The Whiskey Rebellion: Military, Diplomacy, or Bust? (Part 4)

So did the rebels succeed in getting rid of the dreaded whiskey tax?

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Show Notes

The Battle of Bower Hill woke up Philadelphia and created quite a stir in President Washington's cabinet. It would result in George Washington and Alexander Hamilton taking a trip towards Western Pennsylvania and militia men being summons across four states. So what happened to David Bradford and the rebels? And what happened with the dreaded whiskey tax? Find out in this episode as we close out the Whiskey Rebellion.


It took 8 days for the news of the burning of Bower Hill to reach the president in Philadelphia. The news was delivered by his Secretary of War Henry Knox. Because of the 300 mile ride through the mountains and rough roads of Pennsylvania, Washington must have felt totally out of touch with what was transpiring at The Forks.

A funeral had been held for James McFarlane the day after the attack on Bower Hill. Rebels called it a murder and immediate called for General Neville to give up his commission.

Surprisingly Neville agreed, but only under certain conditions. One included allowing Marshal Lenox to serve the rest of the writs - but a fear came over the rebels that their lands would likely be seized - so they didn’t accept his conditions.

A day before news of Bower Hill had reached President Washington, David Bradford of the rebels, sent his men out to intercept letters headed out of Pittsburgh. Be it suspicion or paranoia, he wanted to know where the rebels stood with the townspeople.

And what he read couldn’t have pleased him because his next action was to organize a large force of men, ready to march on the city.

Totally in the dark as to what mayhem might be transpiring, Washington called an emergency meeting of his cabinet. Because congress was not in session, Washington would have the ability to take unilateral action, if he deemed it necessary. All they would need is to prove to a single Supreme Court justice that law and order had broken down at The Forks.

The Meeting at Braddock’s Field

Meanwhile David Bradford had a force of 7,000 men ready to march on Pittsburgh. They gathered at Braddock’s Field on August 1st. It was at this very spot, 39 years before, where George Washington had to pick up the mantle for his fallen commander British General Edward Braddock.

Bradford had several plans in mind for this unruly band of angry men, most of whom were counted among the poorest in the region, and oddly enough, likely owned neither farmland nor a still.

They would use intimidation as their main weapon - especially against those that tried to speak out through those intercepted letters - they would burn the homes of Pittsburgh’s wealthy, they could take the arsenal at Fort Pitt, and while they were at it, they could rob the supply depot at Fort Lafayette.

David Bradford was soon being compared to Maxmillion Robespierre, the French Revolutionary leader and force behind the Reign of Terror. Although they may have thought twice about that comparison, had they known that Robespierre had been beheaded just days before, by the very people he had whipped up into a frenzy.

Flying a six bar flag, the group at Braddock’s Field talked of independence and allying with Spain or Great Britain. The six bars represented the 5 counties of Pennsylvania and Ohio County in Virginia which had joined in on the insurrection talk.

Scared for their lives, the town of Pittsburgh sent a messenger out to Bradford saying they would give up the men who had given offense through the captured letters, and implored them not to destroy the town. Hugh Henry Brackenridge assured the rebels they were supported in Pittsburgh and that they only needed to march peaceably through the town to make their point.

At the conclusion of the march, some of Major Kirkpatrick’s barns had been destroyed but Pittsburgh would otherwise be left unscathed.

Peace or War

In Philadelphia, two governments were going head to head. George Washington was looking to use Pennsylvania militia for the action out west, but Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin was adamant that the state’s militia was his to command, that this was a federal crime, not a state one.

Two days later, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson delivered the news Alexander Hamilton had been waiting for. Wilson concluded, from the evidence given, that local authority could no longer handle what was happening at The Forks. He declared the area to be in a state of rebellion.

Hamilton immediately wrote a report showing that George Clymer’s experience and the two Pittsburgh conventions has unveiled the greater cause of insurrection. But the cabinet was split on what to do.

There was a feeling, echoed by Hamilton’s rival James Madison, that the federal government could only judge and punish individuals, not groups of people - that would be up to the states.

Knox and Hamilton favored calling out a 12 thousand man militia, but Secretary of State Randolph suggested it would be better to wait and negotiate - there would be time for individual prosecutions later.  Attorney General Bradford, not to be confused with the rebel David Bradford, thought it better to do both - negotiate but at the same time ready troops.

