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The Whiskey Insurrection In Western Pennsylvania [1794]
By Richard Hildreth


Very shortly after the adjournment of Congress, steps were taken, under the new act on that subject, for enforcing the collection of the excise duty in the western counties of Pennsylvania. Indictments were found against a number of distillers who had neglected to enter their stills; and thirty warrants were issued, which the marshal of the district undertook to serve. He succeeded as to twenty-nine of them; but as, in company with General Neville, the inspector of the district, he was going to serve the thirtieth, they were intercepted by a party of armed men, who fired upon them and compelled them to fly for their lives.

The next morning Neville's house, in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, was attacked by an armed party of forty or more. In expectation of some such violence, the windows had been barricaded; Neville's negroes and other servants had been armed; and the assailants were repulsed with the loss of six men wounded, one of them mortally. Neville Irnmeadiately applied for protection to two magistrates and militia officers of the county. Upon their declaration that, however willing, it was utterly out of their power to give it, he obtained a detachment of eleven men from the neighboring garrison of Fort Pitt. The next morning the assailants reappeared, five hundred strong led on by one John Holeroft, whop under the assumed name of Tom the Tinker, had been deeply concerned in stirring up previous outrages against officers who attempted to enforce the laws and distillers who were disposed to submit to it.

On the approach of this force, Neville escaped from the house, leaving his kinsman, Major Fitzpatrick, with the soldiers, to make such defense or capitulation as might seem expedient. The assailants had appointed a committee of three as directors of the enterprise, and they had chosen as commander one McFarlane, formerly a lieutenant in the Continental service The surrender of Neville was demanded, and, on information that he was gone, the admission of six men to search the house for the papers connected with his office. This being refused, a flag was sent for the women to leave the house, soon after which an attack was commenced. McFarlane was killed and several other of the assailants were wounded; but they succeeded in setting fire to the outhouses, and, as the flames threatened to spread, the garrison, three of whom had been wounded, found themselves obliged to surrender. The men were dismissed without injury, but all the buildings were burned to the ground. The marshal and the inspector's son, who came up just after the surrender, were made prisoners. The marshal was subjected to a good deal of abuse, and was only dismissed after a promise, extorted by threats of instant death, and guaranteed by young Neville, not to attempt to serve any more processes west of the mountains. The next day a message was sent to Pittsburgh, where the inspector and the marshal had taken refuge, requiring the one to resign his office, and the other to give up the warrants in his possession. This they refused to do. The means of protection at Pittsburgh were small; and as the roads eastward would most likely be guarded, as the only means of escape, they embarked on the Ohio, descended as far as Marietta, atld thence set out by land for Philadelphia, the greater part of the way through a wilderness.

The next decided step seems to have been a public meeting, held at Mingo Creek meetinghouse, in the neighborhood of which most of the late rioters resided. Bradford and Marshall were both present; also Brackenridge, a lawyer of Pittsburgh, a leading member of the Democratic club of that vicinity who attended, according to his own account, by special invitation. Bradford was for making common cause with the rioters. Brackenridge suggested that, however justifiable in itself, their conduct was nevertheless illegal, and that it was bad policy to draw into the same position those who might otherwise act as mediators. It was finally agreed to call a convention of delegates from all the townships west of the mountains, and from the adjoining counties of Maryland and Virginia, to meet in three weeks at Parkinson's Ferry, on the Monongahela.

Two or three days after this preliminary meeting, anxious to ascertain how the late proceedings had been represented, Bradford caused the mail from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to be intercepted. Letters were found in it, from young Neville and others, giving accounts, by no means satisfactory to the parties concerned, of the burning of the inspector's house, and of the late meeting at Mingo Creek. Without waiting for the proposed convention, a circular, signed by Bradford, Marshall, and four or five others, was forthwith addrest to the officers of the militia of the western counties, stating that, by the interception of the mail, important secrets had been discovered, which made necessary an expression of sentiment, not by words, but by actions. The officers were therefore called upon to muster as many volunteers as they could, to assemble on the first of August at the usual place of rendezvous, at Braddock's Field,3 on the Monongahela, with arms and accouterments, and proviions for four days.

