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The Whiskey Rebellion



     In 1791, the government placed a high tax of 25% on all spiritus frumenti, or whiskey, sold in the United States.1  Since this tax affected a commodity produced and sold by the citizens themselves, the tax faced substantial opposition.  The resulting resistance became known as the Whiskey Rebellion.  This rebellion manifested "…the first test of the power of the new government."2

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     Many citizens resented the imposition of the whiskey tax "…as discrimination and as detrimental to their liberty and economic welfare."3  The predominant reason for this was that whiskey sales brought in much more money than crops.  Farmers, the main producers of whiskey, saw the market for whiskey as a method for individual profit.  From this perspective, they refused to give up their personal money to governmental taxes.4  The solution was simply to withhold payment.

    Shortly, the strong public and state opposition forced the repeal of the tax in Virginia and North Carolina.  However, in the counties west of Pennsylvania, the Whiskey Rebellion continued for over three years.5  In the end government authorities began to enforce the tax through legal action.  During June of 1794, local officials ordered the arrest of whiskey ringleaders.6  However, instead of squelching the rebellion, this incited a group of angry farmers in Pennsylvania to put up an active fight.7

    This forceful resistance took the form of threats, gunfire, assault, and even arson, specifically directed toward tax collectors.  Citizens committed outlandish, violent acts, such as tarring and feathering, simply to discourage an inspector from staying and trying to collect the tax.  Oftentimes these tactics proved effective.  The struggle broke into open rebellion in July of 1794 when a tax collector by the name of John Neville was approached at his house by an angry mob.  Gunshots were fired but Neville luckily escaped with his life; however, Oliver Miller, one of the rebels, did not.  The following day James McFarlane, commander of the local militia, was killed and all hopes of a peaceful resolution dissolved.8

    At this time, the federal government took initiative and stepped into the conflict. President George Washington took charge and was finally able to bring the rebellion to a halt.9  On August 14, the President ordered the governors of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to provide a total of 12,950 militiamen to serve in an expedition march to western Pennsylvania to put down the "Whiskey Rebellion."  Since the entire United States Army of some 2,600 men was in Ohio fighting Indians, Washington requested that the voluntary militia be called into federal service under the Militia Act of 1792.  However, according to the provisions of the act, it was necessary for a federal judge to approve the use of this militia to enforce federal law.  Permission was granted, but it was the first time the militia was called into federal service under the Constitution.  President Washington, who was well respected as a military leader, decided to personally take command of the militia as this was the largest military operation since the Revolutionary War.  This was the first and only time in United States history that a sitting president donned a uniform to command troops in battle.10

    Washington and the militia arrived at the scene of the rebellion by November 2. With word of the militia on the march the majority of the rebels either dispersed or hid. Federal authority was soon restored, allowing officials the opportunity to resume their whiskey tax collection duties.  Militia patrols arrested the ringleaders and escorted them to Philadelphia for trial.  By the month's end, most of the militia force had returned home and were mustered out of service.  Overall, the militia's role was a success. "Federalized militia restored law and order, and the federal government proved that it could and would enforce the law."11  To this day, July 16 has been commemorated as Whiskey Day.12


4The World Book encyclopedia: Volume 21. (1996 ed.). p.284. Chicago: World Book Inc.
5Dictionary of American History: Volume VII. (1976). pp.289-290. Charles Scribner's Sons.
6World Book.
7World Book.


-The World Book encyclopedia: Volume 21 (1996 ed.). Chicago: World Book, Inc.
-Dictionary of American history: Volume VII. (1976). pp.289-290. Charles Scribner's Sons.

Edited by Laurel Cameron
Researched by Sarah E. Costa
Written by Trishia Parker

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