How the American Revolution and its Aftermath Rebellions (Fries and Whiskey) Shaped Pennsylvania’s View of the Federal Government

March 21, 2019

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How the American Revolution and its Aftermath Rebellions (Fries and Whiskey) Shaped Pennsylvania’s View of the Federal Government

Introduction

     As the original American colonies achieved independence from Great Britain as a direct result of the victory achieved in the Revolutionary War, one would naturally assume that this led to an undisputed level of power for the new government and that there would not be any challenges to that government.  While it is true that the newly created United States of America faced few foes from abroad, the new federal government faced challenges on the part of its own citizens.  These rebellions, as well as their aftermath, shaped Pennsylvania’s view of the federal government from that point forward.

     This research will discuss pivotal rebellions that in fact shaped Pennsylvania’s view of the federal government.  Upon completion of the research, a better understanding of this topic will have been gained.

Whiskey & Fries Rebellions and Beyond

     On a sultry July day in 1794, dozens of armed rebels stormed the home of a tax collector.  Shots were fired, and in the aftermath, one man lay dead and much blood was shed.  The next day, hundreds of armed men returned to the same scene and the violent scene was repeated once again, with similar bloody and violent results.  This was not some sort of European uprising against a despotic king or something which took place in a primitive nation far removed from the conveniences of what was at that time considered to be the modern world.  Rather, this was what in time became known as The Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of American citizens, in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, against their own government as a protest against what they felt were unfair taxes, echoing one of the main causes of the revolution that created the United States itself decades before [1].  Understanding the inerrancies of this rebellion, other rebellions and the ensuing action taken by the American government makes it possible to understand how Pennsylvanian’s view of the federal government was ultimately shaped.

     The roots of what would blossom into The Whiskey Rebellion can be found in April, 1786.  At that time, tax collectors began to appear in the western regions of Pennsylvania with orders from the federal government to collect excise taxes on distilled beverages which not only affected the proprietors of inns and taverns but also the average person who found that taking a drink of their favorite libations was becoming increasingly expensive. The reason that these taxes were so important for the federal government to collect was because the newly formed government was saddled with huge foreign debts incurred in the course of the waging of the Revolutionary War, and the most obvious place to get such revenue was from the masses in the form of what was essentially a “sin tax”, assuming that the public would simply pay it.  However, this simply was not the case.   For the larger, more established distillers, the tax was seen as simply a cost of doing business, and it was paid- not exactly happily, but paid nonetheless.  The smaller, less established and reputable distillers viewed the tax as a threat to their business and therefore were highly opposed to the tax from its inception.  With the two schools of thought on the tax, the ultimate verdict soon became apparent. Outrage among the majority of people of western Pennsylvania was the end result, and was manifested in several ways.  First, the tax collectors who came to the region to collect the taxes were seized by angry mobs of citizens who destroyed the tax records in the collector’s possession, subjected the tax collectors to such indignities as crawling in pig pens and other assorted filth, and sent the tax collectors fleeing to their superiors with the message that anyone else who followed in such an official capacity would suffer the same consequences.  The allegation of taxation without representation, which was the rallying cry of the Revolution, began to ring throughout Pennsylvania[2].  The situation became dire and through it all, what was most vexing for the federal government, beyond the obvious lack of revenue, was the fact that the power of the federal government was being ignored at a time when it was essential that the example be set that the federal government was all powerful.

     President George Washington was faced with two major problems in the Whiskey Rebellion; first, there were mounting debts that needed to be paid, and the main source of revenue to pay those debts had to come from the collection of taxes, such as the Whiskey Tax which was all but being ignored by the vast majority of Americans.  Additionally, and more importantly, if Washington were to allow the citizens to pick and choose which laws they were to follow, anarchy would be the end result.  After deliberation and consultation with others, Washington ultimately made a decision which would not only change the fortunes of the new nation, but would also set a precedent for events to follow.  Forever the diplomat, Washington first made one more last ditch effort to negotiate with the distillers and farmers as well as explain clearly to them what would take place if they were not to comply with the federal mandates.  When this effort at diplomacy failed, the soldier that still dwelled within Washington came back to life.  Amassing an army of 12,000 troops from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, Washington dusted off his Revolutionary War uniform and personally led these thousands of soldiers into western Pennsylvania and ultimately defeated the Whiskey Rebellion when the outnumbered and underequipped and untrained rebels were overwhelmed by Washington and his highly motivated army [3].  The rebels were ultimately left with little option than to put down what little weapons they had and to return to their regular lives, regulated by a government that they tried to oppose without success.

     Ironically enough, one of the military leaders that successfully helped Washington quell the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion would become the leader of a rebellion of his own in 1798 that bears his name to this day and guaranteed him his own unique niche in American history.  John Fries, an auction organizer from rural Pennsylvania, was looking forward to a peaceful resumption of normal life after the end of the Whiskey Rebellion.  However, what happened in the years following the Whiskey Rebellion was that the federal government, emboldened by its assertion of the power to tax the citizens of the US, imposed additional taxes to make up for the cost of fighting the Whiskey Rebellion as well as to pay for the Revolutionary War expenses that were at the heart of the original rebellion itself.  What made this tax even worse was the fact that it was forced upon the non-English speaking German immigrants of Fries’ community without any effort on the part of the government to try to communicate the purpose and design of this tax in their native language.  This, of course, led to a great deal of fear and confusion on the part of these German-Americans, leading one frightened old woman to throw a bucket of hot water on one of the tax collectors, giving Fries Rebellion the alternative name in its own time of The Hot Water War [4].  The Rebellion came to an impasse when the German-Americans, in a quest to get some answers about this confusing tax, captured a group of federal tax collectors and held them for days, against their will, until they received an explanation for the tax.  Never fully satisfied with the answers, the captors must have ultimately realized the futility of holding these individuals and released them without any long-term harm being done to them.  Harmed physically or not, however, this suppression of government authority via the mistreatment of its appointed officials did not sit well with President John Adams, who saw in this rebellion an echo of the problems that Washington faced several years earlier.  Not wanting to the  chief executive who let the power of the new nation is diminished by yet another group of vigilantes, Adams sent out troops which put down the rebellion and captured Fries and his associates with the goal of trying them for treason so they would stand as an example against further challenges to federal authority.  After two separate trials, Fries was eventually sentenced to hang, but that sentence was commuted by Adams when he issued an unconditional pardon to Fries.  After the rebellion that bore his name, Fries eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Pennsylvania militia [5].

