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Letter from George Washington to Henry Lee

Alongside the ratification of the Constitution came the consolidation of individual states’ debt into one compiled national debt, which became the responsibility of the recently formed Department of Treasury. Once the federal government assumed the debt of the states, it became abundantly clear that a way to repay that debt was needed. On May 5, 1790 a bill came before Congress that proposed a tax on any spirits distilled in the United States.[1] Members of Congress knew that this law would be unpopular if it passed, but they probably had no idea just how unpopular it would be. Debates on whether or not to pass the bill started in the summer of 1790 and continued all the way into the winter. On January 27, 1791 the bill was read for a third time, voted upon, and finally passed into law with 35 favorable votes and 21 oppositional votes.[2]

The Whiskey Tax, as it came to be known, was the widely opposed across the nation, but none of the oppositional sentiments on the east coast could compare to the pure hatred felt towards the Whiskey Tax on the western frontier. Already feeling forgotten by the federal government, the Whiskey Tax was added to an ever-growing list of grievances that citizens on the frontier felt the federal government had committed. In addition to their perceived lack of representation in Congress, the people on the frontier were also engaged in a brutal, bloody war with the Native Americans that the newly created Continental Army was unequipped to deal with.[3] Creating a tax on whiskey, one of the few luxuries available on the frontier, was the tipping point in a conflict that had been slowly bubbling under the surface for over a decade. The citizens on the frontier even went so far as to compare the Whiskey Tax to the infamous Stamp Act[4] from Great Britain that enraged the colonists and contributed to the beginning of the American Revolution. Their true issue was not with the tax, it was with the lack of government representation. What Great Britain had done to the colonists, the frontiersmen now felt their own government was doing to them.[5]

The opposition to the Whiskey Tax did not begin violently, however. Protests were made, meetings were held, and petitions were sent but the federal government seemed to be ignoring the concerns of its citizens on the frontier.[6] As desperation grew in the west, so did incidents of violence. In October of 1791, a mentally ill man, who for some reason believed he was a tax collector, was tarred and feathered in western Pennsylvania when he came to ask local distillers if they were complying with the new law.[7] That same month, a real tax collector was whipped, robbed, tarred, and feathered in Pennsylvania. And just one month later in September of 1791, yet another tax collector was tarred and feather, but this time he also had his head shaved, his horse stolen, and was paraded between towns in the western Washington County of Pennsylvania.[8] Congress attempted to quell the violence in May of 1792 by reducing the rate and frequency of the tax, which helped marginally, but the strongest pocket of opposition in western Pennsylvania still remained, and the violence continued.[9] In April of 1793 a group of rebels broke into the house of a tax-collector and threatened his family. A few months later, an effigy of the Inspector of Revenue was made and burned in the Pennsylvania county of Alleghany.[10] Despite the fact that other frontier counties had begun to comply with the law, western Pennsylvania remained a terrifying place to be a tax collector. In June of 1794, Congress passed yet another amendment to the law, wishfully thinking that they could end the rebellion through legislative means rather than a military attack on their own citizens.[11]

On August 2, 1794 a conference was held to discuss the problem of the Pennsylvania rebels. The conference was attended by officials from both the federal government and the Pennsylvania state government, including President George Washington and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. While Washington still wanted to resolve the rebellion peacefully, Hamilton was convinced that military force was now the only feasible solution, stating that the rebels would be “dissatisfied under any circumstances, and under every exertion of government.”[12] Unsure of what the future held, the attendees of the conference decided to pursue both suggested plans at once. Congress would continue working to amend the Whiskey Tax in a way that would placate the rebels, while President Washington would issue a proclamation that ordered the rebels to disperse by September 1st or face military action.[13] In the meantime, Washington formed a peace commission and sent them to Pennsylvania to attempt to negotiate with the rebels.[14] However talks of peace did not go well, and on August 25, 1794 Alexander Hamilton gave Henry Lee the go ahead to begin marching the drafted militia to Pennsylvania.[15]

The militia consisted of roughly 12,000 men who had volunteered or been drafted to assist in the effort to quash the rebellion. The main goal was to reach the rebels in western Pennsylvania, but they also stopped smaller insurrections along the way in cities such as Hagerstown, Maryland. Rather than violently fight with the rebels, the army simply made their size and presence well known. Washington wanted to display the power of the new federal government, not murder his own citizens. In October of 1794, the president travelled to Bedford, Pennsylvania to meet with the army and assess their progress. Confident that things were going well and knowing the army had almost reached its final destination, Washington left General Henry Lee in charge of the army and returned east.[16] Housed in the Mercury Collection is a letter that President Washington wrote to General Henry Lee on October 20, 1794 about what he expected Lee to accomplish in his absence. His two expectations were:

“First—to combat, and subdue all who may be found in arms in opposition to the National Will & authority. Secondly—to aid & support the Civil Magistrate in bringing offenders to justice. The dispensation of this justice belongs to the Civil Magistrate—and let it ever be our pride, and our glory, to leave the sacred deposit there, unviolated.”[17]

As General Lee led the army further west it quickly became clear that the rebels had no plans to actually take to the field and fight. Therefore, the next step was to bring the rebels to justice. With the help of Alexander Hamilton and the judges accompanying the army, any found rebels were rounded up and interrogated, but it quickly became clear that all the major organizers of the rebellion had fled the area. Since Washington’s goal was to make clear to the citizens of the United States what would happen to those committing treason, he wanted to arrest the leaders of the rebellion, not the blindly following masses. After arresting close to 20 people who played minor roles in the rebellion, Hamilton and Lee believed they had done all they could do, and the army began their long march home on November 19, 1794.[18] Ultimately, the Whiskey Rebellion ended without a single battle ever occurring and the only two deaths during the entire ordeal were both accidents.[19] Despite its rather anticlimactic ending, the Whiskey Rebellion remains an important part of American history that set the precedent for how treason would be handled in the United States.

Sources:

[1] Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Being the First Session of the First Congress: Begun and Held at the City of New York, March 4, 1789, and in the Thirteenth Year of the Independence of the Said States. Vol. I. Reprinted by order of the House of Representatives. Washington: Printed by Gales & Seaton. 1826. p. 210.

[2] Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, p. 364-365.

[3] Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Oxford University Press. September 4, 1986. p. 114-115.

[4] Slaughter, p. 119.

[5] Slaughter, p. 38-43.

[6] Slaughter, p. 118-119.

[7] “From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [5 August] 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0017.

[8] “From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [5 August] 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Conference Concerning the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, [2 August 1794],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0009. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 17, August 1794 – December 1794, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. 9–14.]

[13] “Proclamation, 7 August 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-16-02-0365. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 16, 1 May–30 September 1794, ed. David R. Hoth and Carol S. Ebel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011, pp. 531–537.]

[14] Slaughter, p. 209.

[15] “From Alexander Hamilton to Henry Lee, 25 August 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0110. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 17, August 1794 – December 1794, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972, pp. 142–143.]

[16] Slaughter, p. 218-230.

[17] “From George Washington to Henry Lee, 20 October 1794”. Mercury Collection.

[18] Slaughter, p. 233.

[19] Slaughter, p. 218-219.

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