Little Bits of History

Whiskey Rebellion

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 7, 2015
Whiskey Rebellion

Whiskey Rebellion

August 7, 1794: US President George Washington invokes the Militia Acts of 1792. The two acts were passed in 1792 to provide for the organization of state militias and allowed for the President to take command of them in times of imminent invasion or insurrection. These acts were used once. The first tax to be imposed on a domestic product was the “whiskey tax” brought into effect in 1791. The hope was to bring in revenue to reduce the national debt. The tax was applied to all distilled spirits but whiskey was the most common of these. The tax was unpopular especially with western frontier regions where farmers were used to distilling their surplus grain and using the whiskey as a medium of exchange. Since the whiskey was more compact than the original grain, it was easier to transport back east for sale.

From the outset, counties in Western Pennsylvania resisted the collection of any taxes. Many of the men in the region had fought in the Revolutionary War which stemmed from taxation without representation. The federal government felt that the ability to impose taxes was part of the powers invested in Congress. The war had left the new nation with a $54 million debt since the Articles of Confederation had been unable to levy taxes. The individual states had also incurred another $25 million in debt. With the new government in effect in 1789, the ability to levy taxes was included in the United States Constitution. With import duties as high as thought reasonable, the next thing to tax was domestic goods and the Whiskey Act became law in March 1791.

The farmers petitioned their government through regular channels and the law was modified in May 1792, but not enough to satisfy the western frontier farmers. Rather than continue with non-violent resistance, on September 11, 1791 a tax collector was tarred and feathered and when warrants were issued for his attackers to be arrested, those men were whipped, tarred, and feathered. The areas of contention were not limited to western Pennsylvania but all along the Appalachian Mountain regions. As time went on, both sides escalated their dealings and by 1794, federal district attorney William Rawle issued subpoenas for over 60 distillers to come to Philadelphia and appear in district court. This was later changed to being able to appear in local courts, but the damage was done.

The subpoenas were delivered mid-July and shots were fired. The rebels swelled in numbers. Local law officials attempted to quell the disturbances, but they grew in number and intensity. As the violence increased, it became apparent there was no alternative but to call out the militia. This took permission from a Justice of the Supreme Court which was given on August 4 and on this day, Washington announced the order. When the sides met in action, there were 3-4 rebels killed and 170 captured while the militia lost about 12 men from illness or accidents. The Whiskey Rebellion was suppressed and the President retained his high approval rating.

Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes. – Benjamin Franklin

The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets. – Will Rogers

In levying taxes and in shearing sheep it is well to stop when you get down to the skin. – Austin O’Malley

I’m proud to pay taxes in the United States; the only thing is, I could be just as proud for half the money. – Arthur Godfrey

Also on this day: Kon-Tiki – In 1947, Kon-Tiki made landfall.
Purple Heart – In 1782, George Washington created a new merit badge.
Le Griffon – In 1679, Le Griffon set sail on her maiden voyage.
Not Ready for Laptops – In 1944, the Mark I was presented to Harvard.
You Be the Judge – In 1970, Judge Haley was taken hostage.

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