Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington led troops to crush Western farmers

George Washington
(Above) Painting by Frederick Kemmelmeyer depicted George Washington reviewing troops at Ft. Cumberland, Md., on Oct. 18, 1794, before they set out to combat rebellious farmers in Western Pennsylvania


The winter season of 1794 wore away quickly, yielding a spring of unusual heat in Philadelphia. This raised alarm that an epidemic of yellow fever might strike for a second year in a row. But the heat took a holiday; May Day was cool and drizzly. Despite the chill, about 800 people came out for a “Civic Feast” that was co-sponsored by the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania and the German Republican Society. Participants paid one dollar to get into the grounds.

The Democratic Society closely interlocked in membership with the Tammany Society, a fraternal-type club that had been organized in 1772 around the symbolic figure of Tamanend (c. 1625-c. 1701) a sakima (chief or “king”) of the Lenni Lenape nation. Tamanend was remembered as a friend to William Penn and the early Quaker settlers of Philadelphia, and became revered as “Saint Tammany,” the emblem of peace and harmony amongst peoples. In Philadelphia, as in many other American towns and cities, May Day had been celebrated since before the Revolution as “Saint Tammany’s Day” by democratic-minded people; the traditional Maypole became transmuted into the “liberty pole.”

In 1794, although people at other locations chose to mark the rites of Saint Tammany’s Day in the customary manner, including the ringing of church bells, participants in the feast at Democratic Hall came for a more explicit purpose—“to celebrate the late successes” of the French Revolution.

After the festivities, the crowd accompanied French consular officials in a jaunt back into the center of the city. A corps of musicians, flag bearers, and a company of volunteer militia joined the parade. After refreshments in the French commission’s garden, the marchers made their way to the State House, and then dispersed. Food that had been left over from the luncheon was distributed to prisoners in the Walnut Street Prison.

Members of the Democratic Society adopted the French address of “citizen” to refer to one another. This spoke to the society’s credo of working to obtain equal rights for all men worldwide. Unfortunately, Native American “savages” and Black men, as well as all women, were generally discounted from their edicts of equality. In fact, a few Society members were slaveholders. And, as will be seen, when farmers and small townspeople engaged in active and even armed resistance to tax policies of the federal government in 1794, the Philadelphia “Democrats” gave them virtually no support.

Despite their prejudices, most of the leaders of the Democratic Society were well-educated and worldly men; today we would probably call them “intellectuals.” The rank and file of the Society made up a less affluent body than the leadership; they were mostly men of the “middling sort,” self-employed artisans and small traders. These men found a broad commonality of economic and social interests— especially in the hopes that they all shared of expanding their enterprises and rising up the social scale. This was reflected in the society’s advocacy of building up industry in the United States. Their grudge against the Federalist Party, then predominant in the federal government, revolved largely around the economic policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton; the belief was that his tariffs on imports were not bold enough, and that his office had chosen instead to placate the wealthy merchants who engaged in that trade.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Society was short lived, however; it blossomed for about three years and then, after a withering attack by Federalists and the Washington administration, quickly faded from view.

Protests against federal tax policies

Luckily for the Federalists, by the late summer they had been handed a convenient excuse to hammer down the Democratic Society. This took place after farming communities in Pennsylvania— especially in its far western portion—had begun to protest the federal government’s collection of excise taxes on whiskey, pegged at nine cents a gallon. The tax, passed by Congress in 1791, was one of the revenue measures proposed by Alexander Hamilton.

Whiskey, as it happens, was the major commercial product of the area, since transporting the distilled liquid in kegs was the most expeditious and profitable way to carry grain products to market; this was especially true west of the mountains. Whiskey was even used as a common means of exchange to trade for other commodities, which meant that the federal tax was tantamount to a tax on money. And obtaining the necessary cash to pay the tax was not easy in the largely barter and whiskey economy.

