- 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
Marching in good order, strung out over two-and-a-half miles of road, the rebels advanced on August i, 1794, toward Pittsburgh in what was hopefully termed a “visit,” though the temper of the citizen-soldiers was perhaps nearer to that of one man who twirled his hat on the muzzle of his rifle and shouted, “I have a bad hat now, but I expect to have a better one soon.” While the panic-stricken burghers buried the silver and locked up the girls, the mob marched in on what is now Fourth Avenue to the vicinity of the present Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station. A reception committee extended nervous hospitality in the form of hams, poultry, dried venison, bear meat, water, and whiskey, and agreed to banish certain citizens obnoxious to the insurrectionists. One building on a nearby farm was burned; another attempt at arson failed to come off. The day cost Brackenridge four barrels of good old Monongahela. It was better, he reflected, “to be employed in extinguishing the fire of their thirst than of my house.”
Later in the month of August armed bands continued to patrol the roads as a “scrub Congress"—in the phrase of one scoffer—met at Parkinson’s Ferry, now Monongahela, to debate, pass resolutions, and move somewhat uncertainly toward separation from the United States. Wild and unfounded rumors won belief. It was said that Congress was extending the excise levy to plows at a dollar each, that every wagon entering Philadelphia would be forced to pay a dollar, that a tax was soon to be established at Pittsburgh of fifteen shillings for the birth of every boy baby, and ten for each girl.
It was evident that the crisis had arrived. The President requisitioned 15,000 militia (of whom about 13,000 actually marched) from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland. Would the citizens of one state invade another to compel obedience to federal law? Here one gets a glimpse of the larger importance of the affair. Both the national government and the state of Pennsylvania sent commissioners to the west with offers of pardon upon satisfactory assurances that the people would obey the laws. Albert Gallatin, William Findley, Brackenridge, and others made a desperate effort to win the people to submission, though their motives were often questioned by both the rebels and the federal authorities. The response to the offer of amnesty was judged not to be sufficiently positive. Pressed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to have federal authority show its teeth, Washington announced that the troops would march.
The Army was aroused. In particular, the New Jersey militia were ready to exercise lynch law because they had been derided in a western newspaper as a “Water-melon Army” and an uncomplimentary estimate made of their military capabilities. The piece was written as a take-off on the kind of negotiations which preceded an Indian treaty. Possibly the idea was suggested by the fact that the whiskey boys were often called “White Indians.” At any rate, in the satire the Indians admonished the great council in Philadelphia: ”…Brothers, we have that powerful monarch, Capt. Whiskey, to command us. By the power of his influence, and a love to his person we are compelled to every great and heroic act…We, the Six United Nations of White Indians…have all imbibed his principles and passions—that is a love of whiskey…Brothers, you must not think to frighten us with…infantry, cavalry and artillery, composed of your watermelon armies from the Jersey shores; they would cut a much better figure in warring with the crabs and oysters about the Capes of Delaware.”
Captain Whiskey was answered hotly by “A Jersey Blue.” He pointed out that “the water-melon army of New Jersey” was going to march westward shortly with “ten-inch howitzers for throwing a species of melon very useful for curing a gravel occasioned by whiskey !” The expedition was tagged thereafter as the “Watermelon Army.”
The troops moved in two wings under the command of General Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, Governor of Virginia. Old Dan Morgan was there and young Meriwether Lewis, five nephews of President Washington, the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, too, and many a veteran blooded in Revolutionary fighting, including Captain John Fries of the Bucks County militia and his dog, which he had named after a drink he occasionally enjoyed—Whiskey.
The left wing marched west during October, 1794, from Virginia and Maryland to Fort Cumberland on the Potomac, then northwest into Pennsylvania, to join forces with the right wing at Bedford. The Pennsylvania and New Jersey corps proceeded via Norristown and Reading to Harrisburg and Carlisle. There, on October 4, President Washington arrived, accompanied by Colonel Alexander Hamilton. The western representatives told the President at Carlisle that the army was not needed, but Hamilton convinced him that it was. Washington rode down to Fort Cumberland on October 16 to review the troops of the left wing, which had assembled there. He then went on to Bedford, the rendezvous, to survey final plans before returning to Philadelphia for the meeting of Congress. Meanwhile Hamilton ordered a roundup of many of the rebels and personally interrogated the most important ones. Brackenridge, incidentally, came off well in his encounter with Hamilton, who declared that he was satisfied with Brackenridge’s conduct.