Meanwhile, the mail, with its contents, except the intercepted letters, was sent back to Pittsburgh, and the citizens of that town, to pacify the excitement, went through the form of expelling the obnoxious letter-writers.

The summons to the militia, tho it had only three days to circulate, and that among a population scattered over a wide extent of country, drew together not less than seven thousand armed men. Many afterward alleged that they went out of curiosity, and others, that their sole intention was to prevent mischief; and this was certainly the case with some who were present, among whom was Ross, the United States Senator. But the very fact of this prompt obedience to their orders could not but inspire the leaders with a high idea of their power and influence, while it tended also to increase the mischief, by giving the impression to the public at large of a general unanimity of sentiment.

Colonel Cook, one of the judges of Fayette County, a member of the first popular convention held in Pennsylvania at the commencement of the Revolution, distinguished for his opposition to the excise, having repeatedly presided at the public meetings called to protest against it, was chosen president of this armed assembly. Albert Gallatin, the late rejected Senator, was appointed secretary. Bradford, to whom everybody cringed, assumed the character of majorgeneral, and reviewed the troops. A committee, to whom matters of business were referred, resolved that two more citizens of Pittsburgh should be expelled. The troops then marched into the town, and after receiving refreshments, which the terrified inhabitants hastened to furnish, the greater part marched out again. The more orderly dispersed; but several parties kept together, one of which destroyed a barn belonging to Major Fitzpatrick, and another attempted, but without success, to burn his house in Pittsburgh.

It was Bradford's design, in calling this armed body together, to get possession of Fort Pitt, and the arms and ammunition deposited in it- but, finding most of the principal militia officers unwilling to cooperate, that design was abandoned. Immediately after this armed assembly the remaining excise officers were expelled even from those districts in which the opposition had hitherto been less violent. Many outrages were committed, some of the officers being cruelly treated, and their houses burned. The same spirit began to spread into the bordering counties of Virginia, and, as the day for the meeting at Parkinson's Ferry approached, things assumed a very threatening aspect. However opposition to the excise law might have been countenanced by the great body of the population, including the principal political leaders, the measures of actual resistance to it had been chiefly in the hands of a few violent and reckless individuals, who, sometimes by outrages and sometimes by threats, had kept in awe not only the excise officers, but such of the distillers also as were disposed to submit to the payment of the tax. This reign of terror was now externded old completely established. No one dared utter a word against the recent proceedings for fear of banishment, personal violence, or the destruction of his property.
News of the burning of Neville's house, of the meeting at Mingo Creek, and of the robbery of the mail soon reached Philadelphia. In the eyes of the President and his cabinet those incidents assumed a very serious character. With the arrival of news of the great triumphs achieved by the French arms, and of the subsidence of internal revolt under the terrible discipline of the Reign of Terror, the Democratic societies, recovering from the temporary check growing out of the conduct of Genets and the disasters of the French republic, had become more vigorous and violent than ever, and very unsparing in their attacks upon the policy of the federal administration. The Charleston society on their own application, and on motion of the celebrated Collot d'Herbois, had been recognized by the Jacobin Club of Paris as an afflliated branch. The Democratic society of Washington County, one of those involved in the present disturbances, had recently passed strong resolutions, copied from those of Kentucky, on the subject of the navigation of the Mississippi .The French agents were still active in Kentucky, and a secret understanding was suspected between all these parties.

The Democratic society of Philadelphia hastened indeed to pass resolutions, in which, after execrating the excise law, they declared, however, their disapproval of violent resistance. But no great faith was placed in their sincerity, or in the concurrence of the affiliated branches. In a contemporary letter to Governor Lee, of Virginia, Washington speaks of the leaders of these societies— the great body of the members knowing little of the real plan—as artful and designing men, whose great object was, under a display of popular and fascinating guises, to destroy all confidence in the administration, and likely, if not counteracted and their real character exposed, to shake the government to its very foundation.

