The image of a nation united in the aftermath of the American Revolution, content with hard-fought for and hard-won independence, is largely a grade school fairy tale. The early years of the American republic were often tumultuous, and competing conceptions of liberty meant that popular unrest was not uncommon. As it had in the period leading up to the American Revolution, rhetoric played a crucial role in this politically chaotic time. Federalist and anti-Federalist took the place of Patriot and Tory as early Americans struggled to present a unified vision of what democracy was meant to look like.
In 1781, the ratification of the Articles of Confederation brought together thirteen states into a “firm league of friendship.” This loose gathering of nearly autonomous states formed a quasi-nation with only a weak, decentralized authority. Prominent political figures who had once advocated government built upon a foundation of the “principle or passion in the minds of the people,” had realized some of the difficulties inherent in this position. They began to promote a limited democracy that reinforced the existing social strata. On the other hand, the lower-classes and rural groups began to demand the increased role in society and politics that had been promised to them in the high-minded rhetoric of the American Revolution. As proponents of a centralized nation gained power and encroached on the ideals of popular democracy, the poor and those dispossessed by Federalist policies consolidated into meaningful pockets of resistance.
Movements of open resistance during the early years of the republic served to convince many elites of the necessity of a strong national government. Even after the ratification of the United States Constitution which formed the centralized power desired, rural unrest continued. In 1791, a newly-passed excise on whiskey instigated mass protest in the western counties of Pennsylvania. As was the case during Shays’ Rebellion, when western Massachusetts farmers rose against their local government in 1786 and 1787, many of the protesters of the whiskey excise were either veterans of or witnesses to the American Revolution. The rhetoric of revolutionary democracy had made a meaningful impact on them and deeply influenced the way they viewed the proper relationship between government and citizen. On the other hand, the former leaders of the Revolution had quickly reversed course and adopted a language of class and control that troubled democratic idealists. By examining the Whiskey rebels’ language and behavior, it is possible to showcase the diverging political ideals of the period by examining how Revolutionary rhetoric was simultaneously inherited by protesters and discarded by Federalist leaders.
Post-Revolution Unrest and the Constitution
In early 1787, after civil unrest had already racked Massachusetts for months, Daniel Gray laid out the many complaints of western farmers in an address to the citizens of Hampshire County. Found insufferable by the ever-growing group of dissidents was the “present expensive mode of collecting debts,” which Gray claimed would “of necessity fill our gaols with unhappy debtors.” In addition, the suspension of habeas corpus meant that those arrested were often “liable to be taken and conveyed even to the most distant part of the Commonwealth, and thereby subjected to an unjust punishment.” Rather than being used to pay off foreign debt, the money raised by taxes was “appropriated to discharge the interest of government securities.” Lastly, Gray remarked on the abuse of power seen from many judges and law enforcement officers recently empowered by the governor’s passage of the Riot Act.
Taken together, the points listed by Daniel Gray, a prominent citizen of Pelham, Massachusetts, lay out much of the reasoning behind what came to be known as Shays’ Rebellion. In the years 1786-1787, multiple courts were closed by discontent Massachusetts farmers. Due to a lack of authority the federal government was incapable of raising an army to suppress the uprising, leaving Massachusetts to fund what equated to a mercenary force. The state forces led by Gen. Benjamin Lincoln suppressed the rebels after a series of small, armed confrontations that left a handful dead.
The events of Shays’ Rebellion left many Federalist leaders fearful. Without a stronger national government capable of raising both taxes and armies, they worried that internal disturbances such as the closing of courts in Massachusetts would continue to plague the young country. Convinced more than ever of the need for a potent federal system, a convention was called to replace the Articles of Confederation in 1787. The Constitution that resulted placed a great deal of power into a centralized federal system that many hoped would provide future security against internal unrest and place the nation on a stronger economic footing. In the Federalist Papers, a collection of published arguments advocating ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay exposited on the benefits of the new federation. In Federalist No. 2, Jay made a serious assertion that “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.”
The cession of rights alluded to by Jay was not deemed acceptable by many rural populations who believed the American Revolution had promised a certain degree of popular sovereignty. The expansion of federal power that came with the ratification of the Constitution was put into action in the 1790s. Leading the charge was Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton whose fiscal policies were among the first legislative acts of the newly-formed federal system that tested the limits of American citizens.
