In January 1791, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed a seemingly innocuous excise tax "upon spirits distilled (whiskey) within the United States.” What Congress failed to predict was the fierce rejection of this tax by Americans living on the frontier of Western Pennsylvania. By 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the stability of the young United States and forced President Washington to personally lead the United States militia westward to stop the rebels.
Secretary Hamilton intended to use the tax to reduce the debt left from the Revolution. News of the tax spread, and individuals in Western Pennsylvania immediately refused to pay it. Residents viewed this tax as another unfair policy that negatively affected American citizens on the frontier.
Western farmers felt the tax was an abuse of federal authority targeting farmers who relied on crops such as corn, rye, and grain to earn a profit. Shipping this harvest east was dangerous because of poor storage and dangerous roads. Farmers frequently distilled their grain into liquor, which was easier to ship and preserve. While large-scale farmers could easily pay the additional tax, poor farmers were unable to do so without falling into debt.
In 1792, President Washington issued a proclamation reprimanding westerners for their resistance. By 1794 the protests became violent. In July, nearly 400 whiskey rebels near Pittsburgh set fire to the home of the regional tax collection supervisor. Washington had no choice but to organize a militia force of 12,950 men and led them towards Western Pennsylvania.
The use of the militia essentially ended the Whiskey Rebellion. By the time the militia reached Pittsburgh, the rebels had dispersed and could not be found. The militia apprehended approximately 150 men and tried them for treason. A lack of evidence and inability to obtain witnesses hampered the trials. By 1802, then President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax on whiskey. Under the eye of President Washington, the United States survived the first true challenge to federal authority.
Source: The Whiskey Rebellion #1
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