Furthermore, the tax had been levied directly on the stills, which meant that every gallon of whiskey, including that which remained unsold or reserved for home use, was subject to tax. Large distilleries, such as those in Philadelphia, could afford to pay a flat fee for the excise tax; thus the tax favored the larger and more efficient operations, which ended up expending far less per gallon than the small stills.

Since many of the small farmers could not afford the tax and were delinquent in payments, the scenario was set for hated revenue men to go from farm to farm serving court summonses. Naturally, they stirred memories of the British officials whom the farmers had opposed in their revolution against “taxation without representation.” Many rural people already harbored grudges toward the policies of the federal and state governments that were based in Philadelphia. The feeling was widespread that these administrations had betrayed the democratic ideals of the Revolution, unjustly favoring the interests of the wealthy merchants and speculators—some of whom were now foreclosing on their farms. It was no secret that Hamilton hoped that his monetary policies would bind the rich rentier class ever more surely to what he perceived as the national interest.

The debt-ridden farmers could not forget that wealthy speculators had bought for mere pennies on the dollar the bond certificates that farmers, small artisans, and rank-and-file soldiers were given for their services during the Revolution. Now, as the farmers saw it, the monied classes were raising taxes in order to gain payment at full value on the bonds that they had stolen from them earlier.

Tax collectors confronted by armed farmers

U.S. Marshall David Lenox was sent west from Philadelphia to begin issuing court summonses to delinquents. On a July morning in 1794, Lenox and Inspector of the Revenue Gen. John Neville rode up to William Miller’s log house in southern Allegheny County. Miller, quite indignant, began to argue with the officials. Just then, a posse of local small farmers, who had trailed Lenox and Neville to Miller’s farm, arrived on horseback and drove the officials off with gunfire.

Two days later, a militia recruited from the farmers, their faces lathered in black and armed with clubs and a few muskets, went to Neville’s mountaintop mansion, Bower Hill, to lay their grievances and demands before him. In the meantime, Neville had fortified his house with wooden planks over the windows, and armed his Black slaves. At dawn, the farmers emerged from the woods and advanced onto Neville’s grass lawns. Shots rang out from the house, killing William Miller’s young nephew Oliver.

The farmers’ militia held a council of about 600 men on July 17. They voted to raise two demands: Lenox must hand over his remaining writs, and Neville must resign as tax collector. If these demands were met, there would be no violence. However, Neville had panicked and called in a militia unit from Pittsburgh, under Major Abraham Kirkpatrick, to put down the “rebellion.”

At five in the afternoon, the farmers’ militia arrived at Bower Hill and sent a delegation under a white flag to present their demands. Major Kirkpatrick received the men at the door to the mansion; his troops had arrived earlier and were hunkered down inside the building. After testy negotiations had dragged on for a long while, some of the restive farmers began to torch the mansion’s outlying buildings. A firefight broke out—militia against militia. In time, the armed farmers forced the Pittsburgh troops to surrender. As a white flag appeared in an upper window of Bower Hill mansion, the main leader of the farmers, James MacFarlane, stepped into the clear to order his men to hold their fire. A shot rang out from the house, and he was killed. The enraged farmers’ militia then set the mansion on fire, broke up Neville’s fine furniture, and slaughtered his livestock. This was the main episode of the “Whiskey Rebellion.”

For many weeks afterward, the Federalist-oriented newspapers up and down the East Coast raised the alarm concerning the objectives of the Western Pennsylvania “rebels.” Their demands were magnified and sensationalized. Thus, a dispatch from Philadelphia informed readers of a vast conspiracy to secede from the Union. The claim was also raised that the so-called rebels were considering an armed march on Philadelphia.

At the same time, Federalists laid the “real” source of the rebellion at the door of the Democratic Societies in Philadelphia and beyond. This charge was based in large measure on the fact that Philadelphia’s Democratic Society had exchanged letters with its counterparts in the West, particularly in Washington County. It was said that the content of the letters demonstrated that the correspondents’ “common hatred of political tranquility” had led them not only to “vilify” and “disturb” the operations of government, but also to teach “the lessons of disobedience to an ignorant, and irritable generation.” In other words, the shrewd ideologues from the city had brainwashed the yokels from the backwoods, and incited them to violence.

