Unrest existed in many areas of the West, particularly west of the Alleghenies. Primary contributing issues included a lack of federal courts in the West, which necessitated long trips to Philadelphia, lack of protection against Native American attacks and a high federal excise tax on domestically produced distilled spirits.
At Alexander Hamilton`s urging, Congress in 1791 enacted a tax on spirits at twenty-five percent of the liquor`s value. Large producers were not pleased with the tax, but generally complied; the small producers were irate and began to organize opposition.
In the western counties of Pennsylvania, the Scots-Irish farmers were particularly hard-hit - most were grain growers and many were distillers. Mobs tarred and feathered a tax collector and burned the home of another. Shots (of ammunition) were exchanged.
Washington called upon the rebels to disperse, but his plea was ignored. The president then ordered the governors of the surrounding states to summon their militias. Washington invoked the wording of a statute authorizing the federal government to call up the militias, along with the written finding by James Wilson, then an associate justice of the Supreme Court, that the necessary conditions existed, to justify his action.
A force of nearly 13,000 men was raised and marched into western Pennsylvania. Opposition quickly faded away, but Hamilton (never reluctant to press federal power) actively directed the capture of more than 100 participants. Eventually two were convicted of treason, but later received presidential pardons.
The Whiskey Rebellion was the first test of federal authority in the young republic. It demonstrated the willingness and ability of the federal government to enforce its laws. It also established a precedent when the president called up state militias for federal purposes.
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