One of the most pressing and difficult obstacles facing the inexperienced George Washington’s first administration was that of guaranteeing the loyalty of the West to the Union. This was largely a matter of security and defense against the resident Indian nations and their European allies — England, France and Spain.
Settlers in this vast frontier region were constantly threatened by Indian raids, foreign controlled Mississippi River trade, speculative prices for land, poorly paid militia salaries, scarcity of money, and resentment of taxes and bureaucratic regulations.
One dimension of the problem in the West was economic. Western farmers were required by the geography of the landscape and lack of roads to ship their bulky produce down the river systems to the Gulf of Mexico. Overland freight rates were prohibitive. If the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were to stay loyal to the new Union, the federal government needed to exert itself militarily against the Indians and secure free navigation on the Mississippi River.
Accomplishments of 1794
In 1794, the Washington administration signed a treaty with England (Jay Treaty), fought an energetic war against the Indian nations in the Northwest Territory (Battle of Fallen Timbers), and squashed a popular uprising over whiskey. This was almost miraculous considering the hopelessness of the prospect a year earlier.
The 1791 economic program of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was a major part of the frontier rebellion. The need to raise funds for paying the debt of the American Revolution was behind the imposition of several taxes. An excise tax was considered by most American citizens of that time as the most odious form of all taxation, and the old Continental Congress had declared it to be “the horror of all free states.”
Hamilton successfully steered his economic program through Congress despite stiff Southern opposition. The federal debt was guaranteed, but means had to be found to ensure the annual payment of the enormous debt contracted by the new government.
Various taxes were established, but the one which aroused immediate opposition and stimulated Western discontent between 1790 and 1794 was the excise tax on distilled whiskey. In the 18th and into the 19th centuries, hard drinking and drunkenness were common among classes and in situations where public opinion would not tolerate it today.
Not only was whiskey considered a necessity for workmen and laborers at their workplace, but clergy fortified themselves with a good stiff drink before they began a sermon. Lawyers and politicians sometimes poured a tall glass before court began or before making a speech on the legislative floor of Congress.
Corn whiskey was a major export product in the West, especially in western Pennsylvania. Farmers found it almost impossible to export bulk grain to eastern markets because of high freight rate and poor roads. Grain then had to be converted into a form less bulky and more valuable in proportion to its weight.
One such form was to raise livestock which was driven to market, but this was an arduous and risky business. Another form, less difficult and more profitable, was the conversion of grains into distilled spirits.
Whiskey could be carried profitably form the West to markets in the East. However, the profit margin was gravely endangered by the excise tax passed in 1791. And, the tax discriminated against the West because whiskey was worth twice as much per gallon in the East as in the West.
Western resentments were also aroused by the appointment of tax collectors by the federal government — the forerunners of the “revenuers” who were so bitterly hated by the mountain people of Kentucky and Tennessee later.
Meetings were held during 1792 to express this opposition. Some damage was caused to private and public property, but the agitation tapered off in 1793. There were also minor problems in North and South Carolina, but for all practical purposes, it seems the problem had been dissolved.
Summer of discontent
The war clouds appeared again in the summer of 1794. The frontier was disturbed with the federal government’s slow pace in solving frontier issues. The efforts to pacify the Indians was impeded by poor military tactics. The British and Spanish influence was still present among the tribes. And, the frontier exploded when federal orders demanded that violation of the Excise Act be taken to Philadelphia for trial.
A federal marshal was attacked in Allegheny County while serving a warrant. Some members of the “Democratic Society” burned the home of a regional inspector. And, a mass meeting occurred in Pittsburgh that terminated in several town officials being expelled from office and leaving town in a hurry.
Washington moves quickly
President Washington, acting upon reports from state and local officials, moved swiftly to quell the rebellion. After a Presidential proclamation failed to restore order, he called upon several states to furnish 15,000 men to form a militia. Hamilton was placed in command.
The immense army marched to the forks of the Ohio river and found no opposition. Westerners suddenly discovered that discretion was the better part of valor. The whiskey rebels were nowhere in evidence. Two men were arrested and convicted of high treason, but Washington pardoned them because of lack of evidence.
The army marched away in November 1794, three weeks after arriving. Washington demonstrated the authority of the new federal government to act with speed to maintain law and order. The action succeeded in securing the frontier to the Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party in future elections, in spite of Washington’s success in foreign affairs and defeat of the Indians at Fallen Timers in the same month as the Whiskey Rebellion.
The purchase of Louisiana in 1803 by Jefferson reduced tension on the frontier east of the Mississippi. That’s your history!
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