Just 10 years after the Revolutionary War, sparked in part by a tax on tea, Western Pennsylvanians nearly seceded over a liquor tax.
The Whiskey Rebellion wasn’t really about hooch but federal power, said Ron Schuler, a lawyer and author who has studied the Whiskey Rebellion. In July of 1794, the protests came to a head.
“David Bradford called various people to assemble basically as an army. To go and descend on Pittsburgh and burn it to the ground,” he said.
Bradford was a Washington County district attorney and the de facto general of the enraged frontiersmen. Four years prior to that sultry July, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton called for the first tax on a domestic good — distilled spirits. The government needed revenue to pay off the United States’ Revolutionary War debt. Like all wars, it had been wildly expensive.
To the men and women living on the frontier, it must have felt like déjà vu, said Meredith Grelli, co-owner of Wigle, Pittsburgh’s first distillery since Prohibition.
“They had all just fought in the Revolutionary War, which was about taxation without representation," she said. "Then they were remote on the frontier and had very little political agency, and all of a sudden they were again being taxed without representation — which they had just fought a war about.”
Western Pennsylvanians were represented in Congress, but the tax felt like an affront, said Grelli.
“At the height of whiskey making here there are 4,000 documented stills. It’s truly the economy,” she said.
Nearly every farmer had a copper pot still. But they weren’t producing massive runs of whiskey, said Schuler; it was more of an insurance policy.
“Whiskey was a way of preserving agricultural goods," he said. "If you couldn’t get them to market and sell them while they were fresh, you could turn grain into whiskey.”
In a place where almost no one had cash, whiskey acted as currency. Furthermore, to Pittsburghers, there didn’t seem to be any tangible benefits to being a part of this whole federal government thing, said Schuler.
“So when Alexander Hamilton came up with this idea of a whiskey excise tax, they sort of said, ‘Well, what are we getting for our money?’” he said.
Western Pennsylvanians had resisted paying the whiskey tax since it passed Congress in 1791: tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Farmers who dared to pay the tax were beaten. But things really got hot the day General John Neville, Hamilton’s right-hand man in the region, attempted to collect taxes from one Farmer Miller, said Grelli.
“He asks Miller for his whiskey taxes and Miller says no. And Miller says no by firing a gun at Neville,” she said.
“There was a fight at General John Neville’s house. Which resulted in it being burned down,” said Schuler.
Not paying taxes? Illegal. Attacking a government agent? Treason. Enter Hugh Henry Brackenridge. A Princeton-educated lawyer who came west to build his career, Brackenridge was a former state representative and well-known public figure. He was against the tax but also against violence, said Schuler.
“He really felt that there was a constant tension between chaos and liberty,” he said. “The moderates had to join the fight because if they didn’t then it was likely that the people at either extreme would begin to rip apart the society.”
Brackenridge didn’t just talk Bradford out of burning Pittsburgh to the ground. He personally bought four barrels of whiskey and invited the rebels over for a party. Crisis averted, right?
“George Washington decides to personally lead 13,000 troops into Western Pennsylvania,” said Grelli. “It’s the one and only time in American history that a sitting president has led troops against his own people.”
He’d been reluctant to send troops, said Schuler, but he pulled on his Revolutionary War uniform, got on his white horse, and rode to Carlisle.
“It was meant to be a show of force. He understood the power of symbolism and the power of symbolism here was, ‘I am your commander in chief. And this Constitution is meant to be preserved,’” said Schuler.
By the time the troops got to Pittsburgh, most of the rebel leaders had fled. Bradford hopped a boat to Spanish-controlled Louisiana. But Brackenridge faced a personal interview with Hamilton on suspicion of treason.
“It was one of those moments in American history that come along once in a while that helps us define how we dissent,” said Schuler. “It was the first challenge to the Constitutional authority to this young republic. There was an acknowledgement that, OK, you were dissenting, but you weren’t trying to overthrow the government.”
It could have easily gone the other way, said Schuler. The government could have reacted with fear and turned to tyranny, found Brackenridge guilty and hung him. Instead, Washington issued a mass pardon. The tax wasn’t overturned, but it wasn’t particularly well enforced, either. And at the end of his presidential term, Washington retired and became one of the largest rye whiskey distillers in the United States.
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