The Whiskey Rebellion, Part II: Enforcing the Wealth Tax

To enforce the whiskey tax, the federal government, then seated in Philadelphia, appointed tax collectors in every region of the country. Aside from a small stipend, the tax collectors’ pay was based on commission, calculated against the total amount of tax collected.

Thus, for the most part, when the tax collectors commenced their rounds, riding along the roads and trails of the western frontier to levy tax notices on settlers and their stills, they met the usual resentment that tax collectors have encountered since time immemorial.

Tax collectors were often threatened, shot at, beaten up, robbed, or even tarred and feathered. On occasion, the tax collector returned to his homestead and found instead a smoldering ruin. The job of the whiskey tax collector was, to say the least, dangerous and thankless. As a consequence, federal tax collections on whiskey were minimal.

When the whiskey taxes were not paid after collector’s levy, federal marshals were instructed to issue writs of citation against still owners. In Pennsylvania, these writs were answerable within 30 days at the federal court in Philadelphia. For a resident of western Pennsylvania at that time, traveling 280 miles or more to Philadelphia would have required a 10-day ride across difficult, mountainous terrain in the best of circumstances. (On today’s Pennsylvania Turnpike, things have improved marginally.)

Due to the difficulty and expense of travel, most federal tax writs went unanswered. Thus the federal court in Philadelphia issued numerous contempt citations against individuals, as well as executions against their stills and other property. The contempt citations often led to citizens being jailed, their property being seized and sold (as often as not, to some out-of-town, swindling, East Coast speculator…), and evictions from their homes, all by federal authorities and in the name of the government of the United States.

Thus, it is difficult to overstate the sense of unfairness, the resentment, and the bitterness that many frontier dwellers felt towards the new government. Within a very short time, it was costing the federal government more to administer the whiskey tax than the government was receiving in revenue. Even worse than the shortfall of revenue, however, was the failure of the new federal government to demonstrate its ability to enforce its tax laws.

This was widely perceived, both domestically and abroad, as the beginning of the end of the Constitutional experiment. A number of influential people in western Pennsylvania began to advocate secession from the Commonwealth, as well as from the new federal republic. They proposed to set up a state called “Westsylvania.” Some of the more zealous secession advocates made contact with emissaries from Britain regarding creation of an association with Canada. Others made contact with agents of France, regarding setting up a relationship with that nation’s vast and mostly uncharted Louisiana holdings that included a significant presence in the Ohio Valley.

When word of this seditious talk reached President George Washington, he was appalled. In the spring of 1794, President Washington appointed a man named John Neville as federal tax collector for western Pennsylvania. Neville was a former Revolutionary War general and a close acquaintance of Washington’s. Neville set up his tax office at his family’s farm, just south of Pittsburgh.

On July 15, 1794, a group of local residents gathered at Neville’s house to protest the seizure of a neighbor’s property for unpaid whiskey tax. They demanded Neville’s resignation, and also that he turn over his tax records to be burned. Neville’s home was guarded by a unit of federal marshals. After a period of standoff, one of the farmers began to approach Neville’s house under a white flag of truce, and he was shot and killed, presumably by one of the marshals.

Word of the killing rapidly spread, and on July 17, a group of local militia mustered, marched on Neville’s house, and burned it to the ground. Their intent was to deliver some frontier justice to Neville and his “murdering marshals.” Neville and his entourage fled to Old Saint Luke’s Church, on the site of an old British garrison dating back to the days of the French & Indian War, where the pastor offered them sanctuary until the pursuing militia dispersed.

President Washington was outraged at what he considered a personal insult to his old friend and war comrade Neville. Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton decided that they had to make an example of these “western insurrectionists.” Washington referred to the burning of Neville’s farm as a “rogue, unprincipled challenge to authority” and resolved to crack down and bring discipline “to the lower classes of western Pennsylvania.”

The area was already well known to Washington from his younger days as a surveyor and from fighting for the British side in the region during the French & Indian War. Also, there was at least a reasonably good road on which troops could march from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

The American Army of 1794 hardly merited the name. It had dwindled to a few hundred older veterans of the Revolutionary War, with outdated equipment and next to no supplies on hand. Washington was faced with the need to call out the militia if he was going to impose the federal will on the rebels of western Pennsylvania. Not trusting the reliability of Pennsylvanians, most of the militia called to muster were from Virginia and New Jersey.

The Secretary of War was away on family business in Maine, so it fell to Hamilton to organize the expedition. Hamilton, whose tax policies had precipitated the matter, was desperate for success and viewed the confrontation with the whiskey rebels as his personal struggle to stop America from sliding into anarchy and ruin.

President Washington actually led his army of 13,000 troops as they marched west from Philadelphia in August of 1794, the only time in American history that a president has actually served in the role of “commander in chief” in the field. The trek across Pennsylvania took the better part of a month, and many a hotel and tavern was thereafter able to place a sign on the door that “George Washington Slept Here.”

The ill-discipline, lack of proper equipment, and general lack of military professionalism in the ranks of the militia troops appalled both Washington and Hamilton, the latter a former artillery officer under Washington during the Revolution.

To be continued…


Byron King,
for The Daily Reckoning