     In the aftermath of these two rebellions, the authority of the federal government had been reinforced.  However, the more compelling issue to consider in the aftermath of the Whiskey and Fries Rebellions is how these events affected Pennsylvania’s view of the new federal government.

Early American Rebellions and Governmental Challenges

     The commonwealth of Pennsylvania held a unique role both in the formation of the original American colonies under English rule and also in the creation of the foundations of the United States of America.  Pennsylvania also was the setting for some of the most pivotal battles of the Revolutionary War.  With such a prominent pedigree in early American history, it is not surprising that the citizens of the commonwealth would not only be keenly aware of the issues of the rights of the individual, but also fierce defenders of those rights[6].  It is this type of solid determination to remain free that added fuel to the fire that became both the Whiskey and Fries Rebellions.  In fact, this mindset was in fact something which was brought to America from the native lands of those who eventually became Pennsylvanians, and first generation Americans.  All of these facts merit additional consideration, examination and discussion, as they make it possible to put all of these events into proper context.

     The point was made earlier that the people of Pennsylvania had a strong sense of the value of independence and had no qualms about fighting for it, as it was their very efforts that played such a large part in the victory of the Revolutionary War that gave America its start.  In the early days of the nation, in fact, Philadelphia hosted the nation’s capital and as even the most casual student of American history can recall, is the location of Independence Hall, the essential home of the American revolution, within whose walls such men as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others extolled the virtues of freedom from the British crown and the tyranny of taxation without representation.  Once this freedom was gained from Britain, the quest for ultimate freedom had only just begun.  If the American citizens, especially the residents of Pennsylvania thought that their freedom was bought, paid for and that was that, there was a rude awakening which manifested itself in the form of the federal taxes that came, and were attempted to be fought against by the citizenry.[7]  A zeal for independence cannot simply be snuffed out like a candle, and Pennsylvanians were seeing in their new government the same attempts to tax and control as they had seen when they were still subjects of the English king.  Therefore, it was not a large stretch for them to take up arms against their federal oppressors, albeit unsuccessful attempts.

     The actions of the residents of Pennsylvania must likewise be put into proper context, which can be done when one considers the fact that these people came to this new world seeking freedom from persecution and excessive taxation, only to find that yet another attempt to virtually enslave them was being hatched by the very government that they shed blood to create and support in the not too distant past.[8]

Conclusion

     In conclusion, a fascinating end to this chapter of early American history remains. When Pennsylvanians found that their muscle flexing did not intimidate the federal authorities after several attempts, the efforts to rebel against the established authority eventually tapered off, but it is fair to argue that the defense of freedom that Pennsylvanians held so dear survived for generations and emerged again throughout history and continues into the 21st century.[9]  Beyond this, of course, the impact of the downturn of the Fries and Whiskey Rebellions likewise had the impact on the fledgling American government of strengthening it. This, strangely enough, enhanced the reputation of Pennsylvanians not as lawless rebels, but as the defenders of freedom that they had always been, and as history would prove, probably will always be.  Therefore, this story can be seen as one of a win-win for both the federal government and the humble people of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Works Cited

Dawson, Matthew Q. Partisanship and the Birth of America’s Second Party, 1796-1800: Stop the Wheels of Government. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Dinan, Stephen. “Whiskey a Washington.” Insight on the News, February 5, 2001, 27.

Hill, Christopher. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited. Revised ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Livingston, William S. Federalism and Constitutional Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Messer, Peter C. “Revolution in America: Considerations and Comparisons.” Journal of Southern History 73, no. 2 (2007): 428+.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Tinkcom, Harry Marlin. The Republicans and Federalists in Pennsylvania, 1790-1801: A Study in National Stimulus and Local Response. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950.

 White, Morton. The Philosophy of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

[1] Slaughter, Thomas P. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[2] Dinan, Stephen. “Whiskey a Washington.” Insight on the News, February 5, 2001, 27.

[3] Messer, Peter C. “Revolution in America: Considerations and Comparisons.” Journal of Southern History 73, no. 2 (2007): 428+.

[4] Messer, Peter C. “Revolution in America: Considerations and Comparisons.” Journal of Southern History 73, no. 2 (2007): 428+.
[5] Dawson, Matthew Q. Partisanship and the Birth of America’s Second Party, 1796-1800: Stop the Wheels of Government. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[6] Hill, Christopher. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited. Revised ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

[7] Hill, Christopher. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited. Revised ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
[8] Tinkcom, Harry Marlin. The Republicans and Federalists in Pennsylvania, 1790-1801: A Study in National Stimulus and Local Response. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950.
[9] Livingston, William S. Federalism and Constitutional Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.