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The US President Once Personally Led Army Putting Down Tax Revolt

By Bob Symon, posted Aug. 7, 2010

On This Date in History:  In the late 18th century, about 1/70th of the population of the fledgling United States lived along the Monongahela River in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  However, this fraction of the American population owned and operated about 1/4th of the stills.  Now, these guys weren’t a bunch of drunks but instead were just saavy businessmen.  With travel conditions extremely difficult in early America, they found that it was much more cost efficient to transport a jug of liquor and more profitable to sell than the grain used to produce spirits. 

Like all good Americans, they weren’t too keen on the government taxing their business.  So, when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton urged Congress to adopt an excise tax on liquor, the farmers were pretty mad.  After all, the uprising of the colonists against the British had been partly over governmental taxation.  But, Hamilton said that the farmers had nothing to fear as they could simply pass on the higher costs to their customers.  I suppose his line of thinking was that consumers would pay any price in order to get their booze.   However, the opponents were not too far off the mark.  The reason that the British had  imposed taxes on the colonies was to relieve the crown of the debt incurred in the French and Indian War.  Hamilton’s motive for proposing the tax was to prevent the federal government from going deeper into debt which it had incurred to finance the Revolution.

That argument fell on deaf ears because, in the tradition of the Sons of Liberty,  farmers along the Monongahela River responded by the tar and feathering of many tax collectors.  Other protests also took place along the frontier of every state south of New York.  Most folks simply refused to pay the tax which had to be made in cash, a commodity that was in short supply in the West.  One moonshiner was a little more clever than a direct approach.  When the tax collectors arrived, he offered them a tray of ginger cakes that were secretly laced with whiskey.  After the hungry taxmen had their fill of ginger cakes, they promptly passed out.  While the revenue collectors were snoozing, the seemingly generous host scurried from his home and hid his still.  When the collectors awoke, there was no evidence of a liquor operation and the farmer was deemed to simply be a man who called the earth his toil.  While forms of a subtle revolt were common, direct confrontation and the violence began to crescendo.  By the middle of 1794, the protests became known as the Whiskey Rebellion.  The home of district excise inspector, John Neville,  was surrounded by about 500 angry farmers who stormed the building and burned it to the ground.  Pittsburgh became filled with over 5,000 protesters and talk of secession filled the air.

Leading up to the American Revolution, Boston was the hotbed and center of colonial protest.  Back in the day, colonists began electing their own legislative bodies.  Similarly, in the early 1790’s, the protesting farmers in Pennsylvania began electing their own assembly as they felt that they were not represented in Congress.  They even created a Whiskey Rebellion flag.   Perhaps President Washington had all of that in mind when on this date in 1794, he declared that Southwestern Pennsylvania was in a state of insurrection.  Aware that moonshiners opposed the whiskey tax, Congress passed the Militia Act of 1792 in May of that year.  However, the law officially was passed to better provide for an organized national defense.  Either way,  with the rule of law in his pocket, Washington called for a force of 13,000 militiamen to march on Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion.   Not only had they burned down Neville’s house, they had also prevented the construction of other tax collector offices.  Protesters also stole the mail of some tax officials in an effort to determine whom in the region opposed their efforts.  Remember, even today, messing with the mail is a federal offense. 

The moonshine assembly did have its radical elements that wanted to convince others on the frontier to join them in an organized insurrection.  But, more moderate voices from the likes of Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Albert Gallatin prevented the radicals from gaining full control of the makeshift legislative body.   As secretary of the assembly,  Gallatin spoke to the protesters, many with weapons in hand, and told them what a mistake it was to advocate open rebellion against the government.  Too bad for Gallatin that the government didn’t make a distinction between radical and moderate; to Uncle Sam, everyone in the assembly was guilty.  It took some time for the government to raise an army so, the force of 13,000 made up of militiamen from 4 states didn’t begin their march until September 1794.  George Washington became the only sitting American president to personally lead troops in the field.  Washington’s decision to take personal leadership may have been as much of a political move than one of military necessity.  Insurrectionists might think twice about opposing General Washington and his imposing stature.  Beyond his reputation and experience in the American Revolution, he was also considered by many to be the father of the country.  The notion that his command was one of psychological and political expedience is supported by the fact that, after a month, he left for Philadelphia and placed General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) in overall command.   One of the commanders of the force was also none other than Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was also wearing the temporary hat of Secretary of War.  He carried with him a list of 20 men that members of Washington’s staff wanted arrested.  Two names on the list were those of Gallatin and Brackenridge. 

Initially, twenty rebels were arrested but on November 17, 1794, Alexander Hamilton wrote to the president that “the list of prisoners has been very considerably increased, probably to the amount of 150. . . . Subsequent intelligence shews that there is no regular assemblage of the fugitives . . . only small vagrant parties . . . affording no point of Attack. Every thing is urging for the return of the troops.”   However, Albert Gallatin was not among those arrested.  Two days after the letter was written, Hamilton notified Washington that most of the army was returning home with only a regiment left behind to maintain order.  Most of those taken into custody were eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence.  I suppose Washington was tired of the whole episode a year later because on July 10, 1795 he issued a pardon for any insurgent who was not sentenced or indicted.  While the Whiskey Rebellion is but a footnote to most high school history texts, most historians call it one of the greatest threats to the stability of the United States prior to the Civil War.  As for Albert Gallatin, he went on to a long and distinguished career in Congress that lasted until 1849.

Weather Bottom Line:  Yes, that was me on Fox 41 on Friday.  I want to thank Chief Meteorologist Marc Weinberg, News Director Barry Fulmer and GM Bill Lamb for the opportunity.  If you watched, then you know that today will be a carbon copy of Friday with temperatures edging toward 90 but the humidty being so low that it will be really pretty comfortable.  Sunday, high pressure moves off to the east and we get a return southerly flow which means increasing temperatures and humidity.  Sunday won’t be too bad with highs in the low 90’s but, by Monday the heat and moisture return in force as we will once again be talking about upper 90’s and triple digit temperatures with a heat index well over 100.  Next chance for rain doesn’t come about until late in the week.


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