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A Tax On Whiskey? Never!

June 2024
15min read

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

When one retails that the President of the United States, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the governors of four states once mobilixed against the fanners of western Pennsylvania an army almost as large as ever took the field in the Revolutionary War, the event appears at first glance one of the more improbable episodes in the annals of this country. Equipped with mountains of ammunition, forage, baggage, and a bountiful stock of tax-paid whiskey, thirteen thousand grenadiers, dragoons, foot soldiers, pioneers, a train of artillery with six-pounders, mortars, and several “grasshoppers,” paraded over the mountains to Pittsburgh against a gaggle of homespun rebels who had already dispersed.

Yet the march had a rationale. President George Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, moved to counter civil commotion with overwhelming force because they well understood that the survival of the new U.S. Constitution was involved. Soon after he assumed his post at the Treasury, Hamilton had proposed, to the astonishment of the country, that the United States should meet fully and promptly its financial obligations, including the assumption of the debts contracted by the states in the struggle for independence. Part of the money was to be raised by laying an excise tax upon distilled spirits. The tax became law on March 3, 1791.

In the back country settlements that produced the whiskey and drank the lion’s share of it, the news of the passage of the measure was greeted with a roar of indignation. The duty was laid uniformly upon all the states, as the Constitution provided; if the West had to pay more, the Secretary of the Treasury explained, it was only because it used more whiskey. The East could, if it so desired, forego beverage spirits and IaIl back on cider and beer. The South and the frontier West could not, for they had neither orchards nor breweries. To Virginia and Maryland the excise tax appeared to be as unjust and oppressive as the well-remembered Molasses Act and the tea duties of George III. “The time will come, predicted Georgia s fiery James Tackson in the House of Representatives, “when a shirt shall not be washed without an excise.”

Kentucky, then thinly settled, but already producing its characteristic handmade, copper-fired, whole-souled liquor, was of the opinion that the law was unconstitutional. Deputy revenue collectors throughout the Jiluegrass region were assaulted, their papers stolen, their horses’ ears cropped, and their saddles cut to pieces. On one wild night the people of Lexington dragged a stuffed dummy through the streets and hanged in effigy Colonel Thomas Marshall, the chief collector for the district.

Yet, in no other place did popular fury rise so high, spread so rapidly, involve a whole population so completely, or express so many assorted grievances as in the Pennsylvania frontier counties of Fayette, Allegheny, Westmorland, and Washington. There, in 1791, a light plume of wood smoke rose from no less than five thousand log stillhouses. The rates went into effect on July 1. The whiskey-maker could choose whether he would pay a yearly levy on his still capacity or a gallonage tax on his actual production.

Before the month was out, “committees of correspondence,” in the old Revolutionary phrase, were speeding horsemen over the ridges and through the valleys to arouse the people to arm and assemble. The majority, but not all, of the men who made the whiskey decided to “forbear” from paying the tax. Revenue officers were thoroughly worked over. Robert Johnson, for example, collector for Washington and Allegheny counties, was waylaid near Pigeon Creek by a mob disguised in women’s clothing. They cut off his hair, gave him a coat of tar and feathers, and stole his horse.

The Pennsylvania troubles were rooted in the economic importance and impregnable social position of mellow old Monongahela rye whiskey. The frontier people had been reared from childhood on the family jug. They found the taste pleasant, the effect agreeable. Whiskey kept the population cool in summer. In winter, it was the old settlers’ equivalent of central heating. Whiskey was usually involved when there was kissing or fighting. It beatified the rituals of birth and death. It provided almost the only diversion, while enjoying at the same time a high reputation as the West’s greatest therapeutic agent, effective against fevers, ague, snake bite, or general decline. The doctor kept a bottle in his office for his own use, with the protective label, “Arsenic—Deadly Poison.”

Whiskey lubricated the machinery of government. The lawyer produced the bottle when the papers were signed. Whiskey was available at the prothonotary’s office when the trial list was made up. Jurors got their dram, and the constable drew his ration for his services on election day. The hospitable barrel and the tin cup were the mark of the successful political candidate. The United States Army issued a gill to a man every day. Ministers of the gospel were paid in rye whiskey, lor they were shepherds of a devout flock, Presbyterians mostly, who took their Bible straight, especially where it said:

“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.”

“Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”

With grain the most abundant commodity west of the mountains, the farmers could eat it or drink it, but they couldn’t sell it in distant markets unless it was reduced in bulk and enhanced in value. Thus a Pennsylvania farmer’s “best holt” was whiskey. A pack horse could move only four bushels of grain. But it could carry twenty-four bushels if it was condensed into two large wooden kegs of whiskey slung across its back, while the price of the goods would double when they readied the eastern markets. So whiskey became the frontier remittance lor salt, sugar, nails, bar iron, pewter plates, powder and shot. Along the western rivers, where men saw few shilling pieces, a gallon of good, sound rye whiskey was a stable measure of value.

The bitter resistance of the western men to the whiskey tax involved both practical considerations and principles. First, the excise payment was due and must be paid in scarce hard money as soon as the water-white distillate flowed from the condensing coil. The principle concerned the whole repulsive idea of an internal revenue levy. The settlers of western Pennsylvania were a bold, hardy, emigrant race from Scotland and northern Ireland, who had set up their mashing tubs, fermenters, and pot stills before the last Indian war whoop ceased to echo among the hills. They brought with them also bitter memories of oppression in the old country under the excise laws, involving invasion of their homes, confiscation of their properly, and a system of paid informers. Revenue collectors were social outcasts in a society which might have warmly seconded Doctor Samuel Johnson’s definition ol excise: “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

The whiskey boys of Pennsylvania, then, saw it as simply a matter of sound Whig principles to resist the exciseman as he made his rounds with a Dicas hydrometer to measure the proof of the whiskey and his marking iron to brand the casks with his findings. Earlier, the slate had taxed spirits, except that whiskey prodined lor purely private use was exempt. William Findley of Westmorland County, a member of Congress at the time and a sympathetic interpreter of the western point of view, looked into this angle. To his astonishment, he learned that all of the whiskey distilled in the west was for purely personal use. So far as the excise tax was concerned, or any other stale tax, the sturdy Celtic peoples of the Monongahela region had cheerfully returned to a state of nature: they just didn’t pay. About every sixth man made whiskey. But all were involved in the problem, since the oiher five took iheir rye anil corn to the stillhouse where the master distiller turned it into liquid form.

But now mailers had laken a more serious turn. The new federal government in Philadelphia was dividing the whole country up into “districts” for the purpose of collecting the money, and cutting the districts up into smaller inspection “surveys.” The transmonlane Pennsylvanians found themselves in the grip ol something known as the fourth survey, with General John Neville, hitherto a popular citizen and leader, getting ready to enforce the law. Rewards would be paid lo informers and a percentage of the taxes given to the collectors, who appeared to be a rapacious set.

The first meeting of public: protest against the United Slates excise of 1791 was held in July at Redsione Old Fort (now Brownsville, Pennsylvania). The proceedings were moderate on that occasion, and scarcely went beyond the right of petition. Another meeting in August, more characteristic of others which were to follow, was radical in tone, disorderly, threatening, ft passed resolves that any person taking office under the revenue law was an enemy of society.

When warrants were issued in the affair of the molested revenue agent, Robert Johnson, the process server was robbed, beaten, tarred and feathered, and left tied to a tree in the forest. As the inspectors’ offices were established, they were systematically raided. The familiar Liberty poles of the Revolution reappeared as whiskey poles. The stills of operators who paid the tax were riddled with bullets in attacks sardonically described as “mending” the stills. This led to a popular description of the whiskey boys as “Tom the Tinker’s Men,” an ironical reference to the familiar, itinerant repairer of pots and kettles. Notices proposing measures for thwarting the law, or aimed at coercing the law-abiding distillers, were posted on trees or published in the Pittsburgh Gazette signed, “Tom the Tinker,” nom de plume of John Holcroft and other antitax propagandists. Congressman Findley, one of the prominent men of the region who tried to build a bridge of understanding between the backwoodsmen and the central government, described the outbreak as not the result of any concerted plan, but rather as a flame, “an infatuation almost incredible.”

