Our Rebellious Neighbors: Virginia's Border Counties during Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion

Article excerpt

WESTERN Pennsylvania's 1794 Whiskey Rebellion has achieved almost mythic status. Across the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, the infamous insurrection remains a celebrated event, with local parades, festivals, and reenactments occurring annually to mark the occasion's anniversary. Symbolically, the event has come to represent a plethora of nostalgic and patriotic notions in the nation's collective memory. Participants in so-called "Whiskey Rebellion Festivals" are often drawn to the recreations of frontier life, the celebration of America's tradition of resistance against governmental tyranny, and above all else, the opportunity to assert vigorously their pride in being Pennsylvanians. Western Pennsylvanians have clearly embraced their rebellious forbears and the historical moment that occurred in the region.

The Whiskey Insurrection has continued to capture the attention of scholars, inspiring a remarkable amount of historical analysis. Several monographs, dozens of articles, and countless local studies have chronicled the events and analyzed the importance of this moment in time. Almost all of this historical scrutiny focuses on the epicenter of the rebellion, the "four western Pennsylvania counties in a state of rebellion." These counties were Washington, Fayette, Allegheny, and Westmoreland.1 Indisputably, the vast majority of incidents related to the passionate resistance to the 1791 excise tax on distilled spirits were concentrated in this section of western Pennsylvania, but the Whiskey Rebellion did not occur in a vacuum. Pennsylvanians were not the sole participants in the historical drama, nor did the effects, sentiments, and resistance sparked by Alexander Hamilton's whiskey tax remain contained within Pennsylvania's borders. The events surrounding the Whiskey Rebellion had a dramatic effect on the emerging United States as a whole. Nowhere outside western Pennsylvania was the backlash against the whiskey excise felt more strongly than in the Virginia counties that bordered Pennsylvania. Residents of Virginia's border counties, principally Ohio, Harrison, and Monongalia, became embroiled in Pennsylvania's Whiskey Insurrection, and in the process they faced many of the same social, political, economic, and personal consequences experienced by Pennsylvania's western settlers.

Before the publication of Thomas P. Slaughter's The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution and Steven Boyd's The Whiskey Rebellion: Past and Present Perspectives, the Whiskey Rebellion had long been viewed as an isolated occurrence on Pennsylvania's western frontier. Slaughter devotes part one of his work to the development and synthesis of a broad national backdrop against which post-Revolutionary frontier unrest might be understood. The local and regional tensions surrounding North and South Carolina's Regulators, North Carolina and Virginia's Franklinites, and eighteenth-century statehood movements in Vermont and Maine demonstrated many of the same historical characteristics, stemmed from similar economic, political, and social motivations, and resulted in strikingly similar outcomes to those of western Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebels. Additionally, essays by historians Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau and Roland M. Baumann, collected in Steven Boyd's edited work, illustrate the extensive nature of anti-excise sentiment in post-Revolutionary America. These works "expand the geographic perimeters" of the rebellion, illustrating that resistance to the excise tax also occurred in Kentucky, Maryland, and the Carolinas.2 The efforts of these historians to expand their historical scope beyond the confines of western Pennsylvania provide much of the inspiration for this essay.

The response to the excise tax and the effects of western Pennsylvania's Whiskey Rebellion were particularly dramatic in the Virginia border counties of Ohio, Harrison, and Monongalia. Virginia's portion of the Monongahela Valley during the years surrounding the Whiskey Insurrection bore a remarkable resemblance to the tumultuous communities in western Pennsylvania. …