- Historic Sites
A Tax On Whiskey? Never!
To the backwoods distillers of Pennsylvania, that was like taxing the air they breathed. Rut the government was deadly serious: the Constitution itself was at stake
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
A mounting clamor of protest led Congress to modify the severity of the excise tax law in 1792 and again in 1794. A further conciliatory step was taken. To ease the hardships of the judicial process, Congress gave to the state courts jurisdiction in excise offenses so that accused persons might be tried in their own vicinity. But some fifty or sixty writs already issued and returnable at Philadelphia resulted in men being carried away from their fields during harvest time. This convinced the western leaders that the aristocrats in the east were seeking a pretext to discipline the democratic west.
One day in July, 1794, while the processes were being served, William Miller, a delinquent farmerdistiller and political supporter of General Neville, saw the General riding up his lane accompanied by a stranger who turned out to be a United States marshal from Philadelphia. The marshal unlimbered a paper and began to read a summons. It ordered the said Miller to “set aside all manner of business and excuses” and appear in his “proper person” before a judge in Philadelphia. Miller had been planning to sell his property and remove to Kentucky, but the cost of the trip to Philadelphia and the fine for which he was liable would eat up the value of his land and betterments.
“I felt my blood boil, at seeing General Neville along, to pilot the sheriff to my very door,” Miller said afterward. “I felt myself mad with passion.”
As Neville and the marshal rode away, a party from the county militia which was mustered at Mingo Creek fired upon them, but there were no casualties. When the General reached Bower Hill, his country home above the Chartiers Valley, another party, under the command of John Holcroft, awaited him and demanded his commission and official papers. The demand was refused, and both sides began to shoot. As the rebels closed in on the main house, a flanking fire came from the Negro cabins on the plantation. The whiskey boys were driven off with one killed and four wounded.
The next day, Major James McFarlane, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, led an attack in force upon Neville’s painted and papered mansion, furnished with such marvels as carpets, mirrors, pictures and prints, and an eight-day clock. The house was now defended by a dozen soldiers from Fort Fayette at Pittsburgh. A fight followed during which a soldier was shot and McFarlane was killed—by treachery, the rebels said, when a white flag was displayed. The soldiers surrendered and were either released or allowed to escape. Neville was not found, but his cabins, barns, outbuildings, and finally the residence were all burned down. Stocks of grain were destroyed, all fences levelled, as the victors broke up the furniture, liberated the mirrors and clock, and distributed the General’s supply of liquor to the thirsty.
The funeral of McFarlane caused great excitement. Among those present were Hugh Henry Brackenridge, author, lawyer, and one of the western moderates, and David Bradford, prosecuting attorney for Washington County. The former wished to find ways to reduce the tension; the latter to increase it. Bradford was a rash, impetuous Marylander, ambitious for power and position. Some thought him a second-rate lawyer. Others disagreed. They said he was third-rate. But he had A gift for rough mob eloquence. Bradford had already robbed the United States mails to find out what information was being sent east against the conspirators. He had already called for the people to make a choice of “ submission or opposition …with head, heart, hand and voice ,”
At the McFarlane funeral service Bradford worked powerfully upon the feelings of the mourners as he described “the murder of McFarlane.” Brackenridge also spoke, using wit and drollery to relieve the pressure and to make palatable his warning to the rebels that they were flirting with the possibility of being hanged. But the temper of the throng was for Bradford, as clearly revealed in the epitaph set over McFarlane’s grave: “He fell…by the hands of an unprincipled villain in the support of what he supposed to be the rights of his country.”
The high-water mark of the insurrection was the occupation of Pittsburgh. After the fight and the funeral, Bradford called out the militia regiments of the four disaffected counties. They were commanded to rendezvous at Braddock’s Field, near Pittsburgh, with arms, full equipment, and four days’ rations. At the field there was a great beating of drums, much marching and counter-marching, almost a holiday spirit. Men in hunting shirts practiced shooting at the mark until a dense pall of smoke hung over the plain, as there had been thirty-nine years before at General Braddock’s disaster. There were between five and seven thousand men on the field, many meditating in an ugly mood upon their enemies holed up in Pittsburgh, talking of storming Fort Fayette and burning the town as “a second Sodom.”
Bradford’s dream was the establishment of an independent state with himself cast as a sort of Washington of the west. Elected major general by acclaim, he dashed about the field on a superb horse, in a fancy uniform, his sword flashing, plumes floating out from his hat as he issued orders, harangued the multitude, and received applications for commissions in the service of—what? No one quite knew.