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Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Whiskey Rebellion, August 7, 1794

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Today in 1794, President George Washington invoked the Militia Law of 1792, allowing him to place state militias under direct federal control. He took this action as a result of an armed skirmish that had taken place outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a fight that was the opening shot in what would become known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

The federal government of the United States was new in 1791, having replaced the weaker Articles of Confederation just a few years before. After being put into place, the new government assumed all the state debt that had been acquired during the Revolutionary War. While this seemed like a solid, unifying move, the federal government had no extra money with which to pay down this burden. To raise money, Congress approved a tax on distilled spirits.

This tax on liquor was graduated. Large producers were taxed at a rate of six cents a gallon; smaller producers were taxed at nine cents a gallon. Many of the smaller distillers were found in the frontier areas of the new nation: western Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. Many of them were farmers and, as such, never had much ready cash with which to pay taxes. In fact, many of them did business solely by bartering for goods and services. To them, the tax was unfair and an attack on their way of life.

The federal government sent tax collectors into the frontier to collect the liquor tax, only to find that they were harassed at every turn. In some areas, the men were assaulted, tarred and feathered or had their horse stolen out from under them. A tax revolt was soon underway.

Things came to a head in the summer of 1794, when shots were fired at the Oliver Miller Homestead, just south of PIttsburgh, Pennsylvania. Word of the violence spread quickly to other small towns, where citizens opposed to the tax began to form resistance groups. They took out their anger on any service associated with the federal government such as mail delivery and courts. Rumor of an impending assault on Pittsburgh began to spread.

President Washington knew what had to be done. On August 7, he invoked the Militia Law, summoning militia units from Pennsylvania, Virginia and several other surrounding states. The assembled force was 13,000 men strong and was under the personal command of George Washington, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and General Henry Lee, a decorated veteran of the Revolutionary War. This marks one of only two times in American history that a sitting President has taken direct, local command of troops in the field.

The militias marched to western Pennsylvania, where the revolt was quickly brought to an end when the tax protesters realized they were hopelessly outmatched. Twenty men were eventually brought to trial for treason and two of them were sentenced to death. Washington pardoned the two because, in his words, one of them was "insane" and the other was a "simpleton."

The Whiskey Rebellion helped change the early American landscape. Many small distilleries moved west beyond the Appalachian Mountains, where tax collection was non-existant for many years. This pushed settlers into areas like present-day Kentucky and Indiana, which turned out to be excellent areas in which to grow corn for distilling.

More importantly, it demonstrated to early American citizens that armed rebellion was not a normal, healthy was to effect change in the law. While protesters were and always will be a part of the American scene, the greatest changes wrought in this nation have come through the ballot box.

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