“Do. Not. Fuck. With. Our. Whiskey.”
~18th Century Americans/19th Century Americans/20th Century Americans/You Get The Gist
America was founded under a few core principles. Now, it’s been a while since we’ve skimmed through the Declaration of Independence, and if you put a gun to our head we’d still not be able to tell you what the Third Amendment of the Constitution does, but we’re pretty sure America is all about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through the imbibement of alcohol. Nope, that’s right, we nailed it on the first try, don’t even try to ask Google if that’s right they’ll just steal your cookies and put them on boat servers and sell them to Nigerian Princes (besides being keen historians, we’re also internet experts).
We bring this up because we’d like to tell you about a very important history tale, from America’s distant past. Imagine, if you will, a time when America’s very existence could be threatened by even the smallest of threats. Picture a government trying to tax our booze to pay for war debts. And imagine people rising up and saying, “Get your hands off our fucking booze” with enough anger and violence that it marks the only time that an acting President led troops to battle.
Yes, that’s right, we’re here to talk about the Whiskey Rebellion, the relatively minor yet strangely important hiccup in American history that, naturally, was centered around our nation’s love of alcohol.
Get Your Hands Off My Bottle: A Short History of the Whiskey Rebellion
For a rebellion that lasted for about three years and required a militia force of 12,950 men (or, similar to the size of Washington’s armies during the American Revolution), not a lot happened during the Whiskey Rebellion, but it still proved to be an important chapter in our nation’s formative years. It’s probably our second favorite revolution because it has the word “whiskey” in it, but also because like, only sixteen people died in the whole thing and it didn’t result in large swaths of the population using their rebellion’s flag and insisting it’s some sort of “Western Pennsylvania pride” thing. Looking at you, Mississippi.
Events were first set into motion in 1791 when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who you know best as that guy who is on the $10 bill but who was never president because he got shot by Aaron Burr, decided that the best way for America to pay the national debt left from the Revolutionary War was to consolidate national and state debt into one single, federally funded debt, which would be largely funded by placing an excise tax on American distilled spirits. Basically, it meant that everyone making booze had to pay the government a little bit of what they sold, which is pretty much how everything works now, but at the time taxation was a pretty hot button topic (see also—that whole war we fought over taxation without representation). This didn’t sit well with a lot of distillers in Western Pennsylvania and Appalachia, many of whom were Revolutionary War veterans who had just, you know, finished fighting a war that largely started over the idea of unjust taxation.
This largely pissed off people in Western Pennsylvania, many of whom used their excess grains produce small to moderate amounts of whiskey to sell. The way the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791, referred to as the whiskey tax since this is America and if we’re making booze we’re going to be making whiskey first and foremost goddamn it, worked was to give distillers the option of paying a set price per gallon sold (about nine cents a gallon), or larger distilleries could afford to pay a flat rate that typically would lower the cost to about six cents a gallon when it was all said and done. Western Pennsylvania felt this favored the East, which had more large distillers, and generally fought back on the opinion that it was an unfair taxation.
For reference sake, this is how much 9 cents in 1791 would be worth now, which means that the tax was equivalent to $2.50 a gallon…shit, about the same as the liquor taxes in most major cities right now! ANARCHY! ANARCHY!
Initially, the residents of the western frontier that felt most strongly against this excise unsuccessfully petitioned against its passage, at which point they sent a convention of delegates to Pittsburgh to advocate for the repeal of the law. This group felt that “violence wasn’t necessary” and took a “moderate stance” that for some reason makes us want to “use excessive word quotes” and were actually able to help modify the Whiskey law, lowering the tax by one cent per gallon.
Now, since this is America, and Americans are known to be rational, especially when matters of alcohol are involved, those who opposed the tax were completely placated by this concession. Ha ha, no, just kidding, they got violent as shit, tarred and feathered Robert Johnson, a newly appointed tax collector, and then whipped, tarred, and feathered the man sent to serve court warrants to arrest Johnson’s attackers, because wow, that escalated really quickly.
Ha ha, that doesn’t look so bad! Oh what’s that? It actually fuses the feathers to your skin, causing mutilation and horrible pain? Um, never mind then!
Understandably, the tax went uncollected for the next two years, because once you establish that your response to, “Hey, can you pay us that money you owe us?” is to be stripped topless and doused with boiling hot tar and dirty feathers, you’ll find that a lot of people are going to stop asking you, “Hey, can you pay us that money you owe us?” At this point, Alexander Hamilton poetically expressed his consternation with the situation, saying, “…those mother fuckers.” Probably. Maybe. Probably not. Either way, he wanted the government to send some armies to help Western Pennsylvania and the rest of Appalachia get their mess right, which at the time was viewed as a bit too radical of a step. A second delegation was then sent to Pittsburgh to address the tax in 1792, only this time the moderates where nowhere to be found, and instead the Mingo Creek Association took control of things, and by “took control of things” we mean “oh shit, they’re like, taking control of the local militias and created their own court to deter people trying to collect on debts or foreclosures.”
