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Seeking A Real Tax Revolt

May 2024
6min read

Whenever I begin the research for one of these columns, I am gratefully surprised to find that what I recall as a simple story turns up new questions and insights, as if I were unfolding an unsuspectedly intricate and lovely paper cutout. My latest rediscovery began in a search for historical parallels to a currently rising “tax revolt.” Last fall many state gubernatorial candidates played to the discontents of heavily taxed real property owners. Nationally the first version of a deficit-reduction package of taxes was shot down by the House.

I decided to remind readers of what I thought was a real protest: armed resistance in western Pennsylvania to a 1794 federal tax on whiskey. It was so severe that it took a federal army to put down the “insurrection.” My theme was to be that the levy on whiskey was actually somewhat unfair because, like all consumption taxes, it was unprogressively the same for rich and poor. But, I intended to argue, the war in the Alleghenies was unavoidable if the new United States government was to have any credibility. Taxation, especially on optional activities like tippling, is an unfortunate price of union, nationhood, and, well, civilization.

But on review it turned out to be a bit more complex. The sending of an army had more politics and less necessity in it than the usual brief textbook accounts admit. The great “rebellion” had only one confirmed fatality. Moreover, it had ended in virtual surrender before the troops marched. Finally, some of the insurgents believed that they were fighting not about money but rather on behalf of the cause of 1776—local and democratic control of taxation and government in general.

A whiskey tax was nothing new, but this one had special drawbacks. Its first version was passed in 1791 as part of Alexander Hamilton’s plan for a national revenue to be used (in part) to pay off the war debt, much of which had settled in the hands of rich speculators. That made it instantly suspect among ordinary folk. Some of them had opposed the Constitution on the very grounds that members of the far-away Congress would “consist of the lordly and high-minded … who [would] have no congenial feeling with the people.”

The tax, at seven cents per gallon distilled, might not seem heavy, but it had to be paid in hard currency by frontiersmen in a barter economy. And the tax collectors, empowered to poke around cellars and barns for illicitly hidden whiskey, were to get a share of the take. It was this practice that had led Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary, to define an “excise” as a “hateful tax” collected by “wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

In addition, whiskey was a particularly hard item to tax in undeveloped western Pennsylvania. It had a crucial economic role. Wagon roads were non-existent or miserable, so that grain could not profitably make it to Eastern markets. But twenty-four bushels of rye, reduced at a community still into two 8-gallon kegs of whiskey, could be slung over a packsaddle, and the whiskey could fetch up to a dollar a gallon for necessities. Nor was there agreement that personal whiskey consumption was the government’s business. The temperance movement was yet in its infancy. Pennsylvanians drank good Monongahela rye to cure ague and snakebite, to season simple meals, to cheer at christenings and to console at wakes. The analogy to a modern gasoline tax is compelling: it raised the price of an activity that was seen as necessary, pleasurable, and respectable.

Not only did respectable, well-off people imbibe, but some of them even invested in large-capacity stills. Large operators could afford the tax and didn’t mind that it would rub out smaller competitors. That made them, in the eyes of objectors to the tax, upper-class collaborators with the Eastern elite that dominated federal fiscal policy. Perception is everything, and the growing number of protesters saw themselves as threatened defenders of many nonmonetary values.

But perceptions work in both directions, and the proponents of the tax were frightened too. In the early 179Os the French Revolution was in full course, and the first national American parties were taking shape. Throughout the fourteen states, antiaristocratic and pro-French Democratic and Republican “societies” were organized, generally with purposes like the one in Pennsylvania, to which many anti-tax spokesmen belonged. It called on citizens to “erect the temple of LIBERTY on the ruins of palaces and thrones .” To conservatives like Vice President John Adams that opened the prospect of a “fatal revolution of government.”

The government issued writs ordering nonpayers to appear before judges and thereby handed the rebels another major grievance, since the nearest federal court in Philadelphia (at the time also the national capital) was a long, hard, expensive trip away. But the conservatives got a legitimate fighting issue when violence broke out, for anti-tax protesters on a rugged mountain frontier did not stop at principled noncooperation. Collectors were tarred and feathered, and on July 15, 1794, several hundred resisters gathered at the home of Gen. John Neville, the district supervisor of collection, probably intending to burn it. Neville (a veteran of the Revolution) and his family defended themselves with guns, and a shot killed one of the leaders of the “rioters.”

