On March 3, 1791, Congress passed the excise tax, an act which levied a 25 percent tax on all domestically distilled whiskey and outlined an elaborate system for collecting the fee and imposing fines on those that failed to comply. Many Pennsylvania farmers opposed the act, a measure proposed by Alexander Hamilton as a means of raising funds to alleviate the burden of debt created by fighting the Revolutionary War. Because of the high cost associated with transporting crops over the mountains that stood between their farms and markets in the east, many frontier farmers distilled their corn into whiskey – a product both easier to transport and more profitable to sell. Many settlers were already wary of the government as the administration seemed to be out of touch with the lives and difficulties experienced by citizens living on the frontier. The settlers viewed the tax as an unfair policy dictated by the elite and detrimental to their livelihoods.
The man primarily responsible for collecting the duty in Pennsylvania’s western counties was John Neville, a Virginia aristocrat who had little in common with the frontiersmen living around him. By 1792, there were sporadic outbreaks of opposition throughout the area with many distillers refusing to pay the excise tax. Some people threatened the excise agents. Several of the agents were tarred and feathered. These actions prompted Washington to issue a proclamation condemning the opposition and appealing to rebellious citizens to comply with federal law. A committee of 15 people representing the opposition including Albert Gallatin, who later served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, unsuccessfully met with the president in the hopes of negotiating a policy more amenable to the whiskey distillers.
In July 1794, opposition reached a climax when a large mob of protestors marched on Neville’s home. Gunshots were exchanged with both Neville and his slaves before the mob dispersed. The next day, the group returned and set fire to Neville’s house. On Aug. 7, 1794, Washington issued a second proclamation urging the protestors to peacefully disperse. He invoked the Militia Act of 1792, allowing Washington to use the state’s militia to put down the rebellion and enforce the collection of the tax. Following his proclamation, Washington assembled nearly 13,000 troops who marched westward and occupied the area. By the time the troops had arrived, the rebels had largely disappeared. Several rebels were captured and tried. Two men convicted of treason were later pardoned.
About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.