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George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

50 min
  • Assess President George Washington’s decision to use military force to subdue the Whiskey Rebellion.

Students will:

  • Understand the historical events leading up to the Whiskey Rebellion.
  • Analyze the Whiskey Rebellion from multiple perspectives.
  • Evaluate Washington’s decision to use military force against rebelling farmers in 1794.
  • Assess criticism of Washington’s handling of the Whiskey Rebellion.

  • Handout A: George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
  • Handout B: Setting the Scene
  • Handout C: Press Conference

To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: The President as Enforcer of the Law.

Have students read Handout A: George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion and answer the questions.

Using an overhead of Handout B: Setting the Scene, lead the class to make a timeline of the major events leading up to the Whiskey Rebellion from 1790 to 1794. (Students can use Handout A and their textbooks for information.)

Ask students to summarize the events leading up to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, and the types of steps Washington took in addressing the situation.

Let students know they will be preparing for a press conference on the events of the Whiskey Rebellion. Distribute Handout C: Press Conference. Students should circle their identity for the day’s activity and prepare to either ask or be asked questions.

Assign each student the role of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Western Pennsylvania Farmer, Tax Collector, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, Democratic Society Member, or Reporter.

Have all the Washingtons, all the Hamiltons, etc. meet in small groups together for a few minutes to discuss what they will say/ask at the press conference and complete Handout C.

After a few moments, have students jigsaw into new groups of seven with one Washington, one Hamilton, etc. Staying “in character,” students should ask and answer questions of each other. (All characters, not just Reporters, should ask questions at this point.)

While students are working, arrange six desks with name tags at the front of the room. Ask for volunteers to assemble a panel of the six historical figures while the rest of the class plays Reporters.

As time allows, conduct a “press conference,” encouraging Reporters to ask questions of all the historical figures.

Reconvene the class and conduct a large group discussion to answer the following questions:

  • Was Washington’s response appropriate to the situation? Or was it excessive?
  • Were his actions constitutional?
  • Why do you think Washington consulted with other branches and levels of government in making the decision to use military force to subdue the Whiskey Rebellion?

Students should write a newspaper editorial about the events of the Whiskey Rebellion. The editorial should communicate the author’s opinion on the prudence and constitutionality of Washington’s response.

Have students read Washington’s Sixth Annual Message to Congress.

  • In what ways does he refer to the Constitution?
  • How does he explain his actions?
  • How would students assess his explanation?

The document can be found at avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washs06.asp.