal commissioners. These proposals were mainly that town meetings should be held Sept. 11, that the people should vote yea or nay on the question of submission, that those who voted yea should obtain amnesty by signing a declaration of submission, and that the unanimity of the vote should govern the movements of the troops. Many, however, refused to sign the declaration, for the reason that they had taken no part in the outrages, and had no need of amnesty; and the reckless part of the insurgents supplemented the meagreness of the vote by a renewal of the outrages, and even by an attempt to seize the commissioners on their way home.


—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 STATE SOVEREIGNTY.)


—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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