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The Whiskey Rebellion (1793)
Transcript of The Whiskey Rebellion (1793)
The Need for Taxation
Following the start of Washington's Presidency (1789), Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton started to promote ways to pay for the country's nearly $80 million debt accumulated by the states and federal government during the revolution. With import taxes already high, Hamilton believed imposing domestic taxes of some sort was necessary to put the nation on solid financial footing.
The Lesser of Two Evils
As with most times throughout American history, taxes of any kind proved to be an unpopular idea with citizens. But, with the debt problem persisting, Secretary Hamilton felt that a "luxury tax" on whiskey would be the least objectionable way for the new government to increase revenues. The support of President Washington helped the Whiskey Act of 1791 become law. The president named the revenue districts and appointed necessary supervisors in November of that year.
What would you have taxed?
Problems on the Frontier
Immediately after its passage, the Whiskey Act was extremely controversial. This was especially the case in the Western frontier, where Whiskey's economic importance (some low-income individuals were paid in whiskey) and the lack of local representation ("no taxation without representation") made the issue especially powerful. Many refused to pay the tax and resistance was widespread. The lack of government protection of the frontier also a point of contention that made relations with westerners even more complex.
When petitions failed to stop the law's passage and implementation, some citizens began to escalate their resistance to the new tax. Resistance became progressively more organized and encompassed the "Pittsburgh Conventions" of 1791 and 1792. These conventions failed to keep the peace and by 1793 tensions were reaching a breaking point.
The Rebellion Erupts
In 1794, tensions between federal excise tax collectors and resisters in Western PA reached their peak. A group of "rebels" surrounded the home of General Neville on July 16th, leading to the Battle of Bower Hill. This small battle led to the gathering of more than 7,000 people in August. While a possible threat to the city of Pittsburgh was averted, this group marched through the city in protest. At this point, President Washington and his cabinet believed Western PA to be in open rebellion.
The Whiskey Act was a part of a larger policy of centralizing financial responsibilities around the new federal government. Hamilton was a key proponent of taking on the states' debts. Also, some contemporaries and historians believe the Whiskey tax's structure was designed to promote big business at the expense of smaller distilleries.
Alexander Hamilton's Policies
Is this what you thought of by "the frontier"?
The Frontier and Conflict
The Whiskey Tax went virtually unenforced in the western parts of many states (Appalachia) because local officials could not be convinced to either collect the tax or prosecute those evading it.
Washington Sends the Militia
President Washington at this point faced the extremely difficult decision of whether to reconcile with the rebels or use military force. He effectively decided to do both by federalizing the PA militia (~13,000 men) while also offering a conditional amnesty to rebels. When Washington personally led thes army into Western PA, the insurrection collapsed. In total, the rebellion would lead to 24 convictions for High Treason.
The Whiskey Rebellion represents one of the earliest and most significant tests of the new federal government's power and viability. It was the first time that President federalized a militia force and showed that the federal government could enforce and maintain the laws it enacted. Some historians also believe that these events contributed to the rise of political parties.