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The Whiskey Rebellion, less commonly known as the Whiskey Insurrection, was a popular uprising that had its beginnings in 1791 and culminated in an insurrection in 1794 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker, in the Monongahela Valley. During George Washington's presidency, the government decided to tax whiskey in order to pay off the national debt. This infuriated the citizenry and led to the Whiskey Rebellion.

The 1791 tax

The new Federal government, at the urging of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, assumed the states' debt from the American Revolutionary War. In 1779 jefferson convinced Congress to approve taxes on alcohol and drugs. Hamilton's principal reason for the tax was that he wanted to pay down the national debt, but he justified the tax "more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue." But most importantly, Hamilton "wanted the tax imposed to advance and secure the power of the new federal government."

Congress designed the tax so smaller distillers would pay by the gallon, while larger distillers (who could produce in volume) could take advantage of a flat fee. The net result was to affect smaller producers more than larger ones. George Washington, the president at the time, was one such large producer of whiskey. Large producers were assessed a tax of 6 cents per gallon, while small producers were taxed at 9 cents per gallon. [22095] But Western settlers were short of cash to begin with and, being far from their markets and lacking good roads, lacked any practical means to get their grain to market other than fermenting and distilling it into relatively portable distilled spirits. Additionally, whiskey was often used among western farmers as a medium of exchange or as a barter good.

The tax on whiskey was bitterly and fiercely opposed among the Cohee on the frontier from the day it was passed. Western farmers considered it to be both unfair and discriminatory, since they had traditionally converted their excess grain into liquor. Since the nature of the tax affected those who produced the whiskey but not the people who bought the whiskey, it directly affected many farmers. Many protest meetings were held, and a situation arose which was reminiscent of the opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 before the American Revolution.

From Pennsylvaniamarker to Georgiamarker, the western counties engaged in a campaign of harassment of the federal tax collectors. "Whiskey Boys" also made violent protests in Marylandmarker, Virginiamarker, and Northmarker and South Carolinamarker.

The insurrection

By the summer of 1794, tensions reached a fevered pitch all along the western frontier as the settlers' primary marketable commodity was threatened by the federal taxation measures. Finally, the civil protests became an armed rebellion. The first shots were fired at the Oliver Miller Homesteadmarker in present day South Park Township, PAmarker, about ten miles south of Pittsburghmarker. As word of the rebellion spread across the frontier, a whole series of loosely organized resistance measures were taken, including robbing the mail, stopping court proceedings, and the threat of an assault on Pittsburghmarker. One group, disguised as women, assaulted a tax collector, cropped his hair, coated him with tar and feathers, and stole his horse.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, remembering Shays' Rebellion from just eight years before, decided to make Pennsylvania a testing ground for federal authority. Washington ordered federal marshals to serve court orders requiring the tax protesters to appear in federal district court. On August 7, 1794, Washington invoked martial law to summon the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and several other states. The rebel force they fought was likewise composed of Pennsylvanians, Virginians, and possibly men from other states.

The militia force of 12,950 men was organized, roughly the size of the entire army in the Revolutionary War. Under the personal command of Washington, Hamilton, and Revolutionary War hero General Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee, the army assembled in Harrisburg and marched to Bedford, Pennsylvania the site of Washington's headquarters, then on to western Pennsylvania (to what is now Monongahelamarker) in October of 1794. The rebels "could never be found," according to Jefferson, but the militia expended considerable effort rounding up 20 prisoners, clearly demonstrating Federalist authority in the national government. The men were imprisoned, where one died, while two, including Philip Vigol (later spelled Philip Wigal), were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Washington, however, pardoned them on the grounds that one was a "simpleton," and the other, "insane."

Only two were actually arrested and jailed: judge Robert Philson and devout Quaker Herman Husband. Philson was released by Washington, but Husband died in jail before he could be released.

By November, some individuals were fined and charged with "assisting and abetting in setting up a seditious pole in opposition to the laws of the United States," and in January 1796 the following were fined five to fifteen shillings each: Nicholas Kobe, Adam Bower, Abraham Cable Jr, Dr. John Kimmell, Henry Foist, Jacob Holy, Adam Holy, Michael Chintz, George Swart, and Adam Stahl of Brothers Valley townshipmarker; John Heminger, John Armstrong, George Weimer, George Tedrow, Abraham Miller, John Miller Jr, Benjamin Brown, and Peter Bower of Milford townshipmarker; Emanuel Brallier, and George Ankeny, of Quemahoning township; Peter Augustine, James Conner, Henry Everly, Daniel McCartey, William Pinkerton, and Jonathan Woodsides of Turkeyfoot township.