The Whiskey Rebellion 1791-1794
Discussion of the Whiskey Rebellion began almost immediately after the events, yet detailed academic analysis did not occur until much later. In 1986, Thomas P. Slaughter gave the Whiskey Rebellion a book-length treatment in The Whiskey Rebellion: A Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Slaughter claimed that in the aftermath of the Revolution “many easterners changed the way they thought about representation, taxation, and republican rule. Many westerners did not.” This fundamental difference in beliefs led to the situation faced by the United States in the late eighteenth century. Western settlers who had sacrificed as much as anyone for the cause of the Revolution felt they were existing in a system little different from the days of British rule. Because of the Revolution’s promise of democracy, many rural people felt it was completely within their rights to openly protest laws they saw as unjust. The Whiskey Rebellion occurred after ratification of the Constitution and most of the protesters felt they were only demonstrating their rights to speech and assembly in order to have their opinion about excise taxes heard.
Whiskey played a major commercial role in rural regions, and the hardship imposed by the passage of an excise tax on whiskey in early 1791 led to a great deal of popular unrest. In some regions there was “such a dearth of cash” that barter economies had returned to replace monetary transactions; whiskey was an important trade commodity. Any limitations on the production and sale of whiskey in these cash-strapped frontier regions had disproportionate consequences. Many rural inhabitants felt overcome by a new federal system that they viewed as predatory and biased. In western Pennsylvania, unrest caused by the whiskey excise sparked a resurgence of Revolutionary language and behaviors as farmers and other rural groups sought redress from what they considered tyrannical rule.
In the eighteenth century, internal and external taxation were viewed very differently. Traditionally, governments had gathered revenue through indirect taxes such as imposts or duties which collected funds on imported or exported goods. The excise, which taxed the commercial production of goods at the point of consumption, had been despised by Englishmen, and in turn Americans, for many decades. In 1755, the famous English writer Samuel Johnson described the excise as a “hateful tax levied on commodities” by “wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” Continuing in that tradition, James Otis declared the Stamp Act in 1765, “the most insupportable oppression” and expressed hope that the cries and supplications of a distressed people” would “obtain all that ample redress which they have a right to expect.”
Problems with internal taxation went hand in hand with the famous slogan, “no taxation without representation.” In the Declaration of Independence, “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” was listed as one of the major complaints against British rule. Most of the protesters in western Pennsylvania had lived through at least some part of the American Revolution and been exposed to the anti-tax rhetoric often used in support of independence. As protest against taxation gained traction in Pennsylvania, Revolutionary language reemerged. Protesters feared a regression into a form of governmental authority reminiscent of British rule. In the National Gazette, an essayist using the pseudonym, A Farmer, expressed fears that excise laws would render “the house of a citizen no longer sacred” and would prevent “the farmer from enjoying the just fruits of his industry.” Concern over the sanctity of the individual’s home and labor echoed points raised by revolutionaries in opposition to similar British taxes only a few decades before. It can be assumed from this that one of the underlying reasons for the escalation of excise protests in the 1790s was a fear of political regression that would leave the common man in no better a position than he was before the American Revolution.
The majority of excise protests were non-violent affairs, but attacks against tax officials sent to collect excise revenue were not uncommon. In September 1791, an excise collector by the name of Robert Johnson was attacked by a group of disguised resisters who, “after cutting his hair, they tarred and feathered him, and in this situation compelled him to walk some distance.” The practice of tarring and feathering had a long history in English protest movements. During the American colonial period, British customs officers were common targets of this practice as they symbolized the tax and impost laws most hated by the colonists. In addition to being a very public method of exhibiting discontent, tarring and feathering served the purpose of publicly declaring who were and who were not acceptable members of society. Pennsylvanian excise protesters resurrected the practice to make clear the enemy. Excise collectors became a physical target for resisters to display their hatred for tax laws despised in many of the same ways British ones had been.
Petitioning had a long history in both England and colonial America as a means of seeking recognition and redress.In 1783, Pennsylvania had passed a similar state excise on whiskey that prompted a great number of petitions from western counties. A 1790 petition from inhabitants of Westmoreland Country claimed that the whiskey excise was the “only one passed since our revolution that has been treated with general disapprobation, and reflected upon with universal abhorrence and detestation.” When the First Continental Congress laid out their Declaration of Colonial Rights in 1774, the right to petition was listed as one of the colonists “indubitable rights and liberties.” Clearly, the excise protesters continued to consider this an essential right two decades later. From the passage of the excise law in 1791 through the suppression of the protest in 1794, Pennsylvanians used petitions in attempts to have their voices recognized in a manner similar to the litany of petitions that were sent to both King George III and the British Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s.
