The Whiskey Tax
The American Revolution was an expensive affair for individual states that resulted in the acquisition of debts to finance the war. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton the Treasury Secretary, to assert the powers of the national government, proposed that debt should be a federal government function and recommended a first federal internal tax on liquor to be able to raise funds and avert further financial strains.
President George Washington at first opposed the suggestion but went through the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania speaking to citizens and state officials regarding the proposal. He was surprised to find that local government officials were enthusiastic about the idea and communicated the same to Congress, who passed a bill imposing the Whiskey Tax.
Under the new law, small producers were taxed at the rate of nine cents per gallon and large producers at six cents per gallon, with increasing tax breaks relative to the increase in production. There was an immediate protest against the law, with the small producers who stated that the tax was prejudicial against the small producers and farmers who did not like the idea of cash as the only acceptable mode of payment for the tax.
The distillers found that whiskey was easier to transport as opposed to the grain the raw material. Further, whiskey was a form of informal currency, in addition to being a source of livelihood and many drank to tolerate the unfortunate economic reality of the time.
Whiskey Tax Violence
The law failed immediately, and the enforcement officers sent to collect the tax were attacked by producers who refused to pay. On 11 September 1791, Robbert Johnson an excise officer in Pennsylvania was surrounded by 11 men dressed as women who stripped him naken
Perhaps inevitably, violence broke out. On September 11, 1791, excise officer Robert Johnson was riding through his collection route in western Pennsylvania. He was tarred and feathered; his horse was stolen and was left abandoned in the forest. Johnson had recognised two of the men who attacked him, and when he reported them, a warrant of their arrest was issued.
John Connor, a cattle drover, was sent with the warrants and was met with the same fate as Robert only left in the woods for five hours before his rescue. Johnson resigned when he heard what had happened to John to avoid further torture and humiliation.
Over the next years, there were regular attacks against excise officers with another officer named Benjamin Wells being attacked in his home in Wells. His wife and children were assaulted, and men at gunpoint demanded his accounting book. He also resigned after the incident.
Federal Marshall David Lenox with John Neville were serving summons to appear before a court to distillers in western Pennsylvania, Allegheny County who had not paid tax, in the summer of 1794. William Miller was approached by the two men and refused to accept his summons. An argument ensued, and the two men rode off, only to be met with an angry mob, who had been informed that the excise officers were dragging people from their home.
The following morning Neville was attacked in his home by an angry mob, gunshots were fired, and Oliver Miller was killed by slaves working in Neville’s house who came to his defence. The crowd fled but came back days later demanding the surrender of Neville, but in an exchange of gunshots, their leader James McFarlane was killed by soldiers who had come to protect Neville. The mob burned down part of Neville’s property.
In less than a week later, David Bradford a wealthy landowner, incited a mob of 7000 people using a letter from Washington asserting disapproval for the attack over Neville’s property, encouraged the men to attack Pittsburg. The city of Pittsburg officials sent a barrel of whiskey to appease the angry mob.
Washington in response to the rebellion, ordered 13,000 troops into the areas where the militia were emerging, quelling the violent opposition against the tax. Many Americans were disgusted by the use of force including Thomas Jefferson of the Republican Party, which was the opposition at the time.
The disapproval against the tax helped build support for the Republican Party which took over from Washington’s Federalist Party in 1802.