Given a martyr, the resisters held a mass meeting where they were addressed by a local attorney-politician, David Bradford, who comes down to us in the record as a demagogue. Bradford had arranged for the robbery of a Philadelphia-bound mail coach and learned from the stolen letters the names of prominent Pittsburgh citizens who were in friendly contact with federal authorities. He called for a muster of fifteen hundred to five thousand local militiamen, to be held just outside the town, whose whole population was about twelve hundred. There was talk of teaching Pittsburgh a lesson by fire. But in the end the hard work and common sense of moderate anti-tax leaders prevailed. Free food, liquor, and sympathetic oratory were provided. The undisciplined “army” was persuaded to march through Pittsburgh and bivouac nearby. Some tavern keepers were bullied, but only one house was burned. It was not a first-class sacking—more of a drunken camp-out—but it was armed resistance.

However, even before the news reached Philadelphia, Washington had convened his cabinet and decided that a strong show of force was needed. Hamilton was later accused by friends of the insurrection of being especially eager for an armed demonstration of the new government’s power. Washington agreed that “the constitution and laws must strictly govern” but prudently decided not to rely on regular troops. He was aware that opponents of the Constitution had argued powerfully that a United States “standing army” would be used to crush the liberties of the states. So he called instead for fifteen thousand militiamen.

And as so often happens on the road to war, the momentum carried preparations ahead regardless of changing circumstances. Actually the insurgency was winding down. An anti-tax-committee signed a “solemn promise” to submit thenceforth to all United States laws whatsoever, in exchange for a pardon for any past offenses. The “Whiskey Insurrection” was de facto finished.

It turns out that sending an army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion had more to do with politics and less with necessity than the textbooks admit.

But the gathering punitive expedition was not disbanded. There was a lesson to be taught.

On October 4 the grand force was reviewed at Carlisle by Washington himself, amid cannon salutes and ringing bells. An enthusiastic local reporter rhapsodized about how “ THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE , with a mien as intrepid as that of Hector,” rode majestically down the lines, “nor once turned his eagle eye from the dazzling effulgence of the steel clad band.”

But the march itself and the aftermath were anything but causes for pride. Late October rains lashed the mountain roads and swelled the rivers. Wagons broke down, horses were lamed, soldiers sickened by the hundreds. There were inevitable episodes of theft and aggressive drunkenness at wayside towns. And when the law-and-order forces got to Pittsburgh, the record became genuinely shabby. Eighteen men were arrested—dragged out of their beds, kept in snow and rain in an open pen for hours, and then locked in a guardhouse for days. When they finally got a hearing, it turned out that all but two had already signed the “solemn promise” and that some of the others were witnesses, not rebels.

Twenty prisoners eventually were marched all the way back to Philadelphia—David Bradford, who had got away, not among them. They arrived on Christmas Day in the last stages of exposure and exhaustion and were there paraded through the streets to edify the jeering crowds who wanted to see the wild Western traitors. The insurgents lingered from ten to twelve months in jail without trial. Only two were found guilty of treason in Pennsylvania, and Washington pardoned them both. Point made.

In school I was taught to be a good nationalist, as were we all, and to rejoice in the firm establishment of the authority of the United States. I still do, I suppose. But now I’m freshly aware of the extent to which history is written by winners and how the big winners throughout American history have been the nationalists. I see much posturing and cruelty on both sides. I am inclined to accept the verdict of the most recent historian of the insurgency, Thomas G. Slaughter, who subtitles his account of the Whiskey Rebellion “Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution.”

Above all, I have learned to look for subtexts. What are the between-the-lines messages of current tax objection? Some of it is ordinary selfishness no doubt—but some stems from resentment about real or imagined unfairness in our methods of taxation. In 1991, as in 1791, tax resistance sends signals of popular beliefs about how democracy should work, signals that deserve reasoned attention.

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