THE WHISKEY REBELLION
JULY 1791 – NOVEMBER 1794
The “Whiskey Rebellion” of 1791-1794 was an exciting yet confusing period in the history of Western
Pennsylvania. It was filled with action, violence, civil disobedience, and clashes of interest. It was important
to American history as it was the first test of the power given the federal government under the new Constitution.
In our young country, it was also seen as a struggle between the rich of the East and the poor farmers of the
In 1791, our war with Great Britain was over and the federal government of the United States needed
money for unpaid debts which had been accumulated by the individual states before and during the Revolution.
Alexander Hamilton proposed the money be raised by a duty on imported liquor and liquor distilled within
the country. The excise bill aroused a storm of protest. In Pennsylvania, the State House of Representatives,
led by representatives of Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington and Fayette counties, passed a resolution
renouncing the excise as did other states. Despite the efforts to block the bill, it passed on January 27, 1791
by a vote of 35 to 21 in the United States House of Representatives. It then passed the Senate and became
law in March, 1791.
It was not surprising that the independent farmers of Western Pennsylvania particularly resented the
excise tax on whiskey. In 1791 there were 272 licensed stills in Washington County, about one for every 20
or 30 families. Not only was there a tax on the whiskey produced but on each still. Whiskey was an
important part of the social and personal life of the area. It was used daily by the people. It was on the table
with meals and taken between meals as a strengthener. It was used for medicinal purposes at a time of very
limited medical knowledge. Whiskey could ward off the bitter cold of winter and the heat of summer. The
Westerners liked their own brew and would have had difficult importing it from the east because of distance
and the hazardous journey involved.
Whiskey was also important to the economy of
Western Pennsylvania. It was difficult to transport the
grain of area farms over the poor mountain roads to
markets in the East. A pack horse could carry four
bushels of rye or the equivalent of 24 bushels of rye
distilled into whiskey. Most families in Western
Pennsylvania were small farmers with very little cash.
Whiskey sold to the army for rations was one of the few
sources of money for the farmers. It was also a much
needed commodity for barter. It could be traded for
goods at the market or used to pay wages. Whiskey
was also considered an important fringe benefit for hired
hands needed on the farms. The tax of seven cents a gallon on all domestic distilled spirits was about onefourth the cost of a gallon of whiskey in the West. This compared to about one-eighth the cost in the East.
The people of Western Pennsylvania felt they had an unfair share of the tax burden and they also feared other
necessities of life would soon be taxed.
The new tax was first protested under the leadership of moderate men, including Hugh Henry
Brackenridge of Pittsburgh and Albert Gallatin of Fayette County. It was later that the moderates lost control
to more radical men. The first opposition from the Monongahela country was expressed in numerous petitions
and resolutions of protest. A meeting was held at Brownsville on July 27, 1791 at which William Findley
spoke for moderation and the writing of a petition to protest the tax. The next meeting was set to be held in
Pittsburgh on September 7th. An interim meeting held in Washington County on August 23 to elect delegates
for the planned Pittsburgh meeting came under the control of radicals who drew up and adopted a violent
resolution that classified excise officers as public enemies to be treated with contempt. The people were not
to communicate with them and were not to “aid, support or comfort” them in any way.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge Albert Gallatin
The Pittsburgh meeting was attended by eleven delegates. Edward Cook, of Fayette County, was
elected chairman. The resolutions adopted protested the government’s financial policy and stated that the
excise was subversive to liberty and discouraging to agriculture and manufacture. It also urged the people
not to accept excise offices so the law would be ineffective.
The first violent acts were scattered and disorganized. An incident occurred on September 6, 1791,
when Robert Johnson, one of the first excise tax collectors for Washington and Allegheny counties, was
walking near Pigeon Creek in Washington County. He was attacked by a gang of sixteen men. According to
his story, they were dressed in women’s clothing, but he recognized several of them, including John, Daniel
and David Hamilton. They cut off his hair, tarred and feathered him, seized his horse and left him to find his
way as best he could. Warrants were issued by the federal courts for those responsible but the process
server was also whipped, tarred and feathered, robbed, and left in the woods.
Other excise officers or suspected tax sympathizers were attacked in late 1791. They were abducted,
beaten, tarred and feathered, branded with hot irons and robbed. There were no further overt acts until the
summer of 1792. During this lull, associations against the whiskey tax were being organized.
During August of 1792, events again began to turn to violence. William Faulkner of Washington was
threatened with harm if he allowed his home to be used as an excise office. He agreed but when there was a
delay in his compliance his house was attacked, shots were fired and he was again threatened.
