The Whiskey Rebellion was a 1794
uprising caused by a 1791 excise tax
on distilled spirits
produced in the United States and a requirement that all stills be registered. Alexander Hamilton
and others in the government wanted this tax
as a method of paying off the debts
that U.S. states had incurred during the American Revolution
, which the federal government had agreed to take over.
Those living in western Pennsylvania, largely Scotch-Irish immigrants who had chosen to avoid the settled areas, didn't like this. Rich people imported wine or spirits, so the tax seemed to fall on the poorer citizens. The farmers of the West distilled their liquor for personal use, and as a way to ship their grain back east without spoilage. At first, they tried petitions to courts in Philadelphia, but without success. After a while, government agents came around to try and enforce the tax; angry farmers took tar and feathers to them, burned tax collectors' houses, and rioted in several places, including Pittsburgh.
George Washington had already issued a Presidential proclamation forbidding any activities "to obstruct the operation of the laws of the United States for raising a revenue upon spirits distilled within the same." But the insurgents spread, took over Pittsburgh, got into nearby areas of Virginia, and even contacted England and Spain about recognition as a separate country. By August of 1794, the proclamations were no longer enough, and Washington called for the assembly of a 13,000-man militia (about the same size as it had taken to defeat the British during the American Revolution.) He gave one last chance for peaceful resolution by offering amnesty to rebels who went home by September 1, but on September 24, he ordered the militia to march against the rebellion. In fact, he led them himself. This was the first use of the Militia Law of 1792 which gave the federal government the right to put down internal insurrections.
The rebels pretty much fled in disorder before Washington's troops could even reach them. Perhaps 150 prisoners were taken by the federal force, but only 12 or so were ever tried; most were acquitted for lack of evidence or pardoned by Washington. However, the whole situation proved that the central U.S. government was not afraid to enforce its laws.
Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax in 1802, and other taxes were used as revenue sources in the future.
Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.