Tom the Tinker

"Tom the Tinker" assumed the leadership of the Whiskey Rebellion in the early 1790s. He came about after it was decided that to merely attack tax collectors or those who rented offices and lodging to tax collectors wasn't enough; pressure needed to be applied to those who had registered their stills and were paying the tax. In essence, Tom the Tinker viewed compliance with the law as contemptible an action as collecting the whiskey tax. William Hogeland has described the situation thus:
You might find a note posted on a tree outside your house, requiring you to publish in the Gazette your hatred of the whiskey tax and your commitment to the cause; otherwise, the note promised, your still would be mended.

Tom had a wicked sense of humor and a literary bent: "mended" meant shot full of holes or burned. Tom published on his own too, rousing his followers to action, telling the Gazette's editor in cover notes to run the messages or suffer the consequences.

Groups formed calling themselves Tom the Tinker's Men. They assured Tom the Tinker's threats were carried out. Some believe John Holcroft, a leading member of the Mingo Creek Association and veteran of Shays' Rebellion, was Tom the Tinker, or perhaps the author of the letters attributed to Tom, but this has never been proven. It is not known whether Tom was an actual individual or a character created by the leading members of the Whiskey Rebellion to serve as their leader, much like Ned Ludd's role as leader of the Luddites. Hogeland takes issue with the notion that "Tom the Tinker" was a pseudonym or nom de guerre for one of the other participants in the rebellion, saying, "Tom wasn't an alias for a person. He was the stark fact that loyal opposition to the resistance was disallowed. Tom was Mingo Creek personified."


This marked the first time under the new United States Constitution that the federal government used military force to exert authority over the nation's citizens. It was also the only time that a sitting President personally commanded the military in the field.

The suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion also had the unintended consequences of encouraging small whiskey producers in Kentuckymarker and Tennesseemarker, which remained outside the sphere of Federal control for many more years. In these frontier areas, they also found good corn-growing country as well as limestone-filtered water and therefore began making whiskey from corn; this corn whiskey developed into Bourbon. Additionally, the rebellion and its suppression helped turn people away from the Federalist Party and toward the Democratic-Republican Party. This is shown in the 1794 Philadelphia congressional election, in which upstart Democratic Republican John Swanwick won a stunning victory over incumbent Federalist Thomas Fitzsimons, carrying 7 of 12 districts and 57% of the vote. The farmers were severely angered.

The hated whiskey tax was repealed in 1803, having been largely unenforceable outside of Western Pennsylvania, and even there never having been collected with much success.

See also


  1. What is the Whiskey rebellion of 4590?
  2. Virginia Border Counties During Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion
  3. United States v. Vigol, 29 Fed. Cas. 376 (No. 16621) (C.C.D. Pa. 1795)
  4. Somerset County, PAGW - History of Bedford and Somerset, Chapter X
  5. Hogeland, p. 131.
  6. President James Madison was present at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812 and may have commanded some troops.
  8. The Whiskey Rebellion: A Model For Our Time?

External links


  • Baldwin, Leland. Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1939.
  • Cooke, Jacob E. "The Whiskey Insurrection: A Re-Evaluation." Pennsylvania History, 30, July 1963, pp. 316–364.
  • Gross, David (ed.) We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1434898253 pp. 119–137
  • Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty. Scribner, 2006.
  • Kohn, Richard H. "The Washington Administration's Decision to Crush the Whiskey Rebellion." Journal of American History, 59, December 1972, pp. 567–584.
  • Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-19-505191-2
  • Mainwaring, W. Thomas, ed. "The Whiskey Rebellion and the Trans-Appalachian Frontier." Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts, 45, Fall 1994 (special 93-page compilation of five papers presented at the April 1994 Whiskey Rebellion Bicentennial Conference, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pa.)
  • Rothbard, Murray N. " The Whiskey Rebellion: A Model For Our Time?". Free Market, Volume 12, Number 9, September 1994.
  • Muller, Edward K. "World Book Encyclopedia." The Whiskey Rebellion, Volume 21, 2006, pp. 282.

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