Washington, seeing the benefits of Bradford’s two headed approach, sent the Attorney General west along with Pennsylvania Senator James Ross and Justice Jasper Yates.

Meanwhile Henry Knox was put in charge of securing militia from several surrounding states and Washington issued a proclamation showing his contempt for the “vindictive menaces” that had attacked excise men - demanding that they be brought to justice.

Again told by Mifflin that he would not supply troops, Washington drafted another proclamation requesting that Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania supply a 12,950 men force of militia men for federal use. He further stated, “I. George Washington, President of the United States, do hereby command all persons, being insurgents, as aforesaid, and all others whom it may concern, on or before the 1st day of September next to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes. And I do moreover warn all persons whomsoever against aiding, abetting, or comforting the perpetrators of the aforesaid treasonable acts; and do require all officers and other citizens, according to their respective duties and the laws of the land, to exert their utmost endeavors to prevent and suppress such dangerous proceedings."

Unbeknownst to the president, the very next day, on August 8th, terror spilled over into Ohio County Virginia and a local revenuer named Zachariah Biggs would be accosted by 50 men who demanded he cease his excise collections. When he refused, they stole his bonds. These men who had spilled over from western Pennsylvania men then moved on to Morgantown and laid siege to the community for the next three days, until fed up residents took matters into their own hands and expelled the rebels.

Parkinson’s Ferry

A week later at Parkinson’s Ferry, just south of Pittsburgh, David Bradford invited 223 delegates from the 6 counties in Pennsylvania and Virginia to a meeting where could organize a scheme of tax resistance and to draft an anti-tax declaration.

The visitors to the area were immediately greeted with a liberty pole, inscribed with the words “Liberty and no Excise! No Asylum for Traitors and Cowards!” and topped with a red and white six bar flag.

If there was any doubt about how things were escalating, they were confirmed by the sight of the flag and the pole.

But the group of rebels they met weren’t just radicals, There was also a band of moderates including Albert Gallatin, Edward Cook, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, along with a peaceful agitator with a long history of battling the government, Herman Husband.

Husband had been a strong advocate for a government that served the people but stayed out of their way. His positions were contrary to many of the day. He was anti-slavery, insisted on peace with the Indians, and was anti-excise and anti-land jobber which put him at odds not only with Alexander Hamilton but also with George Washington. Known by many as the “Madman of the Mountains,” he was actually a pacifist and a longtime follower of Quaker traditions.

In his speech, Gallatin urged the rebels to submit to the excise law and move beyond talk of succession. However, what evolved from the meeting were several items counter to this mission.

They created three committees. The first would be the Committee of Safety which would include 60 delegates known as the Gang of 60, the second was a conference committee of 12 that would be set to meet a week later in Pittsburgh, and the last committee - which totaled three delegates - would take the results of this meeting to the men Washington had sent from Philadelphia.

The rebels had five resolutions they wanted put before President Washington and Congress. The main one being the repeal of the excise law.

But to the three negotiators who would ultimately meet with Washington’s emissaries there must have been a great disappointment, as what they wanted to discuss never made the agenda at the negotiations. Two of the three delegates from Parkinson’s Ferry were moderates, Gallatin and Brackenridge, when the warning was given to them that Washington was ready to bring out the militia, they opened their ears wide to listen to the options.

There would be only one - stand down. If they did so, there would be amnesty for all that backed off and renounced violence. It would also require a popular referendum that would show that the people of The Forks had agreed with amnesty, renunciation of violence, and showing compliance with the law - and to make sure this process didn’t drag out, Attorney General William Bradford said they needed an answer by September 11th or arrests would be made.

It looked like Sen Ross, Attorney General Bradford, and Judge Yates might have averted an unnecessary war.

But back in Philadelphia, Alexander Hamilton had decided to pull out his poisoned pen and kick up popular support for military intervention. Under the pen name “Tully” he went on to denounced the insurgence in three separate letters - going as far as to suggest civil war as a possibility if the anarchy weren’t addressed.

The Forgotten Resistance

History books tend to focus on the raising of a 13,000 men militia like it was an easy practice. But in truth it wasn’t. Militias were volunteer forces and there were many fighting men who were actually in sympathy with the rebels.

Going to Western Pennsylvania to fire on people you felt might have a point, didn’t seem like a great idea. And for some of those opposed to what was going on at The Forks, especially in New Jersey, they saw people in Western Pennsylvania as a bunch of yahoos and beneath their dignity to waste their time on. In Virginia, Governor Henry Lee would resort to using the Morgantown resistance as a rallying call to motivate men to join his militia.

