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The Scotch-Irish in America
Chapter 12


In this book something should be said of the famous Whiskey Insurrection of 1794, since it had its focus and chief strength in the very heart of the section of which I am writing, and since these Scotch-Irish were mainly the people concerned. That notable uprising was occasioned by the levying of the hateful excise tax on whiskey. This was done by the United States Government, and was part of the policy of Hamilton for raising revenue to enable the Government to pay its debts. Because this violent protest of the people against an excise tax happened to be a protest against such a tax on whiskey, the whole movement has an opprobrious name. It was not merely because a hateful tax happened to be laid on tea, that our forefathers rebelled in Boston harbor. It was because such a tax should be levied at all. The thing taxed had but little to do with the intense and indignant protest. If in western Pennsylvania this tax had been laid on flax, or flour, the uproar would have been quite as great, probably far greater. Our fathers no doubt fell into a grievous mistake in going into that unfortunate enterprise, and in resisting by force a decree of the Government they had just helped to establish. But something can be said in extenuation of their fault. The excise is the most hateful form of tax that can be imposed on a free people, and is never resorted to in civilized countries, except in times of war or dire necessity. The excise precipitated the American Revolution. Our fathers in western Pennsylvania at that time were almost completely isolated from the markets of the world. There were no roads over which they could carry the produce of their farms beyond the mountains to a market where money could be had. The story already told of Father Smiley's expedition to New Orleans illustrates the condition of affairs. Grain, however, could be distilled into whiskey, and in that condensed form, packed over the mountains, or easily shipped to New Orleans. At that time, there was no moral or religious sentiment against the manufacture and use of ardent spirits, any more than there was against any other business or custom. The traffic in ardent spirits was thought of as just as legitimate legally and morally as the traffic in wheat or potatoes. In the old treasurer's book of the Buffalo congregation, there are entries of the stipend, that is, the subscription to the minister's salary, being paid in whiskey. Hence small still-houses were very numerous in the region. I am glad to say that there never was one on my ancestral acres, but the neighbors and fellow-churchmen of my fathers, quite as good as my people, had these still-houses. They were no more thought of than if they had been flouring-mills. Educated people understand this. Fools do not. The excise was particularly hateful to these Scotch-Irish people, because it was to escape this very impost that they had gone into the war of the Revolution. This section was full of discharged officers and soldiers of the Army of the Revolution. In that great struggle many of them had risked their lives. Now, to have the very Government they had helped to establish at so great cost, impose on them this hateful tax they had gone to war to throw off, seemed to them intolerable, and it goaded them to fury. The wisest men among them, including their ministers, counselled patience, and did their best to restrain the people from actual resistance. But there were a few able, reckless, turbulent and violent men among them, who assumed leadership, and who were able to kindle a flame, and soon a conflagration. As in the case of our southern brethren before our great war, sober-minded men held back as long as they could, but at length were overborne by the fire-eaters. As usually happens, when the real crisis came the reckless agitators vanished from the scene, and left nobler men to suffer the consequences of the storm raised by these agitators. Then the Government was peculiarly unfortunate in the policy it adopted, and the agents it employed in levying and collecting the tax. The policy was harsh, arbitrary and tyrannical; and the agents were unpopular, exasperating, over-bearing and cruel to the last degree. Hence almost the entire population at last joined in the movement to resist by force, what they deeply felt to be an invasion of their rights. President Washington knew the kind of people he had to deal with in this matter, as he had often seen and praised their valor on many a battlefield, and so he sent out against them the largest army that, up to that time, had ever been arrayed on one field in this country. Of course, the insurrection was put down, and a considerable number of those supposed to be influential, were marched clear across the mountains in the dead of winter, under much hardship and suffering, to be tried in Philadelphia. These were not the men who had fomented the insurrection, but quiet, conservative, important men, who had gone into the movement with great reluctance, and mainly in the hope of restraining their neighbors from acts of folly and violence. The wise Washington kept them in prison for a very brief time, only a few days, simply to assert the power of the Government. The movement ended disastrously, but it had the effect of putting a perpetual end to the excise in this country except in times of war. Their people never disowned the men who suffered, any more than Virginians disowned Lee and Jackson. Once at a banquet given by the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution in San Francisco, in an address, I said, "I am probably the only man here who was given in baptism the name of one who served a time as a convict in the penitentiary, and who is not ashamed to confess it. There may be others here who bear the name of one who had a similar experience, but probably they are not openly confessing and claiming it. I bear the name of such a man, and am not ashamed of it; a wise, brave, saintly, and patriotic man, an officer in the Army of the Revolution, and the friend of Washington, but whom the Father of his country clapped into the penitentiary in Philadelphia for a few days, as an example, and because he very reluctantly had something to do with the famous whiskey insurrection in western Pennsylvania. His family never disowned him while he lived, nor dishonored his memory after he died."


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