Sunday, October 2, 2011

Whiskey Wars!

      I don't know if I've mentioned it before but early in our married life my spouse and I started a decades long ritual of reading to each other at bedtime. Lately we've been focusing on two old books about Pennsylvania we found going through 'stuff' at my mother's house.
     Just last night we read about the cantankerous Pennsylvanians demonstrating against the act of 1791 tax levy on distilled liquors. The Whiskey Insurrection was quite large here in old PA. Pennsylvania had recently ended long years of boundary wars with multiple countries and states. They had their "dander up".
     "A horse could carry only four bushels of grain across the Alleghenies from western Pennsylvania to eastern Pennsylvania, but could carry the product of 24 bushels in the form of whiskey. And on the return trip bring salt, sugar and iron. Distilling whiskey was a major industry. Western Pennsylvania contained more stills than any other area in the United States and therefore heavily taxed."
     This was the new government's first real test. The book tells "For three years Washington temporized with four Pennsylvania counties, because he feared that a call upon the militia to uphold the government would be repudiated, and that the Constitution, thus shown to have no hold upon the people's affections, would perish in mockery and derision.". George Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton didn't intend to ignore any defiance against laws enacted by this new congress.
     A group of people calling themselves "Tom the Tinkers" went through the countryside intimidating people who paid the tax. They would smash or "mend" stills and leave intimidating notes posted on trees and posts. It was called "mending the still".
One law abiding citizen had  the Pittsburgh Gazette print the long, wordy diatribe the 'Tinkers' left him. Large numbers of people against the tax boycotted services of even clergy and physicians who were for obeying the law. Some houses were burned and militia sent to protect some of the officials.  I,also, read somewhere that a good 25% of the distilleries in the US were actually in western Pennsylvania..
     On August 1, 1794 a mass meeting of 7,000 armed insurgents was held at Braddock's Field. The president "himself led an army of 15,000 men as far as Bedford suppress the disorder. Secretary Hamilton accompanied the troops to the scene of the disorder." People refusing to comply were arrested. Conferences between state and federal representatives restored law and order.  Men from both sides went on to be appointed and/or elected to political positions.
     There are 26 historical markers throughout southwestern Pennsylvania memorializing this Insurrection and the meetings and confrontations that occurred here. See this site for more information.
quotes from: C.M. Bomberger; Twelfth Colony Plus. Jeannette Publishing Company, copyright 1934.


  1. My ancestors were in Western Pennsylvania for many generations,so I too have done some reading about the whiskey Rebellion. Fascinating stuff!

  2. A long time ago I had to write a paper on the Whiskey Rebellion for the AP American History class in high school. I hadn't thought about this at all until reading your blog post. Thanks for bringing back all my memories of researching the topic!