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The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794

"The single largest armed confrontation among American citizens between the Revolution and the Civil War." - Thomas Slaughter

 

Although little is remembered today, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 which took place in Western Pennsylvania is considered one of the most important events in early American history.

As on other occasions in our early history, members of the Ferree family became involved and gave support to the cause.

 

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THE CAUSE

The chain of events leading to the Whiskey Rebellion began following the Revolutionary War when the new federal government made an agreement with the states to assume the debts incurred by the states during the war. The government had to find some way to pay off those debts. Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, came up with the idea of putting a tax on whiskey production. On March 3, 1791, the U.S. Congress in Philadelphia passed a federal excise tax of seven cents per gallon on all whiskey sold in the United States.

Resistance to the whiskey tax stretched from Western Pennsylvania to the frontiers of Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas. Whiskey was not only a home product for farmers, it was a source of income that could be used for money and a medium of exchange for transactions. Many depended on it for their livelihood. Because of the distance to the Eastern markets and lack of good roads, it was difficult and costly to transport their grain crops. Converting their grain into whiskey made it easier and less costly to transport thereby increasing its value and marketability making it more practical. However, for the most part, nobody in the "back country" paid any whiskey tax.

THE RESISTANCE IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA

Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania at that time was considered "frontier" country. Most of the farmers in that area had their own stills including Jacob Ferree. The government focused on Western Pennsylvania as a testing ground for federal authority in their effort to collect the tax. Farmers in Allegheny, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties were strong in their opposition and citizens meeting were held in all four counties. Supposed to report to the Inspector of Revenue, the farmers regarded this as an invasion of their personal liberties and refused to report. Those who tried to obey the law were ridiculed; tax collectors were tarred and feathered; and government officials were threatened. There were public protests, demonstrations, riots and violence. This unrest continued for three years.

THE REBELLION

The so called "insurrection" came to a head in July of 1794 when a Federal Marshall was attacked in Allegheny County. Shortly thereafter several hundred men attacked and burned the home of John Neville, the Inspector of Revenue in southwestern Pennsylvania, and a personal friend of George Washington. By early August thousands of armed rebels had rendezvoused on Braddock's Field about eight miles out of Pittsburgh intent on burning and looting the city. Although the march into Pittsburgh by about 5,000 men was essentially peaceful, it signaled to the government a need for military enforcement.On August 7, 1794, President Washington issued a proclamation calling out the militia and ordering the rebel farmers to return home.

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An army of approximately 13,000 was mobilized in Carlisle, PA. In September George Washington led the militia on a month long march across the Allegheny Mountains and became the only sitting President in history to command troops in the field. Gen. Henry Lee, the then Governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee, assumed command upon Washington's return to Philadelphia. In October Lee led the militia into the western counties of Pennsylvania to engage the rebels, but by the time they arrived the rebellion had collapsed and most of the rebels had fled. On November 10th the following notice was given advising of the reopening of the Office of Inspection.

NOTICE OF THE INSPECTOR OF REVENUE
Notice is hereby given, that on Thursday, the 20th inst., an Office of Inspection will be opened at Pittsburgh, for the county of Allegheny; at the Town of Washington, for the county of Washington; at Greensburgh, for the county of Westmoreland, and at Union-Town, for the county of Fayette. All distillers are required forthwith to enter their stills at the office of the county in which they respectively reside, and do further what the laws prescribe concerning the same, of which they may receive more particular information from the Office of Inspection with whom entry is made.
John Neville
Inspector of Revenue, District of Pennsylvania, Fourth Survey
Nov. 10, 1794

THE ARRESTS AND MARCH TO PITTSBURGH

The Whiskey Rebellion officially ended on the night of November 13, 1794, with the arrest of approximately 150 participants in the rebellion along with 20 of the leaders. Joel Ferree, son of Jacob Ferree, was one of those arrested. Referred to as "that dreadful night", men were dragged from their homes, handcuffed, brought into camp, and handed over to the provost-guard. They were thrown into jail, kept in cold barns or out-houses, or tied back to back in cellars. The next day the prisoners were marched down river to Benjamin Bentley's farm. There they were confined overnight in a log cabin without food or water and even though it was a cold, snowy night without a fire. The march to Pittsburgh continued the next day through a snow storm. Just a few miles out Pittsburgh they were forced to lie all night on the wet ground without covering or fire. They arrived in Pittsburgh on the 16th of November and conducted to the garrison on the 17th.

