The Whiskey Rebellion, 1791–94, was an American frontier revolt against a federal excise tax levied upon distilled spirits. Intended to help pay off the remaining Revolutionary War debts, the tax incited civil unrest that seriously alarmed the fledgling nation’s government. President George Washington mobilized a militia force nearly as large as the Continental Army and personally led the poorly trained soldiers, derisively called the ‘‘Watermelon Army,’’ against the farmers.
The uprising began in western Pennsylvania and rapidly spread to the back-country of New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. In Virginia, the counties of Ohio, Monongalia, Harrison, and Randolph each experienced uprisings associated with the Whiskey Rebellion. In Morgantown, the tax collector was intimidated into resigning, and the Ohio County excise officer was attacked. The rebellion was a serious test for the young federal government. Washington became disheartened at the military excesses that resulted, and he spoke passionately about the dangers of mobilizing soldiers against citizens.
The rebellion also pointed out ideological and moral differences among Americans. Eastern elites saw no wrong in taxing liquor, but frontiersmen considered it a harsh economic blow. To them, converting grain crops to whiskey was a prudent economic decision, since whiskey was less bulky than the grain it was made from and more easily transported over primitive roads. Frontiersmen widely believed the tax was unfairly engineered by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to shield the assets of the wealthy from taxation.
The rebellion contributed to the development of a hurtful stereotype, that of the violent hillbilly moonshiner. Prior to the tax, the spirits distilled in the mountains—especially Monongahela Rye from the area around Morgantown—was a highly prized commodity that could fetch a top price. Merchants as far away as New Orleans were anxious to acquire it. This demand gave the farmers a cash crop. Over the years, the industry became criminalized as taxation and regulation of liquor production marginalized a formerly respectable endeavor.
This Article was written by Barbara Rasmussen
Last Revised on November 19, 2010
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Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Mayola, Peter L. "Whiskey Insurrection of 1794 in Fayette County, Pennsylvania." M.A. thesis, West Virginia University, 1949.
Cite This Article
Rasmussen, Barbara "Whiskey Rebellion." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 19 November 2010. Web. 24 April 2017.