The Whiskey Rebellion

The government was now subjected to another severe strain. There was a popular outbreak in Western Pennsylvania known in our history as the Whisky Rebellion, which gave the government much uneasiness in 1794. The rye crop west of the Alleghany Mountains around the forks of the Ohio, was largely converted into whisky by Scotch-Irish distillers. Excise laws which imposed duties on domestic distilled liquors were passed by Congress, but these western distillers despised them. When, in the spring of 1794, after the adjournment of Congress, officers were sent to enforce the laws, they were resisted by the people in arms. The insurrection became general throughout all the Pittsburgh region, and many outrages were committed. The old mob-remedy for a human nuisance was resorted to--tarring and feathering. One officer was stripped of all his clothing, smeared with warm tar, and the contents of a feather bolster was emptied upon him, giving him a most ludicrous appearance. He did not answer the philosopher's definition of a man--"a two-legged animal without feathers." Buildings occupied by friends of the government were burned; mails were robbed, and government officers were everywhere insulted and abused. At one time there were between six and seven thousand insurgents under arms. The local militia formed a part of the mob. The insurgent spirit spread into the border counties of Virginia; and the President and his cabinet, perceiving with alarm this imitation of French politics which had been inculcated by the Democrats, took immediate steps to crush the growing monster. The President first issued two proclamations (August 7 and September 25), but without effect. A convention of insurgents, held at Pittsburgh (of which young Albert Gallatin, afterward Secretary of the Treasury, was secretary), had declared the excise law to be "unjust, dangerous to liberty, oppressive to the poor, and particularly oppressive to the Western country, where grain could only be disposed of by distilling it," and had resolved to treat all excisemen with contempt. A committee of correspondence was appointed, and rebellion was fairly organized. The mob violence was, in a manner, personified, under the name of Tom the Tinker, and the perpetrators called these performances "mending the still." They were cheered on by "Democratic societies" which were secret associations.

It was estimated that the insurgent counties could raise sixteen thousand fighting men; and Judge Brackenridge of that region intimated that, should coercion be attempted by the national government, the insurgents might make application to Great Britain for aid, and even march on Philadelphia, then the national capital. Washington was not to be trifled with. He would listen to no temporizing policy proposed by Democratic leaders. After exhausting peaceable means he ordered out a large body of militia of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and sent them under the command of General Henry Lee, toward the insurgent district. The leaders of the "rebels" were alarmed, and hesitated. The argument of force was effectual, and again the wisdom and firmness of Washington averted a great peril to the young nation.

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