In 1790 a new nation was on the rise. With the help of the French, the people of the thirteen colonies of America had united together to defeat the greatest empire of the world. This was the shining moment of America. Freedom was theirs, and this is what they have been wanting since the pilgrims arrived almost two centuries before. They were now going to take on an even greater task then fighting the British: establishing a system of government that would be fair and that would be accepted throughout all of America. One thing the founding fathers knew they had to do was establish a document that would unite the states under one system of laws, so they would be a single country. The Articles of Confederation were too weak and could not meet the demands the country as whole needed, so they drafted a new constitution.
This new constitution was a brilliant document that expressed how there is no true sovereign power because the power ultimately lies in the people. This document, created in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, was to become the foundation for our country and is still the chief document that the America of today follows. Nevertheless, there were still some people opposed to this document. The Anti-federalists, as they were called, believed that if the constitution was enacted then the central government would become too powerful. They believed America would then become a tyrannical government, which is what America fought so hard to get away from. The anti-federalists said a bill of rights was needed to stop the national government from being tyrannical. It was clear that this country would need a bill of rights, so one of the main jobs of the first Congress was to create one. In 1789 twelve amendments were approved by congress and by the end of 1791 they had been ratified by the states and had become the Bill of Rights.
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They were the first ten amendments to the constitution, and they prevented a national government from ever becoming too powerful. These documents were the first of its kind. No other government had ever tried what they were going to try. This constitution was holding the nation together. The 13 states were all different in their own respects, and each one was like its own country. They would now have to stick together too see if these new ideas would work. After the American Revolution, the government was deep in debt.
The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a bill that would stop the national debt from growing or even reduce it. This bill, which was approved by both houses in the winter session of Congress in 1791, put an excise tax on all spiritus fermenti, or whiskey. The tax was an ad valorem tax that added twenty five percent to the value of whiskey. Needless to say, this was not well accepted and the peoples opposition to it would become one of the first tests of power the new government would have to face. The thing about this tax is that the amount that had to be paid varied with how much was being produced. Large producers would only have to pay an annual tax of about six cents per gallon because they produced so much.
This price could also be reduced if they created the whiskey in even larger quantities. On the other hand, there were also the small producers, that were mostly farmers, who made whiskey because grain was very hard to transport across the mountains, and making the grain into whiskey was much easier to carry across the mountains and much more profitable. These smaller producers had to pay around nine cents per gallon because they produced such small quantities. Also, the tax was only payable in cash, which was not common in the frontier land where most of these farmers were creating whiskey. For the large producers this tax was not so bad, but for the small farmers this tax was tremendous for them, and it also gave those large producers an advantage over the already small producers. The farmers not only saw the tax as an excessive price on creating whiskey, but they saw this tax as an infringement on their rights.
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With the creation of the constitution still fresh, they believed the government was already abusing its power. They believed that this tax was discrimination and that it would not help the economic welfare, but it would be harmful to it. The farmers were also unhappy with the way the national government was representing the people, so that made them more spiteful towards the tax. They wanted the Mississippi River open for navigation and they wanted the Indian problems resolved, but the national government was doing little about their grievances. Also, for many farmers, creating whiskey was the only way they could make personal profits because whiskey was much more profitable then crops. They relied on crops for food for themselves and family, and they relied on whiskey to make money.
With this perspective in mind, the farmers refused to give up their personal money to the government. There was only one thing to do, which they had a lot of experience doing, and that was rebel, and not pay. Shortly after the rebellions started and the farmers were withholding pay, Virginia and North Carolina repealed the tax. The tax continued in other states though. Soon, not only were people not paying the tax, but also some were resorting to violence. The only way the tax could be collected was from an excise officer who would collect it himself.
Usually he would have to set up an office in the area where he would be collecting. The rebels would then threaten the officer that if he moved into the area to collect the tax, that he would be dealt with accordingly. These threats would usually discourage the tax collector from setting up his office. The most infamous example of these threats happened in July of 1794. An angry mob of farmers, displease about the tax, approached John Nevilles house, who was a tax collector. There was a shootout between the mob and John Neville and his slaves.
Neville was able to escape but Oliver Miller, who was a rebel, was shot and killed. The remaining rebels raided his house and stole mail from a postmaster leaving town to find out who was for and who was against the rebellion. The next day the commander of the local militia of that town, James McFarlane, was killed which meant this rebellion would not end peacefully. President George Washington knew something had to be done in order to stop the rebellion. He tried to negotiate, and he issued a proclamation saying all resistance must end by September if 1794, but nothing would work. He then called for a militia from four neighboring states, and he raised an army of about 12,950 to suppress the rebellion.
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Outraged by this, the people of western Pennsylvania decided to choose their own assembly. Each county was to choose between three and five representatives and those representatives were to bring the demands of the county to the assembly. Famous men involved in these assemblies were Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Albert Gallatin who were the moderating force at these meetings and who prevented the radicals from dominating the assemblies. Gallatin often spoke out about the mistake of open rebellion towards government, and he delivered speeches that pacified the radicals. Despite what Gallatin was doing, the government saw that participation brought guilt. On August 14th Washington sent his army, referred to as the watermelon army, to the region. The army had a list of men who were considered the leaders and who were to be arrested.
Luckily, the rebellion was stopped and no real battle ensued and only twenty men were arrested, with two being sentenced to death for treason. Many officials were unhappy with Washingtons decision to use force. Among them were republicans who thought this might be the first step to absolute power. However, the federalists saw this as a victory for the country as a whole. The national authority had triumphed over its first rebellious adversary and had been able to unite the states in enforcing federal law. If the rebellion was successful then the government would always be challenged, which could have led to thirteen independent states instead of one unified country. By November of 1794 Hamilton told Washington that the list of prisoners from the rebellion had risen to about 150.
Hamilton also informer Washington the rebels were no longer an assembled force, but some small parties not really causing much damage. The hype and rebellions slowly died down and on July 10, 1795 Washington issued a pardon to those who were imprisoned, but not yet sentenced. Also, Washington had already pardoned the two who were sentenced to death, and most of the people who were arrested were already acquitted because of a lack of evidence. Because of this event, the new Federal Government asserted its rights over the individual states, while also making the government more democratic and allowing the right of dissent without committing treason. The states were able to unify as one to overcome a challenge. This event showed that the constitution could indeed work, and that the national government must posses some power in order for the country to stay as a whole. This was just one obstacle that America would be faced with in its short history, but it showed that a government whose intent is truly for the people and by the people can survive and withstand any obstacles.
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Bibliography: Works Cited Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986 Specht, Elmer E. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Oct. 1999. Center for Advancement of Paleo Orthodoxy. 23 Oct. 2000.
Pike, John. Whiskey Rebellion. Dec. 1998. Federation of American Scientists. 23 Oct. 2000. Parker, Trishia.
The Whiskey Rebellion. Cameron, Laurel. April 1999. North Park University. 23 Oct. 2000.