The petitions of rural protesters were often written by local committees or at regional conventions. Resisters viewed these gatherings as continuations of a revolutionary tradition that focused primarily on the power of local governance. As William Findley, a state representative and western Pennsylvanian himself, put it, “If the people have a right to petition for the repeal of a law, or remonstrate against its injustice or inexpediency, surely they have a right to meet, publish their sentiments, and correspond through the whole extent of the country affected by the laws, without the imputation of combining against the government.” The same Declaration of Colonial Rights that had claimed a right to petition also asserted the right to gather and “consider of their grievances.” Excise protesters inherited these ideas and used them often in their resistance, holding conventions across the western counties of Pennsylvania deliberating how to proceed with the protest movement.
In order to better organize their resistance, these gatherings of protesters also formed societies dedicated to the regulation of government. Often labeled Democratic or Democratic-Republican Societies, these groups usually included committees of correspondence similar to the ones that had been crucial to the organization of colonial resistance during the 1770s. Resisters had seen the benefits of efficient communication before and during the American Revolution. The new societies sought to “form a speedy communication” in order to carry out resistance “with regularity and concert.” Anticipation of the federal government’s response may have also been a factor, and protesters wanted the ability to “call together either general meetings of the people in their respective counties or a conference of several committees.” Excise protesters recognized the need for communication and organization while resisting what they saw as an unjust law passed by another faraway government.
The language and methods employed by participants of the Whiskey Rebellion in many ways echoed the rhetoric of the American Revolution. Addressing both the Whiskey Rebellion and Shays’ Rebellion, Terry Bouton asserts that protesters saw little difference between the American Revolution and their own protests against unfair governance. They also saw little difference between the rule of Great Britain and the Federalists in power at the time. The language and ideology of internal taxation held throughout the colonies in the 1770s had not changed for the majority of western Pennsylvanians. In addition, many of the “whiskey rebels” employed the same tactics of resistance that had been effectively employed against the British; petitioning, political organization, and even tarring and feathering found a place once again in the expression of discontentment.
Most historians see the insurrectionary movements of the last two decades of the eighteenth century as a continuation of the struggle for democracy that began before the American Revolution. A peace treaty with Great Britain and a change in leadership had not produced a change in the daily lives of ordinary men and women. Still feeling neglected and abused, much of the rural population did not see a significant difference between protesting the old and new governments and adopted Revolutionary rhetoric to justify their cause. The rural populations who opposed the excise set themselves against the centralized powers of the newly formed national government as the heirs of true republicanism.
Escalation and the Federal Response
With the exception of the non-fatal targeting of excise collectors, the protests against the excise between 1791and 1794 were largely non-violent. In July 1794, a series of confrontations between rural militia and excise officer John Neville resulted in the deaths of Oliver Miller and Revolutionary War veteran James McFarlane. The escalation into fatal violence and the exchange of fire between protesting militia and United States soldiers initiated a drastic change in how the federal government responded to resistance. Although these events were thought of as the trigger to the heavy-handed suppression of protest, political leaders had held strong opinions regarding the events in Pennsylvania for an extended period of time before this.
Many of the state governments formed during the American Revolution contained elements of popular democracy that the people took very seriously. Terry Bouton argues that Pennsylvania expanded democracy more than any other state and thus the difference between 1770s democracy and the encroachment of the federal government in the 1790s was felt most heavily there. Indeed, the constitution of Pennsylvania ratified in 1776 gave the people remarkable amounts of power including the “sole, exclusive and inherent right of governing and regulating” along with making “all officers of government . . . at all times accountable to them.” That many of the same politicians who had increased liberties and extended democracy reconsidered their positions was difficult to accept for those who had taken seriously the Revolutionary rhetoric of liberty. Often referred to as a counter-revolution, Bouton labels this switch the “Founding flip-flop.”
Alexander Hamilton was one of the leading members of the Washington administration and also one of the most opposed to popular rule. In a speech to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Hamilton described the people as “turbulent and changing” who “seldom judge or determine right.” Considering this philosophy and his authorship of the excise law in question, it comes as no surprise that Hamilton led the movement against the Pennsylvanian protesters. Alarmed by petitions, conventions, and other displays of popular democracy, he sought to use the excise protests as an example to the rest of the states. Hamilton believed that a strong response “successfully exerted in one place” would be “efficacious everywhere.” Earlier than most members of Washington’s administration, by September 1792 Hamilton thought it time to “exert the full force of the Law against the Offenders” and that only a “vigorous exertion of the powers of Government” would be enough to stop the growing protest movement.