Because of increasing hostilities, another conference was called at Pittsburgh on August 21, 1792 In
addition to David Bradford, James Marshall, and Edward Cook, three of the leaders of the first Pittsburgh
conference, a number of other prominent men appeared. Among them were John Canon, Benjamin Parkinson
and John Hamilton, all of Washington County, and Albert Gallatin and John Smilie of Fayette County. The
townspeople of Pittsburgh did not want to take any part in the meeting. At this meeting a committee of
correspondence was appointed and sent to Congress. This resolution caused a great protest in the East.
President George Washington issued a counter statement warning the malcontents to “desist from all unlawful
combinations and proceedings whatsoever, having for object or tending to obstruct the operation of the
As a result of the second Pittsburgh meeting and the Faulkner “riot”, the
Secretary of the Treasury sent George Clymer to Western Pennsylvania to assess
the situation. He returned with an unfavorable report on the Monongahela country.
He stated that Washington was the worst county in opposing the excise tax. He
found Fayette County more moderate, Westmoreland County was not generally
against the excise and Allegheny County had taken no decisive part in the protest.
Although Fayette County received a favorable report from Clymer, it became
the scene of more violence in 1793. Benjamin Wells, the tax collector for Fayette
and Westmoreland counties, was attacked and threatened in his home. President
Washington offered a reward for the capture of each assailant, but they were not
identified or arrested.
A meeting was held in Fayette County in March of 1794 to try to make some changes in the situation
and make the excise more acceptable. The aim of the meeting was to remove all excise officers in the area
and substitute “reputable men”. This meeting was a turning point in the development of the resistance to the
tax. Thereafter, the people were split into two groups; the “influential” and “respectable” citizens were at
least secretly for the law, while the poorer farmers felt abandoned to the mercies of the federal government.
The latter group began to rely more heavily on violence.
Any farmer who did not oppose the tax was in great danger. Events reached such a fevered pitch that
a virtual reign of terror existed in Washington County during the summer of 1794. The insurrectionists would
shoot holes in the stills and damage them. This was humorously referred to by John Holcroft, leader of the
rioters, as “mending the stills”. From this he coined the expression of “Tom the tinker’s” men, which he
applied to the rioters. Within a few days it became the popular name of the opponents of the excise tax who
resorted to violent action against their neighbors’ stills.
Besides having several joint conferences, the farmers formed societies of their own. One of these
was the Mingo Creek Society established on February 28, 1794. Brackenridge, the Pittsburgh attorney, has
left the only surviving account of this society’s organization, and he states that “it was the cradle of the
insurrection inasmuch as it fostered the contempt for law and the exaggerated ideas of liberty that brought on
the trouble”. Their meetings were held in the Mingo Creek Presbyterian Church located between what is
now Monongahela and Finleyville on the beautiful valley through which ran Mingo Creek.
The worst part of the insurrection was brought on by the opposition in the
Monongahela country to trials in Philadelphia for breaking the federal excise law.
The farmers were incensed with the prospect of attending a court three hundred
miles from home for an unpredictable number of weeks during the busy season.
They also had the burden of paying lawyers and obtaining witnesses. A bill was
finally passed in Congress in June of 1794 to change the place of venue to closer
state courts. However, the processes had already been issued under the original
law and were returnable to Philadelphia. William Findley had the view that
Alexander Hamilton was deliberately trying to create a situation that would excuse
the use of an army to strengthen the federal position.
United States Marshall David Lenox left Philadelphia on June 22, 1794 to serve processes against
the people who had not paid their excise tax. Lenox experienced no difficulty in Cumberland, Bedford and
Fayette counties and served his writs without any trouble. After he arrived in Monongahela country, Lenox
rode out with John Neville to serve four or five remaining writs.
One of the local families involved in the Whiskey conflict was the Neville family. Brigadier General
John Neville was well known and influential at this time. He had amassed a considerable fortune and his
home at Bower Hill in the Chartiers Valley was one of the finest in the Western Counties. His son, Presley
Neville, was also a veteran of the Revolutionary War. His country home, which he called “Woodville”, was
situated on a slope across Chartiers Creek from Bower Hill. General Neville had openly opposed the state
excise tax only a few days before his appointment as inspector for the government. This infuriated many
people and they began to call him a “turncoat”. His son also sympathized with the federal tax. Neville had
reason to fear for his life because now he had become an “excise inspector”.
THE WHISKEY REBELLION