It got so bad that Washington had to call for a military draft and this only furthered the cause of resistance in each of the four states.

That lack of supplying soldiers with pay during the Revolutionary War may have been causing a bad hangover with some of the potential fighting men. In Hagarstown, Maryland, Governor Thomas Lee ended up having to raise a unit of 800 men, just to put down an anti-draft riot in the town.

When it came time to choose who would lead these forces, Washington looked over his eager Secretary of the Treasury and went straight for the man who had found the motivating factor for getting his state mobilized - Henry “Lighthorse” Lee of Virginia.

The Gang of 60 and the Referendum

In the waning days of August, the Gang of 60, who had been chosen at the Parkinson’s Ferry Conference met in Redstone Old Fort to discuss the proposed submission to the federal government - but David Bradford was having none of it. Albert Gallatin knew, if they asked for hands to be raised in a vote, Bradford’s intensity might cause these men to vote for their safety over their hearts. Gallatin called for a private vote. When the votes were counted, 34 of the men had voted for submission.

All that was left was the public referendum on September 11th. Or so it seemed. But then another uprising happened and again it was down in Virginia.

Three delegates to the conference at Redstone Old Fort were unsatisfied with the results and headed back home, hoping to create further agitation. Liberty polls were erected around Virginia and Maryland and men wearing black soot on their faces began threatening the countryside. Twenty rebels were arrested and the governor had to send part of the militia to Frederick-town to protect the armory.

To the north, when September 11th arrived, the proposition was read allowed in Pittsburgh and people were told to responded with a yea or nay and then sign the agreement.

Tom the Tinker had kicked up his threats again in the paper and the Mingo Creek Association threatened burning out anyone who signed.

And this caused the results of the proposition to be mixed at best, with many of the poorer landless residents siding with the nays. And this was enough to provoke Philadelphia into a military response.

On September 24th, word arrived to Washington from his commissioners in the west that "(it was) ... necessary that the civil authority should be aided by a military force in order to secure a due execution of the laws..."

Reviewing the Troops

When speaking of the Whiskey Rebellion, many historians point out how Washington would become the first and last standing president to command an army in the field, in the country’s history. But they neglect to mention that each of the four states that supplied militia had at the head of their forces, the governors of each of those states - Governor Henry Lee of Virginia, Governor Thomas Lee of Maryland, Governor Howell of New Jersey, and Governor Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania. What a sight that must have been?

Some veterans of the Revolutionary War also made their presence known. Daniel Morgan would be placed in command of three-hundred cavalry and three thousand infantrymen from Virginia.

Although not second in command, Alexander Hamilton did travel with Washington from Philadelphia to Carlisle, Pennsylvania - stepping into the carriage on September 30th and arriving on October 4th after a long uncomfortable journey.

Carlisle would be one of two staging points for the militias - Fort Cumberland to the south would be the other. On the 9th, they were joined by Western Pennsylvania’s congressman William Findley. Findley was not happy to see Hamilton joining Washington. He felt the Secretary of the Treasury could potentially incite the rebels.

Findley asked Washington one last time to reconsider taking military action. News out of The Forks suggested the rebels were losing steam, with a threat of guns coming from the east. In fact, several men had fled the area, a liberty pole in Washington, Pennsylvania had been cut down, and the Gang of 60 had voted for submission.

But Washington had made his mind up.

Washington’s Decision

Washington went about reviewing the troops in Carlisle and then he ordered them to move west to Bedford County. Then to avoid any undue attention, Washington refused a military escort as he made his way inconspicuously to Fort Cumberland to the south. He would have his meals with the troops and did his best to avoid pomp and circumstance.

It must have been a sight to see and a bit like deja vu, when Washington watched the masses of troops, cannon, mortars, and supplies gathering at Fort Cumberland. Washington knew this place well, as he had rode through in the 1750s.

After reviewing the troops he made his way back north and met the northern militia at Bedford. There he met up again with Hamilton and stayed at the Espy House.

The conditions must have been a little disappointing to Washington. Most of the men were so poorly supplied, they slept without tents, officers would sleep in taverns and in homes. And discipline was in short supply as the gun fire of drunk men could be heard on and off, as they let off some steam before the coming fight.

For most, they had no interest in being there.