Since Hamilton wasn’t allowed to send soldiers at Western Pennsylvania to get them to shut the hell up about their whiskey tax (we can’t overstate this enough, he had a huge hard on for sending some troops to crush this thing at the core) he had to settle to writing a harshly worded proclamation for Washington to send out which, again, we have to assume said, “Dude, just, get off our dicks already.”
This is where General John Neville came into play, who arguably got to do the most shooting and killing in the whole affair.
“I killed a man in Allegheny County, just for Whiskey Ryeeee”
John Neville was, at the time, a 61 year old federal tax inspector who gave just enough of a shit to actively try to collect whiskey taxes. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Dunmore’s War, and the American Revolution, he received a brevet promotion to brigadier general at the end of war when he decided to become an inspector of revenue, since his soldiering days were clearly behind them, and it wasn’t like he was going to ever have to shoot anyone dead over something as silly as a 9 cent tax. He rented a room in Pittsburgh to serve as his tax office in August of 1792, until the good folks at the Mingo Creek Association threatened the landlord to make him kick Neville the fuck out. This wasn’t particularly uncommon—while members of the Whiskey Rebellion had long been focusing their ire towards tax collectors, that soon spread to anyone who was viewed as not being “on their side.”
Matters only began to worsen throughout 1793. While Hamilton tried to paint the whiskey tax as a “sin tax” which, as a website that extols the virtue of whiskey, we personally take offense to, it was largely viewed as an “us versus them” fight between the more financially secure Eastern segment of Pennsylvania, and the poorer Western Pennsylvanians. Soon, the distillers were joined by lower income residents who simply wanted to rebel against the status quo. Effigies of Neville were being burned (please refer back to this sentence when we talk about Neville straight up killing dudes), and articles by “Tom the Tinker” appeared in newspapers, threatening to burn the barns or destroy the stills of anyone who complied with the whiskey tax.
This was the first result we got from our Google image search of “Tom the Tinker.” It’s from a gallery of unicorn drawings so we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that this is a different guy.
By 1794, the resistance, which at this point was not quite a full on rebellion, began to heat up when subpoenas for about 60 Pennsylvania distillers who had not paid the excise tax were served. The subpoenas, issued by district attorney William Rawle, called for the accused to appear in federal court in Philadelphia. Now, if you’ve ever driven through Pennsylvania, you’d know that the state actual never ends, and goes on indefinitely until you crash into a mountain side in a fit of blind rage, but back then, without the modern luxury of “cars” or “a maintained road system” it was considered a slap in the face to demand that these small-time distillers travel all the way across the state (which again, does not exist in a single dimension, and can only be successfully traversed by accidentally finding a wormhole). A trip all the way to Philadelphia was something many of these distillers could hardly afford, and likely require a round trip that would take roughly a full month. Many of those served rightfully responded with a hearty, “Fuck that noise.”
Later that month, Congress changed the law in question, thus allowing trial to be held in local state courts, but the damage had been done, and a U.S. Marshal had already been dispatched to serve the summons demanding that the distillers go to Philadelphia. While David Lenox, the Marshal sent with this unenviable task, managed to hand most of the writs without incident, when he made his rounds on July 15th with General Neville, the residents of Miller Farm, ten miles south of Pittsburgh, fired warning shots at the two. While Lenox retreated to Pittsburgh, Neville went to his fortified home at Bower Hill, because if you were having people take pot shots at you and burn imagines of yourself in effigy, you’d fortify your fucking estate too. The next day, Neville found himself surrounded by roughly 30 militiamen from Mingo Creek, who demanded that Lenox surrender.
Now, Neville probably thought to himself, “Shit, I’m surrounded, and they want me to turn over a man who has long since hightailed it the fuck out of here. If I tell them that he’s not here, there’s no way they’ll believe me.” He also probably thought, “These fuckers have been giving me shit for two years, now it’s time to get mine.” So doing his best impression of the not-yet-filmed Gran Torino, he responded to this request by shooting at the surrounding mob, killing Mingo Creek member named Oliver Miller. After the rebels returned fire, probably saying, “Holy shit, that 62-year-old dude just fucking shot at us” they left and returned with reinforcements, eventually surrounding the house with over 600 men, because “overkill” is not in your vocabulary when you’re busting heads with someone doing their best future-Clint-Eastwood impression.
We couldn’t find any paintings or pictures of General Neville, but this seems pretty accurate.
