The first test of the strength of the government founded on the new Constitution was made in Pennsylvania, in 1794, by a rebellion against the payment of the excise tax. But for the energy of the central authorities, this revolt might have risen to dangerous proportions. Seven years before, a revolt in Massachusetts against the payment of State taxes had been suppressed by the local militia. Now the strength of the government of the Union was put to a similar test. The first attempt to collect internal taxes by act of Congress was through a law, passed in 1791, which imposed a tax on distilled spirits. This law at once became unpopular, especially with the Democratic party. The collection of the tax was evaded, and the law was finally openly defied, in western Pennsylvania. A rebellion was inaugurated, which called for the first exercise of Federal authority. A large military force from the neighboring States was called out by the President for its suppression.
Efforts had been made to enforce the law by peaceful means, but these were violently resisted. The houses of collectors of the revenue were broken open by disguised men, and the collectors forced to resign their office. Later the insurgents grew more violent, tarring and feathering an inspector of the revenue, and finally organized a military association, declaring that they were amenable to State laws only, not to acts of the United States.
NEW efforts being made to enforce the laws, the marshal of the district was fired upon by a body of armed men. On the following day, the sixteenth of July, an attack by a larger body was made on the house of the inspector-general, Neville, in the vicinity of Pittsburg, who, after having gallantly defended himself, was obliged to retreat. On applying to the magistrates and commandants of the militia, he was informed that, owing to the general combination of the people, the laws could not be executed.
The next day the insurgents reassembled in increased numbers, and renewed their attack upon the house of the inspector, who had called in a detachment from the garrison of Fort Pitt. It consisted of an officer and eleven soldiers. An effectual defence being rendered improbable from the inequality of numbers, the inspector retired. A parley took place under cover of a flag. The insurgents then required the troops to march out and ground their arms,--which being refused, a brisk firing ensued, and was continued until, the building being in flames, the few troops were compelled to surrender. One of the insurgents, formerly an officer of the Pennsylvania line, was killed; several of each party were wounded. The whole property of the inspector was consumed to the ground. The marshal was seized while coming to his aid. They were both ultimately compelled, in order to avoid personal injury, to descend the Ohio and by a circuitous route to proceed to the seat of government. After these excesses a convention of delegates from the insurgents of the four western counties of Pennsylvania and the neighboring counties of Virginia was called for the fourteenth of August at Parkinson's Ferry, to concert measures suited to the occasion.
The period had at last certainly arrived when, in the language of the President, "the government could no longer remain a passive spectator of the contempt with which the laws were treated."
A proclamation was issued by the President, commanding the insurgents to disperse, while quotas of militia were called for from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey. These Governor Mifflin, of Pennsylvania, who seemed to be in sympathy with the insurgents, hesitated to call out. He was, however, forced either to do so, or to break with the central government, and the militia volunteered in greater numbers than were wanted, even members of the "Society of Friends" joining the force. Persons of wealth, and officers high in the old army, were found mustering with the common soldiers in the ranks. General Lee, then Governor of Virginia, was appointed to the chief command. Meanwhile, the insurgents had robbed the mails, and issued circulars citing passages from letters of the inspectors, and declaring that their interests were threatened, and that every citizen must prepare to defend himself.
They were invoked as "citizens" of the "WESTERN COUNTRY to render their personal services with as many volunteers as they could raise, to rendezvous at Braddock's Field on the Monongahela, with arms and accoutrements in good order." An expedition was proposed, "in which you will have an opportunity of displaying your military talents, and of rendering service to your country."
The immediate object of this expedition was an attack on the garrison at Pittsburgh and the seizure of its arms; the ultimate design, the establishment of a tramontane STATE, separate from and independent of the Union. .
In order to reach Braddock's Field, the militia of Washington County, warm in the party of the insurgents, were obliged to cross to the east side of the Monongahela. They advanced, clad in their yellow hunting-shirts, their heads bound with kerchiefs, the dress they wore in their conflicts with the Indians, which kept up, in this hardy frontier population, a temper little less than savage.