As the former leader of the Continental Army and the unanimously elected President of the United States, George Washington enjoyed nearly universal adulation. This champion of liberty, however, advocated forcefully for the suppression of excise protests in Pennsylvania. After the violence experienced in July 1794, Washington issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection and using his presidential authority to “call forth the militia . . . to suppress. . . and to cause the laws to be duly executed.” The State of the Union address delivered in November focused largely on the events in Pennsylvania. Washington urged the “deluded” and “malignant” insurgents to come to terms peacefully. Convinced that “a spirit, inimical to all order,” had “actuated many of the offenders,” Washington defended his order to raise a large army and forcefully suppress the excise protests.
The Federalist response to disorder shared similarities with the British response to rebellion in 1775. In a royal proclamation of 1775, blame for the American rebellion was laid on “dangerous and ill designing men” committing “various disorderly acts” in “disturbance of the publick peace.” Declaring any opposition to British rule as traitorous, George III promised punishment for the “authors, perpetrators, and abetters” of the Revolution. In his own proclamation and State of the Union, Washington made similar arguments regarding the rule of law and the duties of the citizenry to obey the government. The political situation was certainly different in the 1790s as a form of representative democracy did exist which allowed the government to at least claim that the power resided with the people. But the unwillingness of the Federalists in power to repeal unpopular laws provided fodder for the protesters’ argument that the new American government was attempting to reclaim many of the authorities once held by a British king and parliament.
Regardless of the elites’ belief in a class system where some were inherently more qualified to make political decisions, much of the “poor and middling class” still believed in their own capacity to decide their fate. Many American colonists believed enough in their own political competence to fight the greatest military in the world for independence. Civil unrest throughout the 1780s and 1790s showed that spirit still lived on in the rural populations who protested against what they saw as unjust rule.
Positions on democracy saw a massive shift among the political elite. As leaders of the American Revolution, men like Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and even George Washington had once espoused radical democratic rhetoric, but as the full burden of governing a nation fell upon them in the face of independence, they saw a need for increased government capable of keeping the peace and fostering a strong economy. While this may be sound political reasoning, it was the language of class and control taken on by the elite that sparked feelings of betrayal among the citizenry.
The excise protesters of western Pennsylvania clearly saw themselves among the ranks of revolutionary democrats. At this time, the American Revolution was not a distant part of the political or cultural past but a fundamental aspect of American life. Memories of successful resistance against British laws inspired rural Americans to protest anything they viewed as unjust. Tapping into the language and behavior of resistance used a mere twenty years before, they sought to make their voices heard and believed that the new American system guaranteed them that right.
Revolutionary language and behavior, as well as anti-Revolutionary rhetoric, tell a deeper story of the political divergence in 1790s America. A radical vision of popular rule counterposed with what was perhaps a more prudent view of how government really works. Segments of the population did not consider the work of the American Revolution truly over even as late as the last decade of the eighteenth century and many suffered from deep feelings of betrayal. It is easily argued that the system of government created by the Constitution, while not based in truly popular rule, was a much more stable base from which the United States would eventually grow into a world power. Those alive during these times, though, had no way of knowing that and lived in a reality where the rights and liberties they had fought for so recently seemed to be fading away. In their eyes, they were simply carrying on a great American tradition, resistance in the face of overbearing government.
Phrase commonly attributed to James Otis is a series of speeches between 1764-65. A variation of the phrase can be found in “The Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” October 19, 1765 in Resolutions of the Continental Congress,avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/resolu65.asp.
“Opposition to an Excise Tax on Liquor, By the Inhabitants of Westmoreland County,” PA ser. 1, XI: 670-673, explorepahistory.com/odocument.php?docId=1-4-16B.
Constitution of Pennsylvania, art. III-IV (1776), avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pa08.asp.
“Robert Yates’s Version, [18 June 1787],” Founders Online,National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-04-02-0098-0004, original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 4, January 1787 – May 1788, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 195–202.
Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, September 9, 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-12-02-0266, original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 12, July 1792 – October 1792, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), 344–347.
Hamilton to Washington, September 1, 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0030, original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 11, 16 August 1792 – 15 January 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 59–62.
George Washington, “A Proclamation,” Yale Law School, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/gwproc03.asp.
George III, “A Proclamation, by The King, for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” (1775), www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=4105.