One of the most pressing and difficult obstacles facing the inexperienced George Washington's first administration was ensuring the West’s loyalty to the Union. This was largely a matter of security and defense against the resident Indian nations and their European allies – England, France and Spain.
Settlers in this vast border region were constantly threatened by Indian raids, foreign-controlled trade on the Mississippi, speculative land prices, poorly paid militia salaries, financial shortages, and resentment against taxes and bureaucratic regulations.
One dimension of the problem in the West was the economy. Western farmers were required because of the geographic location of the landscape and the lack of roads to transport their bulky produce into the Gulf of Mexico via the river systems. Overland freight rates were prohibitive. If the land west of the Appalachians were to remain loyal to the new union, the federal government had to take military action against the Indians and ensure free navigation on the Mississippi.
Performances from 1794
In 1794 the Washington government signed a treaty with England (Jay Treaty), waged an energetic war against the Indian nations in the Northwest Territory (Battle of the Fallen Woods) and suppressed a popular uprising over whiskey. This was almost a miracle given the hopelessness of the prospect a year earlier.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's 1791 economic program was an integral part of the frontier rebellion. The need to raise funds to pay off the debts of the American Revolution prompted the introduction of several taxes. An excise tax was considered the most hideous form of tax by most American citizens of the time, and the old Continental Congress had called it "the horror of all free states."
Hamilton successfully steered his economic program through Congress despite strong opposition in the south. The federal debt was guaranteed, but funds had to be found to ensure the annual payment of the enormous debts of the new government.
Various taxes were introduced, but the one that aroused immediate opposition and sparked western discontent between 1790 and 1794 was the excise duty on distilled whiskey. In the 18th and 19th centuries, heavy drinking and drunkenness were common in classes and in situations where public opinion today would not tolerate it.
Not only was whiskey seen as a necessity for workers and workers in their workplace, but clergymen fortified themselves with a good, stiff drink before starting a sermon. Lawyers and politicians sometimes poured a tall glass before the court began or before giving a speech in the legislative area of Congress.
Corn whiskey was a major export product in the west, particularly western Pennsylvania. Farmers found it almost impossible to export grain to eastern markets due to the high freight rates and poor roads. Grain then had to be converted into a form that was less bulky and more valuable in relation to its weight.
One such form was the raising of cattle, which was brought to market, but it was a laborious and risky business. Another form, less difficult and more profitable, was the conversion of grain into distilled spirits.
Whiskey could be transported profitably from the west to the markets in the east. The profit margin, however, was seriously jeopardized by the excise tax passed in 1791. And the tax discriminated against the West because whiskey was worth twice as much per gallon in the East as it was in the West.
Western resentment was also aroused by the federal government's appointment of tax collectors – the forerunners of the "Avengers" later so bitterly hated by the mountain people of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Meetings were held in 1792 to express this contradiction. Some damage was caused to private and public property, but the unrest subsided in 1793. There were minor problems in North and South Carolina as well, but for all practical purposes the problem appears to have been resolved.
Summer of discontent
The war clouds reappeared in the summer of 1794. The border has been disrupted by the slow pace of the federal government in resolving border problems. Efforts to pacify the Indians were hampered by poor military tactics. British and Spanish influence was still present with the tribes. And the line exploded when federal regulations required that excise law violations be brought to Philadelphia for trial.
A federal marshal was attacked in Allegheny County while he was serving a warrant. Some members of the "Democratic Society" burned the house of a regional inspector. A rally was held in Pittsburgh during which several city officials were expelled from office and left in a hurry.
Washington is moving fast
President Washington responded quickly to reports from state and local officials to quell the insurrection. After a proclamation by the president failed to restore order, he called on several states to equip 15,000 men to form a militia. Hamilton was given command.
The immense army marched to the forks of the Ohio and found no opposition. The westerners suddenly discovered that discretion was most of bravery. The whiskey rebels were nowhere to be seen. Two men were arrested and convicted of treason, but Washington pardoned them for lack of evidence.
The army marched away in November 1794, three weeks after their arrival. Washington demonstrated the authority of the new federal government to act quickly to maintain law and order. The operation managed to secure the border with Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party in future elections, despite Washington's success in foreign affairs and the Indian defeat at Fallen Timers in the same month as the Whiskey Rebellion.
The purchase of Louisiana by Jefferson in 1803 eased tension on the east Mississippi border. This is your story!
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