But the evidence of conspiracy is not apparent; after all, the Society published its greetings and declarations in the newspapers. Nor can we see any indications in the internal minutes of the Democratic Society in Philadelphia that their communications to Society members in the West were meant to be at all bellicose. On July 31, for example, as opposition to the whiskey tax flared in the Western counties, Philadelphia’s Democratic Society was quite cautionary in its advice to the Society in Washington County. While expressing concern for the grievances of the Western farmers, the Philadelphians took great care to separate themselves from those who might advocate “unconstitutional” activities: “Resolved, as the opinion of this Society, that, altho’ we conceive Excise Systems to be oppressive, hostile to the liberties of this Country, and a nursery of vice and sycophancy; we notwithstanding highly disapprove of every opposition to them not warranted by that frame of Government that has received the sanction of the People of the United States.”

President Washington urges sending troops

On Aug. 2, top government officials attended a conference in Philadelphia concerning the “insurrection” in the west. Present were George Washington, Edmund Randolph, Henry Knox, William Bradford, and the following officials from Pennsylvania: Thomas Mifflin, governor; Thomas McKean, chief justice; Jared Ingersoll, attorney general; and Alexander James Dallas, recording secretary.

Washington opened the conference by stating that the “most spirited and firm measures” were necessary to counteract the Whiskey Rebellion because it threatened the very existence of the Constitution. The president insisted, however, that the federal government must not reach beyond the bounds of the Constitution, and that it must work with the government of Pennsylvania. Thomas McKean, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, warned the meeting that “the employment of military force, at this period, would be as bad as anything that the Rioters had done—equally unconstitutional and illegal.” He argued that the rioters could be prosecuted in the courts without resorting to military force.

Under the Militia Act of 1792, before the president could use state militia to repress an internal rebellion, a federal judge had to rule that the laws of the United States were “opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act.” Accordingly, it was given to Associate Supreme Court Justice James Wilson to authorize the use of the militia when he ruled on Aug. 4 that the evidence presented to him showed a rebellion was underway in Western Pennsylvania that could not be suppressed by normal judicial proceedings or by the area’s U.S. Marshal.

Secretary of War Henry Knox estimated that, according to reports he had gathered, the insurgents in Western Pennsylvania numbered about 10,000 men, of whom 8000 possessed rearms. Thus, he wrote Washington on Aug. 4, a federal expeditionary army must enlist about 13,000 soldiers in order to be certain of prevailing over the rebels. This would require infantry and cavalry to be supplied by the state governments of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, while the federal government would provide ammunition and supplies.

Over the next month, the battle plan took shape: Two wings of Washington’s 13,000-man army were to make their way to the battle lines. The northern division, made up of Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops, was to converge at the federal ordnance depot in Carlisle, and then move west as a unit. In the meantime, Maryland and Virginia troops would be marching up from the south to rendezvous at Fort Cumberland before moving into Western Pennsylvania.

A number of rural Pennsylvania counties were quite slow in meeting their quotas for militia units to meet the Western rebellion; anti-draft protests took place in some areas. Pennsylvania Secretary A.J. Dallas wrote in a letter of Sept. 10, “According to the information I have from several parts of the country, it appears that the militia are unwilling to march to quell the insurrection. They say they are ready to march against a foreign enemy, but not against the citizens of their own state.”

But these feelings were less pronounced in the city of Philadelphia than in smaller towns. Recruitment was accomplished with alacrity among the volunteer and cavalry brigades, which were composed of young men who represented the city’s elite. Dressed in fine uniforms, these volunteers were eager for martial glory while teaching a hard lesson to the upstart country “bumpkins.” The first Philadelphia company to meet its quota was the Volunteer Blues, headed by Major William MacPherson, a strong Federalist and partisan of the Washington administration. Fifty-eight men “of respectable character” were enrolled in the first two days of recruiting, and issued their uniforms of blue trousers and blue jacket, faced in scarlet with white buttons. The Blues soon far exceeded the company’s goal of 100.

