The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791 the first tax was created for domestic products; distilled spirits. Farmers felt the “Whiskey Tax” burned them unfairly and they resisted paying.

Having raised import taxes as high as it dared, in 1791 it imposed its first tax on a domestic product: distilled spirits. As a luxury tax, it seemed the least objectionable.

Not so in the minds of western distillers. Farmers’ excess grains were bulky and perishable but, transformed into spirits, they were profitable to transport. Producers west of the mountains already faced lower profit margins than those in the East because of the cost of transport to population centers. They felt the “Whiskey Tax” burdened them unfairly and they resisted paying—even tarring and feathering collectors.

Distillers across Appalachia opposed the tax but, in western Pennsylvania, resentment led to action. Conventions in Pittsburgh in 1791 and 1792 stoked anger, and a growing anti-tax movement organized to intimidate anyone who aided tax collection.

The resistance reached a tipping point in the summer of 1794, when dozens of non-compliant western Pennsylvania distillers were ordered to federal court. On August 1, a crowd of 7,000 gathered at Braddock’s Field south of Pittsburgh over the Whiskey Tax and more: People in the frontier counties wanted better federal protection from native attacks, for example. Participants even talked of leaving the union.

Ultimately, President Washington’s combined response of negotiations in August and September and a peaceful, if massive, show of force in October quelled the resistance. Two were convicted of high treason and sentenced to hang but were pardoned by Washington. Settled without oppressive measures, the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated governmental restraint and, at the same time, affirmed the new U.S. government’s power to levy taxes on domestic production.

It also served as one motivation behind federal funding for the National Road: As the nation expanded westward, the government wanted better access in the event of insurrection.

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