In the present inflammatory state of the public mind, the resistance to the laws in western Pennsylvania, if not immediately checked, might find many imitators. Hamilton Knox at Bradford advised that the militia be called out at once. But upon a suggestion to Governor Mifflin to that effect, he exprest apprehensions that a resort to force might inflame and augment the existing opposition, and, by connecting with it other causes of complaint, might produce such an excitement as to make it neeessary to call in aid from the neighboring States—a step by which jealousy and discontent would be still further aggravated. He even questioned whether the militia would "pay a passive obedience to the mandates of the government." He doubted also his own authority to make a call; for, whatever might be the case with the federal judiciary, it did not yet appear that the ordinary course of the State law was not able to punish the rioters and to maintain order. He was therefore disposed to be content for the present with a circular letter already dispatched to the State officers of the western counties, expressive of his indignation at the recent occurrences, and requiring the exertion of their utmost authority to suppress the tumults and to punish the offenders.

Mifflin's refusal removed all pretense for alleging that opportunity had not been afforded to the State of Pennsylvania to vindicate the authority of the laws by her own means. As the case seemed to require immediate interference, Washington resolved to take the responsibility on himself, and to act with vigor. A certificate was obtained, as the statute required, from a judge of the Supreme Court, that in the counties of Washington and Allegany the execution of the laws of the United States was obstructed by combinations too powerful to be supprest by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings. A proclamation was put forth requiring these opposers of the laws to desist, and a requisition was issued to the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia for a body of 13,000 men, raised afterward to 15,000. The insurgent counties could bring into the field about 16,000 fighting men. It was judged expedient to send a force such as would quite discourage any resistance.

The movement of the troops was fixt for the first of September. Meanwhile, three commissioners, appointed by the President, Senator Ross, Bradford, the attorney-general, and Yates, one of the judges of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, were dispatched to the insurgent counties, with discretionary authority to arrange, if possible, any time prior to the 14th of September, an effectual submission to the laws. Chief Justice McKean and General Irving were appointed commissioners on the part of the State. Simultaneously with this appointment, Mifflin issued two proclamations, one calling the Legislature together, the other requiring the rioters to submit, and announcing his determination to obey the President's call for militia.

The two boards of commissioners crossed the mountains together and, on arriving in the disturbed district, found the convention, called by the meeting at Mingo Creek, already in session at Parkinson's Ferry. It consisted of upward of two hundred delegates, including two from that part of Bedford County west of the mountains, and three from Ohio County, in Virginia. Almost all the townships of the four western counties were fully represented. Cook was chairman, and Gallatin secretary The delegates were convened on an eminence, under the shade of trees, surrounded by a collection of spectators, some of them armed. Near by stood a liberty-pole, with the motto, "Liberty, and no excise! No asylum for cowards and traitors !"

A few days after, as had been arranged, the committee of fifteen met the commissioners at Pittsburgh. Among the members of this committee were Bradford, Marshall, Cook, Gallatin, and Brackenridge, the whole, except Bradford, being inclined to an accommodation.... The demands of the commissioners were exceedingly moderate. They required from the committee of sixty an explicit declaration of their determination to submit to the laws, and a recommendation to the citizens at large to submit also, and to abstain from all opposition, direct or indirect, and especially from violence or threats against the excise officers or the complying distillers. Primary meetings were required to be held to test the sense of the citizens in these particulars. Should satisfactory assurances be given on or before the fourteenth of September, the commissioners promised a suspension till the next July of all prosecutions for offenses prior in date to this arrangement; and in case the law, during that interval, should be generally complied with, in good faith, a final pardon, and oblivion of all such offenses.

The committee of fifteen pronounced these terms reasonable; and, to give more time to carry out the arrangement, they agreed to anticipate by four days the calling together of the committee of sixty.

Meanwhile a report spread that the conferees had been bribed; indeed, that charge was made in express terms in a letter of Tom the Tinker to the Pittsburgh Gazette, which the printer, as was the case with other communications of that anonymous personage, did not dare to omit to publish. While the members of the committee of sixty were collecting at Brownsville, the place appointed for the meeting, an armed party of horse and foot entered the town with drums beating. The friends of submission were so intimidated that, but for Gallalin, they would have abandoned all thoughts of urging an accommodation. Bradford insisted on taking the question at once; but, by the exercise of some address, the matter was postponed till the next day, and meanwhile the armed party were persuaded to return to their homes.

