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What Is the Whiskey Rebellion?

By Angela Farrer
Updated Feb 01, 2024
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The Whiskey Rebellion was made up of a series of incidents that occurred during the late summer of 1791 in the American farm country of western Pennsylvania. The federal government had imposed an excise tax on the popular distilled spirit in order to help pay down the new nation's debts from the recent war for independence. The tax noticeably cut into the profits of smaller-scale corn farmers and whiskey distillers, leading many of them to angrily rebel by harassing and intimidating the tax agents assigned to collect the whiskey tax. The level of resistance soon escalated to the point of conflict between farmers and the federal troops sent to restore order to the region. The Whiskey Rebellion led to the first instance of the United States government taking direct actions against citizens who willfully resisted established federal laws.

When the whiskey excise tax was passed into law, it immediately became unpopular among western grain farmers with lower incomes. They believed that the tax unfairly targeted people who bartered whiskey rather than paid any currency in exchange for other goods because the tax was structured the same as an added income tax. The exact amount of the tax on each unit of whiskey totaled about 25% of its total value. The tax also seemed to favor larger distillers, who were mostly along the eastern seaboard, who could afford to pay a flat tax rather than per gallon. Some historians also consider the politics behind the Whiskey Rebellion as one of the first American attempts to legislate morality by taxing a product that many considered harmful.

The beginnings of the Whiskey Rebellion generally consisted of written petitions that western farmers submitted to the federal government. When this measure failed to repeal the whiskey tax, the protests escalated to insurrections that included mob violence. One tax collector's house was burned, and at least one Pennsylvania tax agent was publicly punished by being coated with tar and feathers.

These uprisings caused then-President George Washington to take measures to stop the Whiskey Rebellion before it got completely out of control. After issuing a written desist order that was ignored, he then sent federal troops to western Pennsylvania to restore order. This decision was the first of its kind for the young nation to enact temporary militia law in order to send the message that all states were in fact subordinate to the national government.

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Discussion Comments
By winslo2004 — On Oct 24, 2011

@letshearit - I can see where it would be important to impart that lesson early. Having just had one successful revolution, it must have occurred to all kinds of different interest groups that their own pet ideas may be brought about by another one. Washington had a vested interest in curing them of that idea as quickly as possible.

It's kind of funny, really. In beating "the man", George Washington became "the man" himself.

By bigjim — On Oct 24, 2011

@truman12 - I learned in college that part of the reason people drank so much was that sanitation, especially in the cities, was horrible. Hand washing, food storage, disinfection, and other basic hygiene was lacking, to say the least. Wells and outhouses were often very close together. People got sick from bad water quite a bit.

Beer or whiskey both involve heating the water in the mixture to boiling. This can kill a lot of the organisms. This is a world without IV rehydration, antibiotics, or hospitals in the modern sense. If you got cholera or typhoid or some other horrible disease from drinking bad water, you would likely die. People noticed that those who drank alcohol got sick less than those who drank water, so there you have it.

Of course, there were a bunch of other things going on then too, but that was part of it.

By KLR650 — On Oct 23, 2011

Taxes make people mad, and whiskey makes people happy. You would think a man as wise as George Washington would understand something like that.

Of course, they didn't have income tax, national debt in the current sense of the word, or much in the way of social programs or foreign policy. There were only so many ways to make money, and in very real sense they had to take it directly from people through various taxes. I can see where that is necessary, but also see where it is upsetting.

I also find it ironic that the President who had just won the war started in part by the Boston Tea Party, which was also a protest against taxes on a beverage, had to send the Army to quell a rebellion over taxes on another beverage. I bet that Washington found it ironic too. Of course, that's just a guess.

By drtroubles — On Oct 23, 2011

I think those rebels back in the 1791 to 1794 Whiskey Rebellion didn't think things through as well as they could have. Openly rebelling against a popularly elected government is just not the way to do things - it's simply not the same as seeking self-government instead of being ruled by some far away king. No wonder the public overwhelmingly supported President Washington on this one.

Jefferson did away with the tax lawfully after he was elected President so it shows that the system can work. Sometimes rebels are romanticized in history but these guys just seemed like troublemakers.

By letshearit — On Oct 23, 2011

The Whiskey Rebellion's significance doesn't really lie with the rebels, or with the tax itself, as taxes come and go (mainly come, it may seem to us). Something important it did was set a precedent that people could only challenge the government through constitutional means and not open rebellion, which was not an automatically accepted thing at that time given how recent the American Revolution was.

Now almost everyone in America believes in the Constitution... "that's unconstitutional", "we must amend the Constitution", and so on. When you think about it those rebels got off pretty light to receive a pardon after being convicted of treason and facing a trip to the hangman's noose.

By summing — On Oct 22, 2011

Thinking about the problems we have today it seems so strange to get up in arms over a tax on whiskey. But I guess life was different back then and they weren't fighting about social security or the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans or a war in a foreign country. There were only so many issues. I guess that whiskey was one of them.

By truman12 — On Oct 22, 2011

I once read this book called "The Alcoholic Republic". I'm sorry to report that I can't remember the author but the book shouldn't be too hard to track down.

Anyway, the book was by a historian who basically claimed that between 1790 and 1820 Americans drank more than they ever had before or ever have since. By his calculations, over half the population was an alcoholic. He cites lots of different numbers and data and makes a pretty convincing case for why people drank so much.

He does not point to just one source. It was the result of lots of cultural, political and historical factors that reached a weird kind of head at the end of the 18th century. But he points to the whiskey rebellion as one of the key factors. Domestically produced whiskey flooded the market after this and, you guessed it, Americans drank it.

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