Distillers of Necessity

Up to the year 1791 there had been no excise tax in the United Colonies or the United States. (One that had been tried in Pennsylvania was utterly abortive). Then the country fell upon hard times. A larger revenue had to be raised, and Hamilton suggested an excise. The measure was bitterly opposed by many public men, notably by Jefferson; but it passed. Immediately there was trouble in the tall timber.

Western Pennsylvania, and the mountains southward, had been settled, as we have seen, by the Scotch-Irish; men who had brought with them a certain fondness for whiskey, a certain knack in making it, and an intense hatred of excise, on general as well as special principles. There were few roads across the mountains, and these few were execrable—so bad, indeed, that it was impossible for the backwoodsmen to bring their corn and rye to market, except in a concentrated form. The farmers of the seaboard had grown rich, from the high prices that prevailed during the French Revolution; but the mountain farmers had remained poor, owing partly to difficulties of tillage, but chiefly to difficulties of transportation. As Albert Gallatin said, in defending the western people, “We have no means of bringing the produce of our lands to sale either in grain or in meal. We are therefore distillers through necessity, not choice, that we may comprehend the greatest value in the smallest size and weight. The inhabitants of the eastern side of the mountains can dispose of their grain without the additional labor of distillation at a higher price than we can after we have disposed that labor upon it.”

Again, as in all frontier communities, there was a scarcity of cash in the mountains. Commerce was carried on by barter; but there had to be some means of raising enough cash to pay taxes, and to purchase such necessities as sugar, calico, gun powder, etc., from the peddlers who brought them by pack train across the Alleghanies. Consequently a still had been set up on nearly every farm. A horse could carry about sixteen gallons of liquor, which represented eight bushels of grain, in weight and bulk, and double that amount in value. This whiskey, even after it had been transported across the mountains, could undersell even so cheap a beverage as New England rum—so long as no tax was laid upon it.

But when the newly created Congress passed an excise law, it virtually placed a heavy tax on the poor mountaineers’ grain, and let the grain of the wealthy eastern farmers pass on to market without a cent of charge. Naturally enough, the excitable people of the border regarded such a law as aimed exclusively at themselves. They remonstrated, petitioned, stormed. “From the passing of the law in January, 1791, there appeared a marked dissatisfaction in the western parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. The legislatures of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland passed resolutions against the law, and that of Pennsylvania manifested a strong spirit of opposition to it. As early as 1791, Washington was informed that throughout this whole region the people were ready for revolt.” “To tax their stills seemed a blow at the only thing which obdurate nature had given them—a lot hard indeed, in comparison with that of the people of the sea-board.”

Our western mountains (we call most of them southern mountains now) resembled somewhat those wild highlands of Connemara to which reference has been made—only they were far wilder, far less populous, and inhabited by a people still prouder, more independent, more used to being a law unto themselves than were their ancestors in old Hibernia. When the Federal exciseman came among this border people and sought to levy tribute, they blackened or otherwise disguised themselves and treated him to a coat of tar and feathers, at the same time threatening to burn his house. He resigned. Indignation meetings were held, resolutions were passed calling on all good citizens to disobey the law, and whenever anyone ventured to express a contrary opinion, or rented a house to a collector, he, too, was tarred and feathered. If a prudent or ultra-conscientious individual took out a license and sought to observe the law, he was visited by a gang of “Whiskey Boys” who smashed the still and inflicted corporal punishment upon its owner.

Finally, warrants were issued against the lawbreakers. The attempt to serve these writs produced an uprising. On July 16, 1794, a company of mountain militia marched to the house of the inspector, General Neville, to force him to give up his commission. Neville fired upon them, and, in the skirmish that ensued, five of the attacking force were wounded and one was killed. The next day, a regiment of 500 mountaineers, led by one “Tom the Tinker,” burned Neville’s house, and forced him to flee for his life. His guard of eleven U. S. soldiers surrendered, after losing one killed and several wounded.

A call was then issued for a meeting of the mountain militia at the historic Braddock’s Field. On Aug. 1, a large body assembled, of whom 2,000 were armed. They marched on Pittsburgh, then a village of 1,200 souls. The townsmen, eager to conciliate and to ward off pillage, appointed a committee to meet the mob half way. The committee, finding that it could not induce the mountain men to go home, made a virtue of necessity by escorting 5,400 of them into Pittsburgh town. As Fisher says, “The town was warned by messengers, and every preparation was made, not for defense, but to extinguish the fire of the Whiskey Boys’ thirst, which would prevent the necessity of having to extinguish the fire they might apply to houses.... Then the work began. Every citizen worked like a slave to carry provisions and buckets of whiskey to that camp.” Judge Brackenridge tells us that it was an expensive as well as laborious day, and cost him personally four barrels of prime old whiskey. The day ended in a bloodless, but probably uproarious, jollification.

On this same day (the Governor of Pennsylvania having declined to interfere) Washington issued a proclamation against the rioters, and called for 15,000 militia to quell the insurrection. Meantime he had appointed commissioners to go into the disaffected region and try to persuade the people to submit peacefully before the troops should arrive. Peace was offered on condition that the leaders of the disturbance should submit to arrest.

While negotiations were proceeding, the army advanced. Eighteen ringleaders of the mob were arrested, and the “insurrection” faded away like smoke. When the troops arrived, there was nothing for them to do. The insurgent leaders were tried for treason, and two of them were convicted, but Washington pardoned both of them. The cost of this expedition was more than one-third of the total expenditures of the Government, for that year, for all other purposes. The moral effect upon the nation at large was wholesome, for the Federal Government had demonstrated, on this its first test, that it could enforce its own laws and maintain domestic tranquility. The result upon the mountain people themselves was dubious. ThomasJefferson wrote to Madison in December: “The information of our [Virginia’s] militia, returned from the westward, is uniform, that though the people there let them pass quietly, they were objects of their laughter, not of their fear; that one thousand men could have cut off their whole force in a thousand places of the Alleghany; that their detestation of the excise law was universal, and has now associated with it a detestation of the Government; and that a separation which was perhaps a very distant and problematical event, is now near and certain, and determined in the mind of every man.”

But Jefferson himself came to the presidency within six years, and the excise tax was promptly repealed, never again to be instituted, save as a war measure, until within a time so recent that it is now remembered by men whom we would not call very old.