With all of this preparation and the stern proclamations from George Washington, what happened next was likely a surprise to many. After parading 3000 troops through Bedford and claiming “woe to anarchy,” Washington handed the reins over to Governor and General Light Horse Harry Lee as the head of the army and Hamilton as a civilian advisor - and began at once to make plans to return to Philadelphia.

I asked Dr. Jim Ambuske of the Washington Library why he thought Washington may have made the decision not to head the army beyond the staging point in Bedford.

“So there's probably there's a specific answer then there's probably a larger philosophical answer that the specific answer is is by the time that that Army gets out there, and we should note here the you know, that 13,000 man army was composed of militia from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia and that's deliberate.

Because they didn't want to just have a Pennsylvania militia fighting against Pennsylvania Rebels. They wanted to make sure that it was a you know, United States federalized Army attending to this dispute. But by the time the Army gets out there the the rebels have heard that it's coming they understand the size of it. And so they begin to disperse because they realize and I think they've got like 500 men who are really fired up. 500 men's not going Up against you know 13,000 man. Army certainly. I mean this is this is not Thermopylae they are not the 300 Spartans. So so at that point there's no need for him to continue further. You know light horse. Harry Lee is a trusted veteran from the Revolutionary War Washington understands. He has as well and Han and Hamilton's out there too. And as an advisory capacity and he trusts that all will be well, they're probably the the larger philosophical

Thing to think about is the relationship between civil and Military Authority and it's very blurred here right now because light horse Harry Lee is involved Hamilton's there Washington's their it's the first and only time that a United States President leads men into a combat situation and if you think about it the last think about it and sort of 18th century revolutionary terms the last British head of state to lead an army into battle was George the

George the first or second I can't remember which one in 1742 I think that's the last time that that happens. And so it's there's a very clear tradition in both the British and the American sense which the course the Americans hair from the British that there is a dividing line between civil and Military Authority. And so I would imagine at some point, you know, I don't think washing never says this but it's probably in the back of his mind because he was very attentive to those kinds of things that Yeah. If if the rebels aren't dispersing, you know, how much further should I go at the head of this Army, even though you know, he's agitated. He wants to be the one to make clear that the United States laws will be enforced because it is his responsibility as the chief magistrate but you know, he's not in a military capacity at this point. He's taken off that uniform put on a civilian one and you know, that's I would imagine that it was somewhere in the back of his mind as well.”

There is another opinion that Washington used congress coming back in session as a reason he needed to be at the capital.

Before he left, he made it clear to Hamilton, the army was not there to play judge and jury on this mission. The handling of the individual tax evaders would be left to the courts.

On October 21st, Washington and his army were riding in two separate directions. And for the army, they may have soon realized another reason Washington didn’t want to proceed further. The terrain and weather in late October were making for a miserable mix. Torrential downpours slowed the army and morale quickly dropped.

Washington had instructed Hamilton to keep control of the troops and not to let any undesirable behavior occur, saying anyone getting out of line should be flogged. But Hamilton rescinded the order and mass pilfering across the countryside ensued.

Before heading into Pittsburgh, Hamilton had Lee send a proclamation to her citizens - then the army began making arrests.

But not everyone was still in Western Pennsylvania. David Bradford was long gone - making his way down to Louisiana, never to be seen in Pennsylvania again. In all, more than 2000 rebels were said to have fled the area.

Generals were given discretion on who to arrest and so the arrest rate was quite high - and even those that had claimed amnesty were being arrested. Many were brought in by the point of a bayonet and distraught families were told the men would soon be hung.

And for the militia men scouring the countryside and short on provisions, they soon started stealing food from local farmers. This would earn Hamilton and Lee’s militia the name of the Watermelon Army.

Yet there was no resistance to either military or civil authority according to Hugh Henry Brackenridge. If anyone thought there was going to be a fight, they would be sorely disappointed.

Arrests and Outcomes

Of the 150 rebels arrested by federal troops, only twenty were sent to stand trial in Philadelphia and they had to make the miserable journey on foot. Weak and starving, they struggled their way down Broad Street in Philadelphia on Christmas Day with crowds cheering and jeering, while church bells rang. One of the men was Herman Husband, the Madman of the Mountains, who was now 70 years of age.

Only two of the men were found guilty and sentenced to death. The evidence on the remaining men was so poorly gathered - with much of it based on hearsay or misidentification - that there was no way for a jury to convict.

And in a show of mercy, President Washington pardoned the two guilty men.

