Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

Summary:

Many of the Founders, including George Washington, believed that one weakness of the Articles of Confederation was that the federal government could not deal firmly with domestic uprisings such as Shay’s Rebellion. George Washington, always aware that as the new nation’s first President, his every action would be “drawn into precedent,” conducted himself both deliberately and decisively when farmers across the US resisted a new federal excise tax on liquor.

Narrative:

The Constitution, ratified in 1789, created a strong central government. To support federal power to enforce the law, Congress passed the Militia Law of 1792. This law allowed Congress to raise a militia to “execute the laws of the union, (and) suppress insurrections.”

It was the late 18th century and the national government was cash-strapped. In order to raise money, Congress passed a 25% excise (sales) tax on liquor. Anger about the tax was widespread along the frontier from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Many Americans along the frontier resented the tax from a distant legislature. There were outbreaks of opposition. In rural areas where no one was willing to serve as tax collector, the taxes went unpaid.

By July of 1794, the tension had reached a breaking point. Tax collectors were harassed, tarred and feathered; one’s home was burned. In Western Pennsylvania, the rebellion was intense. Reports told that six thousand people were camped outside Pittsburgh threatening to march on the town.

Washington believed he had to act. He and his cabinet members met with Pennsylvania officials. They decided to present evidence of the violence to Associate Justice of the Supreme Court James Wilson. After reviewing the evidence, Wilson certified that the situation could not be controlled by civil authorities alone. A military response could proceed.

On August 7, Washington issued a proclamation commanding all “insurgents” to “disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes.” He cited his authority under the 1792 Militia Act. But the rebellion continued. September 25, 1794, he issued another Proclamation which read in part,

… I, George Washington, President of the United States, in obedience to that high and irresistible duty consigned to me by the Constitution ‘to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ … do hereby declare and make known that… a militia…force which…is adequate to the exigency is already is motion…”

Washington recruited militia members from Pennsylvania as well as nearby Maryland and New Jersey. In total, there were almost 13,000 men—about as many as had served in the entire Continental Army that defeated the British. Washington personally led the troops into Bedford—the first and only time a sitting US President has led troops into the field.

By the end of November, more than 150 people had been arrested; most were later freed due to lack of evidence. Two were convicted of treason, but Washington later pardoned them. Washington’s strong response to the Whiskey Rebellion became, as future-President James Madison put it, “a lesson to every part of the Union against disobedience to the laws.”

Questions

  1. What federal law was the focus of protests in the Whiskey Rebellion?
  2. Why did President Washington consider using military force against the protestors?
  3. How did Washington involve other branches and levels of government in his decision?
  4. The Constitution assigns the President the responsibility to “take care” that laws are “faithfully executed” and makes him or her commander in chief of the military. How did Washington understand these duties?