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Early United States: 1791–1815

Whiskey Rebellion

The U.S. government faced the first challenge to its authority from a group of farmers in Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a protest against Alexander Hamilton's tax on spirits.

To raise money to pay off the national debt, Alexander Hamilton proposed an excise on hard liquor. An excise is an internal tax added to the price of a good or commodity for the purpose of raising revenue. Congress passed the excise in 1791. This tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which the farmers of southwestern Pennsylvania openly and violently defied the authority of the federal government to tax spirits. Grain was bulky and expensive to ship, so farmers distilled it into whiskey and other spirits that were easier to transport in barrels to markets. Because the tax raised the price of whiskey, resentful farmers threatened to revolt. Some assaulted federal tax collectors. In July 1794 two armed mobs burned down the home of a local tax collector.

In response President George Washington called up a militia from Pennsylvania's neighboring states to restore order. Washington was uncertain about the outcome. His main concern was that the soldiers would sympathize with the farmers and refuse to follow orders. In the end, however, 13,000 troops answered the call and marched into the area fully prepared to put down the rebellion. The rebels peacefully gave up their arms.

Many Anti-Federalists, who were naturally suspicious of displays of federal power, were horrified by Washington's use of force against fellow Americans. The Federalists, however, supported the federal government's use of force to preserve order and tax citizens.
In 1794 President George Washington, dressed as a general, mustered 13,000 militia members at Fort Cumberland to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. The uprising melted away when rebels saw their president reviewing the troops.
Credit: Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1963/The Metropolitan Museum of Art