Lt. Col. Francis Gurney’s infantry brigades, on the other hand, were mainly draftees, and composed of men of the lower and middling sort. Few had uniforms, although regulations called for a blue jacket with white buttons, and many brought their own muskets. But the process of conscription also went fairly quickly, and by the time it was time to march, close to 1000 men had mustered in the city of Philadelphia—almost double the quota of 559 recruits that the city had been assigned. Philadelphia County (including the urban districts of Southwark and Northern Liberties) had been charged with raising an additional 544 men.

Pennsylvania militia on the march

The first volunteer battalions embarked from the city on Sept. 19, en route to Carlisle. For several days previously, about 400 other elite troops had camped to the west of the city, ready to march along the road to Lancaster. At last, on Sept. 22, the order was given to strike their tents, and President Washington reviewed their formations before they departed.

Gurney’s militia regiments also left Philadelphia on Sept. 22, but without a presidential send-off. These troops marched up the Ridge Road, past hilly woodlands tinged with wine reds and malt yellows, and through the Schuylkill River towns of Norristown, Pottsgrove, and Reading. After forced marches of up to 25 miles a day, the soldiers gathered what straw they could find for bedding and did their best to catch some sleep on the cold ground.

Many local farmers no doubt viewed with trepidation the invasion of hungry militia-men—and hurriedly hid away their chickens and livestock. On the other hand, some farmers were able to obtain a premium price for their meat and grain from the military commissariat since wheat was less bountiful than usual. The crop had been ravaged by a double plague of the Hessian fly and mildew, and many farmers were forced to sow extra acreage in clover. Some planted their wheat late in order to avoid the fly, but as shorter days and cooler temperatures came about, the stalks were stunted in their growth.

On Friday, Oct. 4, the Philadelphia units arrived in Carlisle and immediately undertook the task of unloading the baggage wagons, hoisting tent poles, and slinging ropes and linen for their encampment. Largely German-speaking militia brigades from Bucks and Lancaster counties soon arrived, as did a cavalry troop from West Chester and some artillery units—with teams of horses pulling their big guns.

Some men insisted that the real mission of the troops was being concealed from them; they would soon receive orders to march to the Great Lakes to fight the British and the Indians. But confronting the local population was danger enough. While Cumberland County was far from the center of the insurrection, it was well known that many around the town of Carlisle had expressed sympathy for the rebels. A couple of weeks earlier, it was said, a liberty pole had been erected in Carlisle’s public square, with “Liberty and no excise, O. Whiskey” inscribed on it. A few days after the pole had been cut down, people raised a much larger one, surmounted by a ribbon proclaiming, “Liberty and Equality.” About 200 people, some bearing rearms, gathered at the base of the pole; they then organized patrols to prevent their opponents from attempting to demolish it.

And even now, despite the presence of federal troops, unabashed sympathizers of the whiskey rebels made their presence known. State Secretary A.J. Dallas wrote home on Oct. 4 that “we daily pass and repass the most violent abettors of the Insurgents; nay the most active partizans in raising the whiskey pole, in the high street, parade, without insult, through the [military] camp.”

The order came to muster in ranks in order to meet President Washington, who was expected to arrive shortly. Likewise, about two miles out of town, the governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey awaited the president. From that point, the Philadelphia militia lined one side of the road as Washington and his company rode past. Washington sat erect on his horse, doffing his hat to the militia officers and men, and giving little sign of the persistent pains he felt from a riding accident four months earlier. The procession soon entered Carlisle, where a large crowd of citizens, strangely silent, had assembled to catch a glimpse of the great man.