An additional complaint against the tax grew out of the circumstance that offenders were required to appear in the federal court at Philadelphia, three hundred miles away. The whiskey-makers saw this distant government as being no less oppressive than one in London, and often drew the parallel. Some democrats, oriented sympathetically toward the Jacobin Clubs of Paris, whispered that the whole whiskey issue was a scheme of the Federalists to transfer the powers of government from the people to an aristocratic junto.

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.

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.

By the time the expedition had crossed the mountains, the rebellion was already coming apart at the seams. David Bradford, who was excluded from the subsequent amnesty, fled to Spanish Louisiana, where he finished out his life as a planter. About 2,000 of the best riflemen in the west left the country, including many a distiller who loaded his pot stills on a pack horse or a Kentucky boat and sought asylum in Kentucky, where, hopefully, a man could distill “the creature” without giving the public debt a lift.

The punitive expedition moved forward in glorious autumn weather, raiding chicken coops, consuming prodigious quantities of the commodity which lay at the heart of the controversy. Richard Howell, governor of New Jersey and commander of the right wing, revived the spirits of the Jersey troops by composing a marching song, “Dash to the Mountains, Jersey Blue”:

To arms once more, our hero cries, Sedition lives and order dies; To peace and ease then bid adieu And dash to the mountains, Jersey Blue.

Faded diaries, old letters, and orderly books preserve something of the gala atmosphere of the expedition. At Trenton, New Jersey, a Miss Forman and a Miss Milnor were most amiable. Newtown, Pennsylvania, was noted as a poor place for hay. At Potts Grove a captain of a cavalry troop got kicked in the shin by his horse. Among the Virginians, Meriwether Lewis enjoyed the martial excitement and wrote to his mother in high spirits of the “mountains of beef and oceans of Whiskey,” sent regards “to all the girls,” and announced that he would bring “an Insergiant Girl to se them next fall bearing the title of Mrs. Lewis.” If there was such a girl, he soon forgot her.

Yet where there is an army in being, there are unpleasant occurrences. Men were lashed. Quartermasters stole government property. A soldier was ordered to put an insurgent under guard. In execution of the order, he ran the rebel through with his bayonet, of which wound the prisoner died. At Carlisle, a dragoon’s pistol went off and hit a countryman in the groin; he too died. On November 13, long remembered in many a cabin and clearing as “the dismal night,” the Jersey Horse rounded up suspects whom they described grimly as “the whiskey pole gentry,” dragging them out of bed, tying them back to back.

In late November, finding no one to fight, the army turned east again, leaving a volunteer force under General Morgan to conciliate and consolidate the position during the winter. Twenty “Yahoos” were carried back to Philadelphia and were paraded by the Philadelphia Horse through the streets of the city with “Insurrection” labels on their hats. It was an odd Federalist version of a Roman triumph. The troop was composed, as an admirer said, of “young gentlemen of the first property of the city,” with beautiful mounts and uniforms of the finest blue broadcloth. They held their swords elevated in the right hand, while the light flashed from the silver stirrups, martingales, and jingling bridles. Stretched over half a mile they came, first two cavalrymen abreast, then a pair of prisoners, walking; then two more mounted men, and so on.

The army, meditating upon their fatigues and hardships, called for a substantial number of hangings. Samuel Hodgson, the commissary-general, wrote to a Pittsburgh confidant: “We all lament that so few of the insurgents fell—such disorders can only be cured by copious bleedings…,” while Philip Freneau, friend and literary colleague of Brackenridge, suggested in retrospect—ironically, of course—the benefits which would have accrued to the country “If Washington had drawn and quartered thirty or forty of the whiskey boys…” Most of the captives escaped any punishment other than that of being held in jail without a trial for ten or twelve months. One died. Two were finally tried and sentenced to death. Eventually both were let off.

If the rising was a failure, so was the liquor tax. The military adventure alone, without ordinary costs of collection, ran up a bill of $1,500,000, or about onethird of all the money that was realized during the life of the act. Meanwhile the movement of the army to the Pennsylvania hinterland had brought with it a flood of cash which furnished the distillers with currency for paying their taxes. Gradually the bitterness receded. During Jefferson’s administration, the tax was quietly repealed. Yet the watermelon armies and the whiskey boys made a not inconsiderable contribution to our constitutional history. Through them, the year 1794 completed what 1787 had begun; for it established the reality of a federal union whose law was not a suggestion but a command.

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