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Sarah Ward

What Was The Whiskey Rebellion? 6 Facets of War & Justice

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When you search for whiskey, you’re likely to come across something called the Whiskey Rebellion. If American history isn’t something you’ve studied extensively, you may ask yourself, what was the Rebellion all about? Well, here’s the answer. 

The Whiskey Rebellion was an uprising of farmers and distillers in 1794. The farmers and distillers were, rightfully so, upset about the whiskey tax that had been imposed on them by the federal government. It didn't take long for these taxes to become a nuisance and prompt Americans to do something about it. The rebellion started out as something simple enough: frustrated farmers and distillers dealing with unfair taxation. The escalation of the rebellion is what has made the Rebellion a distinct mark on American whiskey history.

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Whiskey Rebellion Overview

The Whiskey Rebellion was, overall, an uprising that got violent very quickly. Tensions between the farmers and distillers and those tasked with collecting tax payments rose to the point of injury on both sides. Skirmishes on both sides, and that’s putting it mildly, led to a very serious issue of danger for everyone involved. There were small instances of concentrated violence. There were also organized attacks as both sides tried to defend their own stances and their own interests in their safety. After a while, the increase in fighting drew President Washington to the scene. Someone was needed to get both sides to settle down long enough to find common ground. Overall, the Rebellion didn’t last all that long. However, it highlights the history of America, our relationship with taxes, and the relationship between the government and US citizens.

Whiskey Rebellion: What Was The Cause?

The Whiskey Rebellion was, essentially, caused by frustrations over taxation on whiskey and related whiskey products. Of course, that frustration started out because of the unwelcome and unfair taxes. Tracing back to the American Revolution, states incurred some separate, intense amounts of debt. To balance that debt, in 1790 Alexander Hamilton proposed that the government take over that debt to ease the burden on the states. He also proposed an excise tax on whiskey, to prevent more future issues of the same nature. There was some turmoil in the federal government over whether this was a good idea. However, the state governments that were dealing with the debts were in favor. The whiskey tax was taken back and passed by Congress in 1791. It didn’t take long for this tax affecting farmers and distillers to become quite an issue.

When Was The Whiskey Rebellion?

Technically speaking, the start of the Rebellion, or at least the cause behind the Rebellion, was in 1790. That said, the taxation of whiskey and related products didn’t begin until 1791. From there it didn’t take long for everything to go downhill. In September 1791, the first recorded violent act broke out. An officer responsible for ensuring taxation was ambushed on his collection route. His attackers stripped and tarred and feathered him, then stole his horse and abandoned him. This act led to further fury on both sides, with a larger attack coming in the summer of 1794. This attack is now known as the attack and destruction of Bower Hill. The main violence of the Bower Hill attack was in the act of burning down the Bower Hill estate. There was also an exchange of gunfire between the two parties. 

By August 1794, the tensions had risen to the point of Washington getting involved. After a failed attempt at peace, Washington assumed emergency power to bring in the military and gain control of the situation. Washington’s stance, along with the militia coming to town, was met by the instigators stepping down. In the end, those who were found guilty of treason were pardoned by Washington.

How Did The Rebellion End?

Effectively, the Rebellion ended because Washington showed that the federal government wasn’t shy about taking control of the situation. If the fight had been left up to the local parties involved, the issue may have never died out. Or at least, it wouldn’t have ended so peacefully. Washington’s show of federal government force showed everyone fighting that there was no tolerance for those skirmishes. 

Whiskey Rebellion Significance

The significance of the Rebellion was that it was the first true test of federal authority over taxes and local disputes. Washington had only been President since 1789. The United States was also still very young in having really begun in 1776, but still being in stages of growth through to 1789. The US was still pulling itself together, so to speak, and learning to act as one as opposed to as many scattered groups. Washington’s demonstration of what the federal government could and would do was the first step towards people realizing the US was truly united.

Whiskey Rebellion Flag

The Rebellion flag sports 13 white stars arranged around an eagle carrying a red and white striped banner in its beak. There is no agreement about who designed the flag. It is, however, agreed that the flag represents the strength of the American people and our resolve to fight for what we believe in. The Rebellion ended in the federal government laying down the law. However, the spirit of the rebellion remains one of the resilience and strength of the American people. 

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Whiskey Rebellion: Whiskey’s Future

Overall, the history behind the Whiskey Rebellion is less about whiskey, and more about the beginning of the US government. That said, with the root of the cause of the Rebellion being whiskey, we can all raise a glass as we learn about the Rebellion. Heck, you can even enjoy some whiskey in a speakeasy if you really want a taste of American history-although you could explore types of rum too.

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