The Whiskey Rebellion: A Distilled History of an American Crisis


August 14, 2023
by Jeff Broadwater Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: The Whiskey Rebellion: A Distilled History of an American Crisis by Brady J. Crytzer (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2023)

In late July 1794, at least 1,500 armed rebels assembled at Braddock’s Field, about eight miles southeast of Pittsburgh, in what Brady Crytzer, a professor of history at Robert Morris University, describes as “the largest domestic rebellion” the United States government would face until the Civil War (page 91). What had begun as a protest against an ill-conceived tax on whiskey producers had, by that pivotal summer, “spun entirely out of control” (p. 94).

Despite being almost forgotten, the story of the Whiskey Rebellion has been told many times, perhaps most thoroughly in a scholarly 1986 monograph by Thomas Slaughter. Crytzer’s new account of “the Western Insurrection,” as it was sometimes called, may lack the sweep of Slaughter’s narrative, but it strives to offer “a practical and accessible history of the Whiskey Rebellion,” coupled with “a guide to where these events occurred” (p. xiv). Indeed, The Whiskey Rebellion’s most distinctive feature may be its “Traveler’s Notes,” often accompanied by present-day photographs, that direct readers to the exact spots in western Pennsylvania where the insurrection unfolded.

The American frontier produced more grain than local markets could absorb, and a primitive transportation system made shipments to eastern markets difficult. Large amounts of grain, especially rye in the Pittsburgh area, could be reduced to smaller quantities of whiskey and moved with relative ease, and whiskey could be exchanged locally for services or other goods, which helped alleviate a chronic shortage of specie. Trouble began when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, needing revenue to fund his ambitious plans for America’s new federal government, persuaded Congress, in 1791, to adopt a tax on whiskey.

Hamilton’s tax discriminated against small distillers, most of whom were modest, frontier farmers. For example, they were assessed a flat tax based on the capacity of their stills, but they rarely operated at full capacity. Worse yet, penalties for non-compliance were heavy. According to Crytzer, the inequities in Hamilton’s scheme bothered the treasury secretary not at all. He intentionally favored large producers because he believed their wealth and efficiencies were essential to the great, commercial nation-state he hoped to build.

Opponents of the tax met in Pittsburgh in September 1791 and produced a set of resolves to be sent to Congress, but from the beginning the protestors were divided between moderates and radicals. Moderates, led by lawyer and writer Hugh Henry Brackenridge, future treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, and longtime congressman William Findley, favored peaceful protests. Radicals, led by David Bradford, a successful young lawyer with an opportunistic streak, did not fear violence and eventually seemed to flirt with secession. Radicals staged vicious attacks on federal revenue agents, and collection of the whiskey tax in western Pennsylvania proved difficult.

Congress responded in 1792 with an even more punitive tax, increasing penalties for non-compliance and putting small producers at an even greater disadvantage. In the past, army officers would buy whiskey for their troops from local distillers. The 1792 legislation established a new commissary system in which sellers would be required to deliver whiskey to army posts in bulk, which only wealthy distributers could do. Predictably, the crisis escalated. A radical, anti-tax Mingo Creek Association emerged as a virtual shadow government in western Pennsylvania. The whiskey tax provoked protest in rural areas from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and efforts to collect it gradually faltered. Hamilton pressed President George Washington to use force to suppress resistance and, Crtyzer argues, the administration eventually decided to make an example of Pennsylvania because of its history of violence and its proximity to the capital, which was still in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the opposition spread. Converts included the religious mystic Herman Husband, who had led the Regulator rebellion in colonial North Carolina. The violence peaked in July 1794 with a two-day pitched battle at the Bower Hill plantation of Gen. John Neville, the regional inspector of revenue. Neville escaped unharmed, but his home was destroyed. Tepid attempts to collect the tax with civilian authorities quickly gave way, in Crytzer’s telling, to a military overreaction. Washington mobilized militia units from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia and marched an army of almost 13,000 men to the frontier.

The militia, commanded by “Light Horse” Harry Lee and accompanied by Hamilton, executed what Crytzer calls “the largest law enforcement action in American history” (p. 149); he makes clear that there was a minimum of due process and little regard for admissible evidence. The rebellion had collapsed as the troops approached; Bradford and most of the radical leaders had fled the area. Nevertheless, on what became known locally as “the Dreadful Night” of November 13, 1794, approximately 150 men were seized, some from their beds without even time to dress or put on shoes. Federal judge Richard Peters dismissed charges against all but twenty; only twelve cases went to trial, and only two men, Philip Weigel and John Mitchell, were convicted. To bring the sordid affair to an end, Washington issued a general amnesty on July 10, 1795, and pardoned Weigel and Mitchell in November.

While Crytzer does not condone the violence of the Whiskey Rebellion’s radicals, Hamilton is the villain of his story. “The westerners had . . . very legitimate grievances,” he writes, “which the treasury secretary and his [Federalist] party did not care to consider” (p. 174).

While the United States eventually became the economic and military colossus Hamilton envisioned, the immediate future belonged to the small farmers he despised. They helped elect Thomas Jefferson president in 1801, and his victory made the demise of the whiskey tax inevitable. It was repealed in 1802.

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