Bradford stood on the bank, reviewing these battalions as they crossed. In one circle the party who had burned the inspector's house were seen, each with his rifle, venting their rage against its defenders, deploring the death of their leader, threatening the commandant of Fort Fayette for the aid he had granted. Loud cries were heard of "Tom the Tinker with his bearskin budget."--His "iron was hot, his hammer was up; he would not travel the country for nothing."
Seven thousand men assembled in the course of the day, and encamped for the night. Here there was little sleep, for, though the firing of musketry had ceased, the night was spent by groups, gathered near the range of fires, in earnest discussion and mingled menaces. In the morning, deputies from each regiment were convened in a lone wood. Bradford read the intercepted letters, directing their fury against the authors. The question was put as to their treatment. Some denounced them with death. Others sought to soothe the irritation. Officers were now appointed,--Bradford and Cook, generals. The drums beat, and the line of march to the fort was taken. This small work was a quadrangle with bastions stockaded, and a block-house on two of the angles, each armed with a small piece of artillery. Weak as it was, the commander was Colonel Butler, a resolute soldier. To a demand for its surrender he replied with a determination to hold it at every peril. Meanwhile, to alarm the inhabitants of Pittsburgh, a noisy follower rode through the town, with up-raised tomahawk, threatening the friends of order. The insurgents paused at the moment of danger; and, after a short parley, the larger number, dissuaded from their purpose, recrossed the river, leaving a few of the more determined, who, in detached parties, fired, during the night, the habitations of those who had supported the laws.
The flight of the authors of the obnoxious letters and the pretended concurrence of the townsfolk in the objects of the insurgents saved Pittsburg from destruction.
The excitement increased, and another meeting took place on August 14. A liberty-pole was erected, bearing a red flag, with six stripes, one for each insurgent county, and the inscription, "Liberty and no Excise! No Asylum for Traitors and Cowards." Albert Gallatin (the afterwards prominent statesman) was secretary of this convention. Violent discussions ensued, with a strong sentiment in favor of war. Word now came that the commissioners of the government were at hand. This produced an instant change in the courage of the assembly. More moderate resolutions were moved, and there were evidences of a disposition to accept the proffered terms,--a submission to the laws, with the promise that measures would be taken to ascertain the sense of the people.
Bradford would have rejected instantly the proffered terms. The angered, earnest, misled population, still believing, as they had been taught by their leaders, that the excise laws were unconstitutional and oppressive, were ready to sustain him. The only resource was to postpone the question for the night, and to induce the armed party to withdraw.
The next day, relieved from the immediate presence of his followers, and trembling before the insulted majesty of the government, Gallatin urged submission. Bradford, of too proud and firm a temper to truckle at the first alarm of danger, opposed conciliation. He declared the people only wanted fire-arms. With these they could obtain a victory over the militia army. Then they could establish an independent State. The Committee of Sixty were divided in opinion. Shrinking from the responsibility of an open vote, it was proposed by Gallatin, and sustained by those in favor of submission, that it should be by secret ballot. The ballot was taken, and, as was after ascertained, thirty-four were in favor of terms, twenty-three against them.
The sentiment shown by this vote was not generally shared by the people. In various sections violent measures were proposed, and the insurgent spirit seemed so strong as to render it evident that no alternative remained but the advance of the armed force. This Washington had decided to accompany.
The adjacent States now presented an animating scene. On every side volunteers were offering, and, led by officers of the army of the Revolution, pressed to the service. The militia of Maryland and Virginia, in which States attempts were made to prevent the drafts, repaired to Cumberland. . Those of New Jersey under Governor Howel, and of Pennsylvania under Mifflin, were to be concentrated at Carlisle.
Gallatin and others of the moderate leaders of the populace now declared their submission to the authorities, and passed pacific resolutions.
Washington, meanwhile, had reached Carlisle. Here a large encampment had been formed. Tents were pitched at the base of the hills; and from the centre of a vast amphitheatre the President addressed the gathered multitude. Loud greetings followed, and at night an illumination blazed through the town. At this place, so changed in the direction of its feelings, Findley and Reddick [two of the submissive insurgent leaders] now arrived. Fearing for their personal safety from the resentment of the troops, they spent the night three miles beyond the town, "passing for travellers going to Philadelphia." At sunrise they waited on the President. Overawed by his cold, calm, majestic bearing, they presented the submissive resolutions, and withdrew. A hearing was given to them. Earnestly they sought to convince him of the restored quiet of the scene of disaffection, and to dissuade the onward movement of the troops.