Herman Husband would be set free, but his worn and beaten body would not survive the trip back home. He died in Philadelphia within days of release.

The militia had not shot a single bullet during the entire affair. Oh, there were deaths. After the public proclamation in Pittsburgh and before General Washington arrived in Carlisle, two civilians had been killed in a liberty pole incident. And there was a story about a young boy who had been commanded to stand, but was physically unable to do so and then was shot in the groin. And a drunk who had shouted to the rebels' success and tried to steal a soldier's bayonet - was accidentally shot and killed in the process.

But no great war of insurrection occurred and the people of Western Pennsylvania went back to business as usual - some paying the tax, some not.

What Happened to the Whiskey Tax?

So what significance does the Whiskey Rebellion have on the history of this country and on whisky itself?

Well, it did prove that the federal government did have teeth when it needed them. Washington’s pardoning of the offenders likely won him back some hearts and minds. And for the farmers of Western Pennsylvania, they may not have immediately felt a benefit, but they would have three unlikely men to thank over the next few years for better outcomes.

The first, oddly enough, would be Alexander Hamilton. His plan to strengthen the federal government through assumption was having an effect on the long drawn out depression. Confidence was building in the fledgling nation and tax revenues were high enough from other sources that the whiskey excise lost its importance.

The second would be the Minister to Great Britain Thomas Pinckney whose negotiated treaty with the Spanish that would lead to the opening of the Mississippi River to American flatboats, giving Monongahela Rye a reason to travel down the Ohio River past Louisville to New Orleans and beyond.

And the other man would be a wine drinker, not a whiskey drinker - Thomas Jefferson. When he became the third president of the United States in 1801, one of the acts in his first term was the repealing of all of Hamilton’s internal taxes, including the hated excise on distilled spirits. And while the tax would find its way back again as a way to fund future wars, it would never be as disputed as it was in the 1790s at the Forks of the Ohio.

David Bradford, whose favorite trick was to get excise men drunk on Jamaican Ginger and then hide the still after they passed out, would ultimately be pardoned by President John Adams but would never return to Pennsylvania.

More troops would be sent to Western Pennsylvania as the west began to open up with the opening of the Mississippi River. And soon military men started purchasing alcohol directly from the smaller farmers. And military men paid in cash, bringing much needed hard currency to farmers.

But one of the most curious things that happened after the rebellion is that less than two and a half years after its conclusion, former President Washington would open his own distillery on the grounds of Mount Vernon. A story we’ll discuss next week.

There is a theory that the Whiskey Rebellion drove scores of people to Kentucky to start a new life away from the excise tax. But is that really true?

Well, there were people like William Miller who had contemplated it. But with statehood in 1792, most probably realized that Kentucky wouldn’t be far behind Pennsylvania in tax collection and so any move was likely a lateral one.

Kentucky was a hot property at the time, so yes, people naturally gravitated toward a place where they could start anew. But many of bourbon’s forefathers came to Kentucky from Maryland, Virginia, and the East Coast, not The Forks.

There is also a belief that Kentucky became the center of whiskey in America in the 19th century, but this isn’t true. Pennsylvania’s whiskey industry remained a force throughout the 19th century - Prohibition and Pennsylvania’s years of whisky amnesia has made us forget that.

I hope these past 4 episodes have shown you, the Whiskey Rebellion was not simply a bunch of angry farmers in Western Pennsylvania who didn’t want to pay tax. And George Washington didn’t ride with the troops all the way to The Forks. The Whiskey Rebellion, as with most parts of history, is much more complicated than a couple of soundbites.

There weren’t any heroes in this story. There were a few demons and the greatest battle was fought on a front porch.

There isn’t likely to be an epic movie ever made about the entirety of the Whiskey Rebellion. But it is a very important event and a critical moment in the nation’s history. It was a trial by fire - testing whether a young nation could evolve from a revolutionary state of being - into its position as a mature and forward thinking nation that could solve its own problems, fund itself, and take its standing among the world’s great powers.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life, LLC

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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Want to learn more about George Washington and whiskey? Make sure you're subscribed to Whiskey Lore to hear more of my conversation with Dr. Jim Ambuske and Jeanette Patrick from the Washington Library Center For Digital Research and next week, we will dive into the story of George Washington’s distiller and hear from the current distiller Steve Bashore. It is all coming up over the next week and a half on Whiskey Lore.

And until next time, cheers and slainte mhath.