The new conferees asked of the commissioners further delay till the 10th of October, to ascertain the sense of the people; but this was declined as being beyond their authority. They now required that meetings should be held in the several townships on the eleventh of September, any two or more members of the late committee of sixty, or any justice of the peace to preside, at which the citizens should vote yea or nay on the question of submitting to and supporting the law, all those voting in the affirmative to sign a declaration to that effect, which was to secure them an amnesty as to past offenses. The third day after the vote, the presiding officers were to assemble in their respective county court houses, to ascertain the number of votes both ways, and to declare their opinion -in writing whether the submission was so general that excise inspection offices could be reestablished with safety; all the papers to be forwarded to the commissioners at Union Town by the sixteenth of the month .Meetings were held under this arrangement in many of the townships, but the result, on the whole, was quite unsatisfactory. Most of the more intelligent leaders were careful to provide for their own safety by signing the required submission; but many of those who had taken no active part in resisting the law refused to attend, or to pledge themselves to obedience. As they had committed no offense, such was their argument, they ought not to be required to submit—as if winking at the violation of law and neglecting to assist in its enforcement were not among the greatest of offenses. In solve townships the meetings were violently broken up and the papers torn to pieces. Such was the case in the town in which Findley resided, who, it seems, was personally insulted on the occasion. From Allegany County no returns were received The judges of the vote in Westmoreland exprest the opinion that excise inspection offices could not be safely established in that county. In the other two counties the expression of any direct opinion was avoided; but these counties had always been more violent than Westmoreland. The better disposed part of the population had begun to form associations for mutual defenses and the opinion among them was quite universal that the presence of the troops was absolutely necessary.

Notwithstanding the timidity and alarms of Randolph7 and others, real or pretended, the President's call for militia, as on the former appeal to the people in the case of Genet, had been responded to with a spirit that gave new strength and confidence to the government. The Pennsylvanians at first were rather backward, and a draft ordered by Mifflin seemed likely, by reason, it was said, of defects in the militia laws, to prove a failure. But the Legislature, on coming together, having first denounced the insurgents in strong terms, to save the delays attendant on drafting, authorized the government to accept volunteers, to whom a bounty was offered. As if to make up for his former hesitation, and with a military sensibility to the disgrace of failing to meet the requisition, Mifflin, in a tour through the lower counties, as in several cases during the Revolutionary struggle, by the influence of his extraordinary popular eloquence soon caused the ranks to be filled up. As a further stimulus, subscriptions were opened to support the wives and children of the volunteers during their absence. The quotas of the other States were promptly furnished, composed in a large part of volunteers. The troops of Virginia, led by Morgan, and those of Maryland by Smith, the Baltirnore member of Congress, forming together the left wing assembled at Cumberland, thence to march across the mountains by Braddock's road those of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, led by Governors Mifflin and Howell in person, and forming the right wing, had their rendezvous at Bedford, to cross the mountains by the northern or Pennsylvania route. The command-in-chief of the expedition was given to Governor Lee, of Virginia. The commissioners having returned to Philadelphia and made their report, the President the next day issued a new proclamation, giving notice of the advance of the troops—which, in anticipation of the failure of the mission, had already been put in motion—and commanding submission to the laws. There was the more need of decisive measures, as the spirit of disaffection was evidently spreading. At Greensburg, in Westmoreland county, a house in which the State commissioners lodged on their way home had been assailed by a mob, who demanded entrance, broke the windows, and were only driven away by threats of being fired upon. The same feeling had also spread to the east side of the mountains. At Carlisle, while on their way home, Judges McKean and Yates had required bonds of certain persons charged with seditious practises in erecting whisky or liberty poles. Hardly had they left the town when two hundred armed men marched in, and, being disappointed in seizing the judges, burned them in effigy, and committed other outrages. There were also signs of similar disturbances in the neighboring counties of Maryland; but these were soon supprest by a party of horse, who made more than a hundred prisoners, most of whom were committed to Hagerstown jail.

