1794: The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791, the government placed a high tax of 25% on all spiritus frumenti, or whiskey, sold in the United States. Since this tax affected a commodity produced and sold by the citizens themselves, the tax faced substantial opposition. The resulting resistance became known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”. Many citizens resented the imposition of the whiskey tax as discrimination and detrimental to their liberty and economic welfare. The predominant reason for this was that whiskey sales brought in much more money than crops. Farmers, the main producers of whiskey, saw the market for whiskey as a method for individual profit.

In the counties west of Pennsylvania, the Whiskey Rebellion continued for over three years. During June of 1794, local officials ordered the arrest of whiskey ringleaders. However, instead of squelching the rebellion, this incited a group of angry farmers in Pennsylvania to put up an active fight. This forceful resistance took the form of threats, gunfire, assault, and even arson, specifically directed toward tax collectors.

The struggle broke into open rebellion in July of 1794. At this time, the federal government took initiative and stepped into the conflict. On August 14, President George Washington ordered the governors of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia to provide a total of 12,950 militiamen to serve in an expedition march to western Pennsylvania to put down the “Whiskey Rebellion”. President Washington, who was well respected as a military leader, decided to personally take command of the militia as this was the largest military operation since the Revolutionary War. This was the first and only time in United States history that a sitting president donned a uniform to command troops in battle.

In late September 1794, Carlisle Barracks became the center of intense military activity with the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion. President Washington journeyed to the Barracks on October 10th to review the troops. President Washington recommended the Barracks as the site for a Federal military acad- emy, but Pennsylvania lost that political battle to the state of New York and its West Point location. The government decided to clear up ownership of the post; in 1801, the government paid $664.20 for the 27 acres which it had been renting from William Penn’s heirs.

Washington and the militia arrived at the scene of the rebellion by November 2nd. Federal authority was soon restored, allowing officials the opportunity to resume their whiskey tax collection duties. Militia patrols arrested the ringleaders and escorted them to Philadelphia for trial. To this day, July 16 has been commemorated as Whiskey Day