The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution

The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution

The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution

The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution

Synopsis

When President George Washington ordered an army of 13,000 men to march west in 1794 to crush a tax rebellion among frontier farmers, he established a range of precedents that continues to define federal authority over localities today. The "Whiskey Rebellion" marked the first large-scale resistance to a law of the U.S. government under the Constitution. This classic confrontation between champions of liberty and defenders of order was long considered the most significant event in the first quarter-century of the new nation. Thomas P. Slaughter recaptures the historical drama and significance of this violent episode in which frontier West and cosmopolitan East battled over the meaning of the American Revolution. The book not only offers the broadest and most comprehensive account of the Whiskey Rebellion ever written, taking into account the political, social and intellectual contexts of the time, but also challenges conventional understandings of the Revolutionary era.

Excerpt

At daybreak on July 16, 1794, about fifty men armed with rifles and clubs marched to the house of John Neville, regional supervisor for collection of the federal excise tax in western Pennsylvania. They demanded that Neville resign his position and turn over to them all records associated with collection of the tax on domestically distilled spirits. He refused. Shots were fired. In the ensuing battle five of the attackers fell wounded. One of them later died. Neville and his slaves, who together had defended the premises from secure positions inside the house, suffered no casualties. The mob dispersed.

The following day a crowd of between 400 and 800 locals returned to the scene. This time Neville protected his home with the help of the slaves and eleven soldiers from Fort Pitt. Again the two sides exchanged fire. Neville escaped under cover of a thicket. One or two of the aggressors fell dead. One soldier may have died, three or four were wounded, and two deserted during the course of battle. The remaining guards surrendered after the mob torched the house and outbuildings. The mansion, barns, slave quarters, and most storage bins burned to the ground.

The Whiskey Rebellion, as it is traditionally known and studied, had begun. Before it was over, some 7000 western Pennsylvanians advanced against the town of Pittsburgh, threatened its residents, feigned an attack on Fort Pitt and the federal arsenal there, banished seven members of the community, and destroyed the property of several others. Violence spread to western Maryland, where a Hagerstown crowd joined in, raised liberty poles, and began a march on the arsenal at Frederick. At about the same time, sympathetic "friends of liberty" arose in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and back-country regions of Virginia and Kentucky. Reports reached the federal government in Philadelphia that the western country was ablaze and that rebels were negotiating with representatives of Great Britain and Spain, two of the nation's most formidable European competitors, for aid in a frontier-wide separatist movement. In response, President Washington nationalized 12,950 militiamen from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia—an army approximating in size the Continental force that followed him during the Revolution—and personally led the "Watermelon Army" west to shatter the insurgency.

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