Calmer thoughts, and the news that the troops were marching against them, soon produced a change of feeling in the western counties. Bradford and others of the more violent fled the country. Encouraged by these symptoms of returning reasons the better disposed caused a new convention to be held at Parkinson's Ferry. Resolutions of submission were passed, and a declaration was agreed to, that the late failure in obtaining written pledges was principally owing to want of time and information, to a prevailing sense of innocence and to the idea that to sign the pledge required avoid imply a confession of guilt. Findley at last had mustered courage to take a decided part on the side of order; and he was dispatched, with one Redick, to convey these resolutions to the President, and to stop, if possible, the march of the troops.

At Carlisle these commissioners encountered the advance of the right wing, five or six thousand strong. Findley, who has left us a very labored apology for himself and his political friends, under the title of a "History of the Insurrection," found the troops, as he tells us, in a high state of excitement against the rebels. Two persons had been killed already; a man, run through the body by a soldier, whose bayonet he had seized when ordered to arrest him for insulting an officer, and a boy, accidentally shot by one of a party of light horse sent to arrest those concerned in the late riot at Carlisle. But in both these cases—and this was the only blood shed during the expedition—the parties concerned had been delivered over to the civil authorities for trial, and every effort was made by the President and the Secretary of the Treasury, both of whom had followed the troops to Carlisle, to preserve the strictest discipline, and to impress the necessity of avoiding all unnecessary violence and harshness. Findley, however, who was but just beginning to recover from the terror of having his buildings burned, or being himself tarred and feathered, by men whose violence he had found it much easier to stimulate than to control, seems to have been not a little frightened on the other hand, at the swagger, bluster, and loud words of some of the militia officers against the whisky rebels, whose insolent resistance to the laws had made necessary so long and fatiguing a march.
The President treated Findley and his brother ambassador with courtesy, and admitted them to several interviews; but did not see fit, from any evidence which they exhibited, to countermand the march of the troops. They hastened back, therefore, to procure more general and unequivocal assurances, which they hoped to transmit to Bedford, where Washington was again to meet the right wing, after inspecting the troops on the left. The Parkinson Ferry Convention, augmented by many discreet citizens, was again called together for the third time. Resolutions were passed declaring the competency of the civil authorities to enforce the laws, recommending all delinquents who had not already secured an indemnity to surrender for trial, and expressing the conviction that offices of inspection might be opened with safety, and that the excise duties would be paid. Findley hastened back with these resolutions, but before he reached the army the president had already returned to Philadelphia. Hamilton, however, remained behind, and was believed to act as the Presidents deputy.

The troops crossed the Alleganies in a heavy rain, up to their knees in mud, and not without severe suffering, whieh occasioned in the end a good many deaths. The two wings formed a junction at Union Town and, as they advanced into the disaffected counties, the reestablishment of the authority of the law becatne complete. Having arrived at Parkinson's Ferry, Lee issued a proclamation confirming the amnesty to those who had entitled themselves to it, and calling upon all the inhabitants to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.

It few days after, arrangements having been previously made for it, there was a general seizure, by parties detached for that purpose, of persons supposed to be criminally concerned in the late transactions. But as those against whom the strongest evidence existed had either fled the country or taken advantage of the amnesty, this seizure fell principally on persons who, without taking an active part, had been content with encouraging and stimulating others. Many were dismissed at once for want of evidence; and of those who were bound over for trial at Philadelphia, the greater part were afterward acquitted....

Shortly after the seizure of prisoners, the greater part of the troops were withdrawn; but a body of twenty-five hundred men, under Morgan, remained through the winter encamped in the district. The advances necessary to sustain the troops in the field had been made out of a sum in the treasury of about $800,000, the unexpended balance of the foreign loans, Congress being trusted to for making good the deficiency....

The vigor, energy, promptitude, and decision with which the federal authority had been vindicated; the general rally in its support, even on the part of many who had leaned more or less to the opposition; the reprobation everywhere exprest against violent resistance to the law; and the subdued tone, especially of the Democratic societies, made a great addition to the strength of the government. The Federalists exulted in this energetic display of authority, and Hamilton declared that proof at last had been given of the capacity of the government to sustain itself. In that point of view, both he and Washington considered the outbreak, however much to be lamented in other respects, as a fortunate occurrence.