Before retiring to his lodgings, Washington rode through the military camp, where soldiers stood at attention before a lane of tents. Nearly 3000 infantry troops stood in ranks for Washington’s inspection (the irregular militias were not present). The volunteer units were dressed in resplendent uniforms, with bayonets affixed to their muskets. The artillery corps also took the field, with 60 pieces polished and ready for action. Never during the Revolution had the Americans raised an army as fine as this! One Philadelphia militia officer wrote in a letter that as the commander in chief rode by, the sun managed to break through its heavy cloud cover, and its rays glinted on a “forest” of bayonets and on the drawn sabers of the cavalry.

As the army made ready to break camp, Federalist press correspondents gave a cheerful appraisal of the military effort, and predicted doom for their cowardly opponents—the “Whiskey Jacobins,” as they were dubbed. President Washington was also in an optimistic frame of mind as the first troops left Carlisle for the West. Reports of drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the militia had troubled him, but now it seemed that his presence had helped to restore discipline. A day earlier, he had met with U.S. Congressman William Findlay and Washington County, Pa., protonotary David Redick, who had been appointed by the so-called Committee of Safety in the Western counties to appeal to President Washington on behalf of the farmers. Findlay and Redick sought to convince the president to seek moderate methods of persuasion and to hold back from sending the army on a punitive expedition. But Washington thought that the insurrection had gone far past the point of “persuasion” by any means except that of military force.

According to the journal that Washington kept, he replied to the emissaries that “it had been the earnest wish of governmt. to bring the people of those countries to a sense of their duty, by mild, & lenient means.” Nevertheless, he stressed, “Nothing Short of the most unequivocal proofs of absolute Submission should retard the March of the army into the Western counties, in order to convince them that the government could, & would enforce obedience to the laws…” Since Findlay and Redick could produce no proofs of submission, the army was ordered to set out on its march.

“Woe to Anarchy!”

On the evening of Oct. 18, after crossing the “great wall” of the Blue Mountains—actually, a series of at least seven distinct plateaus and valleys—the phalanx of Washington’s army approached Bedford, Pa., on the eastern slopes of the Allegheny range. Beyond the high escarpment, the road would traverse another hundred miles of steep ridges and yawning valleys until the army could reach the area where the rebel farmers had been most threatening.

George Washington and his close aides undertook a different route to Bedford than the army had traversed, turning southwest through the Cumberland Valley, and stopping in the town of Cumberland, Md. Washington reviewed the Virginia and Maryland troops who had encamped there before continuing on the expedition to Western Pennsylvania.

On Oct. 19, the president’s party rejoined the main army—the Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops—who were massing outside Bedford. With Washington and Hamilton in the lead, about 3000 horse guards and infantry entered the town, and wearily climbed its main street. File after file of soldiers paraded up the hill, but few bystanders cheered the men from the East. Most of the farmers and townspeople understood that the display of power was meant to intimidate them, though the wealthier sorts were more welcoming to the president. When Washington reached the courthouse, he saw that town officials had erected a candle-lit banner, which displayed his own portrait while proclaiming “Woe to Anarchy!” But the army so far had not encountered any “anarchists,” or at least, any who sought to offer resistance. Some said that as Washington’s troops approached Bedford, up to 2000 men who had not signed the oath of submission fled into the wilderness.

Two days later, as the federalized militia continued to arrive in Bedford, Washington penned a farewell to his officers, enjoining them to “keep discipline among the troops.” He then made his return to Philadelphia. General “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, the governor of Virginia, was given command of the army, with Alexander Hamilton as his lieutenant and advisor.

