The Whiskey Rebellion Festival celebrates the heritage and unique character of the region by focusing on the historical significance of the Whiskey Rebellion, a history that is unique to western Pennsylvania and primarily Washington County. The festival honors the significant period of America’s early days through historic reenactments, period exhibitions and demonstrations, family fun, frontier art, heritage music and food, shining a national spotlight on the city, county and region. Community focused entertainment combines with nationally renowned artists to create a festival that acknowledges the past, celebrates the present and looks toward the future.
Nearly twenty years after the revolutionary War began, the United States government faced a small-scale revolution by some of its own citizens. In order to create a self-supporting and effective government, Treasury Secretary Hamilton knew he needed to find a steady source of revenue, so he proposed, and Congress instituted, an excise tax on whiskey produced in the United States in 1791. In general, the citizens of that time felt negatively toward the idea of taxation, and the farmers of western Pennsylvania, many of whom distilled whiskey and profited from its sale, proved outright hostile to the idea. They felt the tax was an abuse of federal authority, wrongly targeting a demographic that relied on crops such as corn, rye, and grain to earn a profit. However, shipping this harvest east was dangerous because of poor storage and dangerous roads, so Western Pennsylvania farmers frequently distilled their grain into liquor which was easier to ship and preserve. While large-scale farmers easily incurred the financial strain of an additional tax, indigent farmers were less able to do so without falling into dire financial straits.
In July of 1794, a force of 400 disaffected whiskey rebels, mainly from Washington County, attacked and destroyed the home of a tax inspector just south of Pittsburgh. The rebellion grew in numbers, if not in actions, and threatened to spread to other states. Hamilton knew that the presence of a large and potentially hostile force in Pennsylvania could not be tolerated. If the government were to survive, it would have to show itself capable of keeping control. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Washington attorney David Bradford, and his family lived in the historic Bradford House from 1788 to 1794. However, his residence was cut short because of his involvement in the Whiskey Rebellion.
Hamilton advocated the use of military force; President George Washington instead put state militias on the ready and sent in negotiators. When talks proved fruitless, Washington acquiesced to Hamilton's view. A force of 13,000 militia troops, led by Hamilton and Virginia governor Henry Lee, marched into western Pennsylvania. By the time the federal force arrived, the rebellion had collapsed and most of the rebels had fled. Two men were convicted of treason and later pardoned by Washington. David Bradford fled south to Spanish West Florida (which is present-day Louisiana). He took up a new life there and, in 1797, completed a home in St. Francisville. His wife, Elizabeth, and children joined him shortly thereafter. Eventually, David Bradford received a pardon for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion.
Westylvania: The State the Whiskey Tax Almost Made
By MARGARET J. KRAUSS, MAR 27, 2015
Listen to a brief history of how Western Pennsylvanians nearly seceded from the
union over a tax on distilled spirits from WESA.