In the years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the greatest threat to national unity was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Although slavery had long been, and would continue to be, the most divisive political issue in the country, the Whiskey Rebellion had nothing to do with slavery. Surprisingly, it was about taxation without representation.
In order to extend the reach of the federal government and give the young nation a little more money in the bank, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton decided to place an excise tax on whiskey.
This wasn’t some sort of “sin tax” designed to cut down on whiskey consumption. Whiskey was the main product of the trans-Appalachian region. The tax was not on the whiskey that was purchased, but on that which was produced and sold by those on living on the country’s western frontier.
The frontiersmen felt betrayed. In their eyes, the government demanding the tax had failed to provide them either roads and canals or protection from a recent wave of Indian attacks. The government was also allowing the British to continue occupying posts along the northwestern frontier. And although those on the frontier had little ready cash, Hamilton insisted on a tax paid in currency. The government seemed to be favoring wealthy eastern landowners, like George Washington himself, over the hardworking frontiersmen who were just trying to get by.
This was exactly the same objection the Founding Fathers had raised against British tyranny before the revolution: taxation without representation. The whiskey tax was specific to the western regions, which were not properly represented in the government that was imposing the tax.
What the frontiersmen did not know was that the government had recently taken steps to meet two of their objections. Major General Anthony Wayne had just won a decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a clear sign that Washington was indeed willing and able to provide protection from the Indians. And at the time of the revolt, Chief Justice John Jay was negotiating for the withdrawal of British troops from posts in the Northwest.
But word of these actions had not yet reached the frontiersmen.
So they revolted. They refused to pay the tax. They tarred and feathered or shot revenue officers, or burned down their houses. Their rhetoric was identical to that of the Founding Fathers; the idea of secession was implicit. Rumors circulated that the rebels were negotiating with European powers. They intended, in effect, a Second American Revolution.
President Washington had no intention of allowing the nation to be broken up, nor of losing the ownership of tens of thousands of acres of his own property in the West. So in August of 1794 he called out thirteen thousand militiamen and sent them into western Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion.
It was quickly accomplished. As the troops converged on Pittsburgh, the leaders of the rebellion fled. Two of the leaders were captured and shipped back east, where they were tried, convicted of treason, and subsequently pardoned by President Washington.
The whiskey tax was never collected. Jay’s Treaty and the victory at Fallen Timbers appeased the frontiersmen, and the threat of secession was eliminated for the time being.