The first test of the new Federal Government's power.
In 1794, one of the most important events in the young nation's history took place, although it is largely forgotten today. The farmers in Western Pennsylvania made whiskey, using a large portion of their grain crops. They did this because it was too difficult to transport the grain over the mountainous roads to larger markets. By making whiskey, the value of bringing a load to market increased greatly.
When the new federal government imposed a tax on whiskey, the farmers thought they were being treated unfairly and many felt that they should not have to abide by this tax. By the Fall of 1791, resistance to this tax had grown very strong by the farmers, mostly west of the Allegheny Mountains. It was led by some very upstanding men, such as Albert Gallatin, who would later become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and an important American diplomat. In the summer of 1794 there was actual armed resistance to collection of the tax, and some tax collectors were seriously threatened. President George Washington asked Pennsylvania to use its militia to put down the "rebels", but Gov. Thomas Mifflin refused. Also, State Supreme Court Chief Justice McKean denied the Federal Government power to use force within Pennsylvania.
Both state and Federal government representatives tried to mediate the dispute to no avail. The President issued a proclomation ordering all resistance to end by September of 1794. In a special session of the State Assembly, Gov. Mifflin announced that he had to support the President. But when the state militia was called out they refused to report, so the legislature authorized raising other troops.
By this time more moderate leaders in western Pennsylvania had gained control of the situation, and resistance had subsided. President Washington, however, was urged to show Federal power and authority so that there would be no question that the new government must be obeyed. It was felt that this was necessary not only for citizens of this country, but also to show Britain and France that they needed to give up their ideas of regaining land from a weak American government. Therefore troops from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey were assembled at Carlisle, PA. President Washington led this army of 13,700 men into Bedford - the first (and only) time an American President commanded an army in the field. If the protestors could refuse to pay the tax, the authority of the newly-created government would be forever challenged, and could result in 13 independent states, instead of the one unified country that had recently been established
President (General) Washington used the Espy House as his headquarters, and today it still stands in the heart of downtown Bedford . That is as far as Washington went, Bedford serving as his headquarters, but the army marched westward to Parkinson's Ferry on the Monongahela River and arrested twenty leaders, who were taken to Philadelphia for trial. All were pardoned, including two who had been condemned to death for treason. One of the primary leaders, David Bradford, had fled to Louisiana to avoid arrest. The revolt had collapsed, if not peacefully, at least without a major confrontation.
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