As the troops descended from the western ranges of the Alleghenies on Oct. 26, a wet wind entered from the north- east, glancing off the mountainsides, and gaining force in the narrow valleys. For the better part of 11 days, cold rains pelted the soldiers as they inched their way toward their planned rendezvous on the Youghiogheny River in the rebellious districts of the West. As the men slogged forward, their clothing and blankets were drenched, their trousers coated with mud, their shoes reduced to leather scabs. Diarrhea and fever spread among the ranks, as did the “itch.” Horses stumbled in the ruts, unresponsive to the oaths of their drivers. Wagons capsized, spilling the army’s provisions across the roadway. Supplies could hardly keep up with the line; even as the armies met by the Youghiogheny, 25 miles from Pittsburgh, shortages of food, clothing, and shelter continued to plague them.

On Nov. 6, a “gentleman in MacPherson’s battalion” wrote a letter back to Philadelphia from his encampment on the Youghiogheny. He said that for the last two weeks they had been obliged “to march through heavy rains and the mud up to our knees. We however accomplished in one day a march of twenty miles, and when we arrived at the place of encampment, there was neither straw, wood, or tents.—Yet soldier-like we kept up our spirits, determined to be patient under all hard- ships.” But not everyone was so patient—or so dedicated to the cause. Many soldiers “solved” the problem of shortages by expropriating chickens, cattle, and crops from outlying farms.

Earlier, President Washington had scolded the federal troops after receiving reports of their disorderly conduct and thievery. On Oct. 26, at Wright’s Ferry on the Susquehanna, during his return journey to the capital, Washington referred to the matter in a letter to Alexander Hamilton. The president singled out the Philadelphia militia under Lt. Col. Gurney for reproach: “I heard great complaints of Gurney’s Corps (and some of the Artillery) along the road to Strasburgh.—There I departed from their rout[e].—In some places, I was told they did not leave a plate, a spoon, a glass, or a knife; and this owing, in a great measure, as I was informed, to their being left without Officers.—At most if not all the encampments, I found the fences in a manner burnt up [for firewood].”

Hamilton responded by giving the army’s official stamp to the thievery, authorizing soldiers to requisition supplies as needed from the local farming communities. As commandeered provisions flowed into camp, the troops began to recover their spirits—while families who saw their sustenance taken away looked warily to a grim winter. Luckily, in this “war,” there were no woodland sharpshooters bold enough to punish the marauding army of Easterners as it inched its way through the mountain passes. The armed rebel groups, it seems, had melted away. As federal troops approached, some insurgents returned to their cabins in the backwoods while others fled to the Kentucky frontier. In rapid order, soldiers set about to apprehend those they could identify as participants in the rebellion. Families were rousted from slumber at the point of bayonets, and their sons and husbands prodded into the cold outdoors still in their nightclothes.

In the vicinity of Mingo Creek, a tributary of the Monongahela, General Anthony “Blackbeard” White of the New Jersey militia was put in charge of the interrogation of prisoners. He ordered 40 local farmers to be tied back to back while incarcerated in the dirt cellar of a tavern. For two days, White denied food, drink, and warmth to the exhausted men. When even White’s troops expressed concern about the debilitated condition of the farmers, their commander ordered them to force-march the prisoners 12 miles through wintry weather to the jail in the town of Washington. When one prisoner suffered convulsions, White had him tied to the tail of a horse and dragged along the road with the others. In time, however, most of the men were allowed to go home; on Nov. 29, only 20 prisoners began the trek to Philadelphia to stand trial. Six others had been taken to Philadelphia some days earlier.

Relatively few federal troops were necessary for the final mop-up of prisoners in the West; about 1500 soldiers were given the job. On Nov. 19, Hamilton wrote to George Washington from Pittsburgh, “The Army is generally in motion homeward.” The federal administration did not wish to prolong its huge costs for another month. A private in the artillery companies, for example, was paid $6.67 per month, while a captain received $40 and a lieutenant $26. It was also acknowledged that winter came early to the mountains, and it would be disastrous if the army should become mired in snowfalls.

Prisoners brought to Philadelphia

Some of the hard realities of the Western expedition came to Philadelphia when, on Christmas Day 1794, the band of 20 prisoners crossed the bridge over the Schuylkill. For 30 days, each prisoner had been compelled to walk singly between a pair of horse soldiers, over snow-covered mountain trails and farm roads—and still in that formation, they entered the capital city.