Now, 600 men surrounding a house with one person in there seems like pretty tall odds, so we’ll set the record straight. Neville did eventually get some reinforcements, in the form of 10 Army soldiers under the command of the brother-in-law of Neville’s wife, Major Abraham Kirkpatrick. After a failed negotiation, which probably consisted largely of, “Hey, just surrender okay, stop shooting at us” followed by, “Hey, go fuck yourself, I’m John Neville, pew pew pew” they agreed to let the women and children leave the house before shooting the ever-loving shit out of each other. Major James McFarlane, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, had stepped in at this time to command the Whiskey Rebellion militia, which at this point you might as well call a fucking army, and after an hour of shooting, he called for a cease fire. Assuming that the killing was done (it was not—see previously, effigy, Gran Torino) he stepped into the open, and was shot dead by a shot ringing from the house. No one knows who took the shot, but we’re just saying that Neville’s the only one so far who’s established himself as a marksman in this scenario.
Either way, having your leader shot to death while calling a cease fire would piss off just about anyone. They set fire to the house, and Neville and his reinforcements surrendered. The Battle of Bower Hill (named after Neville’s estate which was, gasp, called Bower Hill) was the one actual battle of the Whiskey Rebellion, but it also was what lit the fuse to the whole thing. At the end of the day, about four militiamen had died, with one U.S. soldier possibly having succumbed to wounds received in the battle, but the protests against McFarlane’s slaying pushed the Whiskey Rebellion forward at a breakneck pace.
Weirdly enough, the rebels kept Kirkpatrick, Lenox, and Neville’s son prisoner for a short time after the battle, but not Neville himself, probably because they were fucking terrified of the man.
By August 1st, the largest gathering of protesters during the crisis was assembled in Braddock’s Field, about eight miles east of Pittsburgh, with some wanting to march on Pittsburgh, steal all the valuables they could find, and burn the city to the ground, a phenomenon now referred to as “A Bad Steelers Loss.” Others still wanted to break off from America, possibly joining with Spain or England. Again, this is all because of people not wanting to pay the equivalent of an extra $2.50 for a gallon of whiskey which, while we can’t say we condone it, we at least begrudgingly respect it.
Now Washington had to figure out how to deal with what was, essentially, an armed insurrection happening under his watch. Hamilton was probably standing behind him going, “Army army army shoot ‘em up shoot em up!” while Washington weighed his options. He had to show that the new United States government was strong, without looking like he was bullying disenfranchised veterans who were only protesting what they felt to be an unjust law. He decided he’d send commissioners to meet with the rebels, who by now had begun meeting at Whiskey Point to discuss what further steps their revolt should take, in an attempt to brochure a peace. At the same time, he raised a motherfucking army because you do not mess with papa America unless you want to get slapped.
Keep in mind, this was the person they were fucking with.
Washington likely never expected the army of nearly 13,000 men to be used in actual battle settings, but he wanted to procure a force big enough to make any potential rebellion shit their pants and apologize profusely. A draft had to be implemented to fill the ranks, which met resistance in Virginia and Maryland that resulted in the deaths of two civilians (on September 29th, 1794, an officer accidentally fired his pistol and killed an unarmed boy, and on October 1st of that year a soldier stabbed a man to death while he resisted arrest which, like, we just didn’t want to bring up ‘cause it’s kind of a mood killer). Eventually, the army was raised, and Washington traveled with them to review the progress of the expedition. It remains the only time a standing President has led an Army on the field, and it feels oddly fitting and badass that the one time it happened was for something called “The Whiskey Rebellion.”
As soon as the army marched into Western Pennsylvania in October, 1794, the whole rebellion collapses on itself. The aftermath was relatively painless—only ten men stood trial for treason, with two convictions passed down. They were sentenced to death by hanging, only to be pardoned by Washington who figured, eh fuck it, let’s let bygone be bygones. He probably felt a little bad for letting Hamilton bully them into having to pay a tax on whiskey, which is one of the best things out there, so letting them live seemed like a fair trade.
Overall, Washington handled one of his first internal crises with aplomb—his handling of the situation met widespread approval of the rest of the nation, and it proved that the young nation could be just, while also not tolerating any violent resistance to our laws. We upheld peace and order, and managed to avoid looking weak to other nations. Not that we’d ever look weak. We’re America, goddamn it.
Pictured above- America
So whenever you next pour yourself a big old glass of whiskey (it’s now isn’t it? You’re drinking a glass of whiskey now? Jesus, at work?) take a moment to thank America for the passion that goes into it, the passion it instills, and the fact that if we can survive a resurrection over whiskey prices, we can survive anything.
Couple of thoughts on the dates in this item…Your word processor has moved the events to the early days of Gerald Ford’s administration. Also, as I recall, September 31st would have been a pretty big news story in either 1974 or 1794, because 30 days hath September…Otherwise, good story.
Whoops. The problem with writing about whiskey rebellions is that you’re almost by law required to write it while drinking whiskey. Corrections have been hungoverly applied.