In this object they failed. The army was ordered to continue its advance. "Leaders taken in arms were to be delivered up to the civil magistrates, the rest disarmed, admonished, and sent home." Washington now returned to Philadelphia, leaving the control of the expedition in the hands of Hamilton and the immediate command to Governor Lee.
The Alleghanies were now to be ascended. On the twenty-first of October the two light corps marched in advance. The body of the army moved the next day, the right wing under Mifflin, the left under Lee, the artillery, as a park, in the centre, where the cavalry, "who, though dangerous in the light, are impotent in darkness," were stationed at night. On the march, chosen parties of horse were ordered to follow in the rear of each wing, to arrest stragglers and to protect the property of individuals. The orders for each day's march were prepared by Hamilton. Owing to recent heavy rains, the progress of the army had become "extremely arduous and distressing." Mountain after mountain of stupendous size rose before their anxious view, as beyond and all around them they beheld giddy precipices, overhanging cliffs, deep glades, far-extending valleys, and headlong torrents contending for an outlet among the craggy, age-mossed rocks,--the whole exhibiting the appearance of a vast magnificent ruin of years long gone by.
For many a mile not a dwelling was to be seen, nor a sound to be heard, save the echo of the felling axe, or the cry of the startled wood-birds before the tramp of the advancing troops, awed into silence by the dreary solitudes,--a silence only broken by the sudden cries of returning scouts from amid the rude sequestered wilds, through whose forest depths the autumn sun scarce pierced its rare and broken rays.
To guard against surprise among these passes, and to protect the country beyond them from devastation by these undisciplined levies, was a service of no less difficulty than to restrain mutiny prompted by unexpected hardships. Hamilton was ever on the alert. While the bright gleams of early soldiership lightened his countenance, nothing escaped the vigilance of his eye. Holding no military rank, he was seen day after day mingling with the men, studying their tempers, rallying their spirits, relating stirring incidents of the Revolutionary War, while in the heavy hours of the night he traversed the camp, unattended, watching the sentries on their tedious rounds. On one occasion he found a wealthy youth of Philadelphia sitting on his outer post, his musket by his side. Approaching, he reproved him. The youth complained of hardship. Hamilton shouldered the musket, and, pacing to and fro, remained on guard until relieved. The incident was rumored throughout the camp, nor did the lesson require repetition.
The assemblage of any combined force of the insurgents was deterred by various detachments, who seized the leaders and brought in numerous prisoners.
These decided measures put a stop to the insurrection. The insurgents, left without leaders, and deterred by the presence of an army of fifteen thousand men, feared to gather in force; though there were sufficient evidences of a spirit of resistance to the laws to require the presence of a military force till the district should become pacified.
Hamilton arrived at Pittsburgh with the judiciary corps on the seventeenth of November, having left the army the preceding day.
During the latter part of the march he had been constantly engaged, obtaining intelligence of the insurgents, receiving the submissions of those who had not fled, restraining the resentments of the militia which these treasons had excited, and establishing the laws in a region which now first practically acknowledged the supremacy of the general government..
Nothing could have been more gratifying than the result of this expedition, --a great body of misguided rebels restored without bloodshed to the dominion of the laws, a contemplated severance of the Union defeated, and a strong impression made, that in the affections of the people the government possessed a safe reliance adequate to its support.
Thus ended, without bloodshed, an insurrection which at one time threatened to disrupt the new-formed Union, or to require severe measures for its suppression. Brackenridge remarks, " It has been said that because there was no necessity for so strong an army. But it was the display of so strong an army that rendered unnecessary anything but the display of it." The event has an importance as the first organized resistance to the authority of the United States government, and the first occasion in which an American President exerted his authority by directly calling out the militia of the States to the support of the laws of the general government.
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