The Oaths of Allegiance

NOTICE FOR RECEIVING OF OATHS OF ALLEGIANCE
Pittsburgh, Nov. 10, 1794
To the Citizens of Allegheny County:

The period has now arrived wherein the good citizens of the county of Allegheny may, with safety, step forward in defense of the laws and the good order of the country. His Excellency Henry Lee, General and Commander-in-Chief of a large, respectable and well regulated army of your fellow citizens, now within the four Western counties of Pennsylvania, hath given in charge to us, the subscribers, that each of us do immediately open books and receive the tests or oath of Allegiance of all good citizens. And it is expected that the friends to government will not hesitate a moment in complying with the requisition, it being absolutely necessary that his Excellency should know a state of the minds of the people before the army is withdrawn. We believe the intention is not to distress, but to relieve the deluded part of the union.

A. Tannehill
John Wilkins
Justices of the Peace

 

OATH OF ALLEGIANCE
I do solemnly, in the the presence of Almighty God, swear and declare that I will faithfully and sincerely support the Constitution of the United States, and obey all laws thereof, and will discontinue opposition thereto, except by way of petition and remonstrance, and all attempts to resist, obstruct, or ill treat the officers of the United States in the execution of their respective duties, so help me God.

Each person, in taking this oath, was required to subscribe his name thereto, as well as sign the following pledge.

In pursuance of the oath hereto annexed, I do hereby engage and associate to and with all others who may subscribe these presents to countenance and protect the officers of the United States in the execution of their duties according to law, and to discover and bring to justice all persons who may be concerned, directly or indirectly, in illegally hindering or obstructing the said officers, or any of them, in the execution of their duty, or in doing any manner of violence to them, or either of them. In witness of all which I have hereunto subscribed my hand the day and year opposite my name.
 

As ordered, Jacob Ferree, a distiller and known to be sympathetic to the Whiskey Rebellion, signed an oath recorded as follows: (Please note the record reads "Joseph" and not "Jacob")

Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County
BE IT KNOWN that on the 14thth day of November, 1794, before me, Wm. McClure, esquire, one of the Commonwealth Justices of the Peace in and for the county of Allegheny, came Joseph Ferree, of Mifflin Township and said county who took and subscribed the oath of Allegiance as prescribed by an address of his Excellency General Henry Lee, to the inhabitants of the four western Counties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, dated the 8th day of November, 1794.
Witness my hand and seal.
Wm. McClure (L. S.)

The Pardons

On November 29, 1794, by authority delegated to him by President Washington, General Lee issued a "proclamation of pardon" which granted a full, free, and entire pardon to those considered guilty of treason against the United States with the exception of 33 men named in the proclamation. Joel Ferree was one of those thus pardoned. (Read Proclamation Text)

Of those 33, charges against about fifteen of them were explained away. Jacob Ferree was willing to give testimony for one of them. Others were marched to Philadelphia to stand trial.

AFFIDAVIT FROM A. TANNEHILL
1794 December 4
To Whom Concerned: I do certify that I heard Jacob Ferree say he was willing to give testimony that he saw John Shields sign a submission to the laws as directed by commissioners on behalf of the United States on the 11th of September last. I do also certify that I saw the names of John Shields and Thomas Lapsley written on the paper of submission taken on that day, and that the name of Thomas Lapsley I believe to be in his own handwriting.

By July of 1795 President Washington had issued pardons to all those who were convicted, held in custody, under indictment, or on the run. The fight over whiskey taxes was taken up on the political battlefield. By 1802 the excise spirits tax had been repealed by Congress.