The footsore and frostbitten prisoners, chained and hunched low against the winter cold, must have presented a bizarre contrast to the mounted troopers who accompanied them on prancing bays. The horse guards paraded with sabers held high and cockades on their caps, whereas each prisoner had been obliged to tuck into his hatband a white card, on which the word “Insurgent” was inscribed. One prisoner, Robert Porter, who had been an army captain in the Revolution and subsequent Indian wars, later wrote that he kept his white card in his hand until the prisoners were marched onto the plank-floor pontoon bridge at Market Street. Then, when he was in full view of the crowd of Philadelphians who had gathered on the east bank of the river, he demonstrably tore the card into small pieces.

Christ Church greeted the troopers by a glad ringing of bells. The chimes were a signal for thousands of citizens to put aside Christmas dinners with their families, and to come into the streets. Huzzas rang out for the mounted troops; jeers and spittle were cast at the ragged “anarchists.” The number of spectators eventually swelled to 20,000. A band struck up a rousing tune as the grouping passed the President’s House, and the commander in chief—dignified as ever with his powdered white hair and his hat in his hands—emerged briefly at the doorstep to salute the brave Horse Guard and to receive adulations from the crowd. The parade then turned past the State House (then in use as the federal capitol building), soon arriving at the steps of Walnut Street Prison—where the prisoners were thrown into a lightless cell.

It must have been apparent to many, whatever their overall stance might have been on the Western Rebellion, that the 26 prisoners brought to trial in Philadelphia were scapegoats. None had been leaders of the uprising; some had not even been participants. The charges against them included alleged acts of such little consequence as “erecting poles.” Only two men, who had both played very minor roles in the rebellion, were ever convicted of the charges against them, and Washington eventually granted them pardons.

Over the months that followed, questions concerning the treatment of the prisoners continued to fester, along with a mounting skepticism toward the justification and conduct of the “war” in the Western counties. And in the meantime, the causes of the Pennsylvania insurrection continued to be hotly debated in Congress as well as in the press. Federalists redoubled their chant that the Democratic Societies had colluded with, fomented, and even directed the now defeated Westerners.

Massachusetts Congressman Samuel Dexter charged that in their alleged support to the rebellion, “the [Democratic] clubs are more criminal than the deluded insurgents.” That was also President Washington’s view, which he reiterated in his annual message to Congress. The president’s private thoughts were set down soon after he had returned from the West, when on Nov. 1 he wrote in a letter to John Jay: “That the self-created societies which have spread themselves over this country, have been labouring incessantly to sow the seeds of distrust, jealousy, and of course discontent, thereby hoping to effect some revolution in the government, is not unknown to you. That they have been the fomenters of the Western disturbances, admits of no doubt in the mind of any one who will examine their conduct; but, fortunately, they precipitated a crisis for which they were not prepared…”

Despite having published resolutions that were highly conciliatory to the Washington administration, even endorsing the military expedition to the Western counties, the Democratic Societies were unable to overcome the ideological onslaught against them in the Federalist newspapers and Congress. But while the appeal of the Democratic Societies steadily withered, the persistence of the debate over the “Whiskey Rebellion” managed to contribute to the formation of an even broader political opposition to the Federalist regime.

The rebellion on the Western frontier occurred at the same time that a political shift was beginning to take place among urban artisans and small business owners. This was stirred by their increasing belief that the policies of the Federalists in government unjustly favored the wealthy merchants and financiers, while their pleas for easier credit, tariffs against foreign goods, and other economic measures were ignored. In that, the “middling class” of Philadelphia soon discovered that it shared many perspectives with the farmers of the Western counties. Both constituencies soon united within Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republican Party. The whiskey tax was repealed after Jefferson was elected president in 1800.

This essay is excerpted and edited from portions of the book by Michael Schreiber, “Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America,” available from Amazon.









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