Whiskey Rebellion (part two)

The Whiskey Rebellion Flag

In my previous post on the Whiskey Rebellion, we left the Rebels gathering near John Neville‘s stately home, Bower Hill, intending to tar and feather the U.S. marshal they believed was staying there, and possibly to do harm to Neville himself . . .

The Burning of Bower Hill

Neville didn’t get to own 10,000 acres of prime frontier real estate by being a fool.  He knew the rebels would be back.  But by the time they returned the next day, July 17, Neville was still defending his house with the help of only his slaves (wonder how they felt about that?) and a small detachment of federal troops led by Abraham Kirkpatrick, another veteran of the Revolution, who also happened to be Neville’s brother-in-law.

Captain McFarlane was killed in the brief ensuing gun battle, and became a martyr to the rebel cause.  He was given a hero’s funeral and is buried at Mingo Creek Cemetery, near Finleyville, PA. 

Neville escaped his house before it was breached by the approaching rebel militia, and hid in the nearby woods.  Kirkpatrick was taken prisoner but later released.  History is silent on what became of the enslaved people who had been conscripted to defend their master. 

Bower Hill was burned to the ground. 

David Bradford and the U.S. Mail

It took only a day for word of the uprising to reach David Bradford in Washington, PA.  Bradford was a militant Washington whiskey rebel (see my previous blog post on Bradford), and saw the fighting at Bower Hill as the signal for a larger battle.  By July 18, he had gathered Washington County rebels at Mingo Creek Meeting House near present-day Finleyville.  There, they made plans to intercept the mail between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, to determine who was a friend to the rebellion, versus who might betray them. They also began planning a march on Pittsburgh. 

Bradford’s men accomplished the mail theft on July 26.  Bradford, a former assemblyman of both Virginia and Pennsylvania, was now a federal criminal. And the rebels’ fears were confirmed.  Among the stolen mail were letters from several prominent Pittsburghers urging that the rebellion be put down forcefully. 

And Bradford wasn’t the only person who was galvanized to action by the burning of Bower Hill.  The Whiskey Rebellion now had the full attention of President George Washington. 

A Small Segue:  Pittsburgh in 1794

Pittsburgh 10 years after the Whiskey Rebellion
Pittsburgh in 1804

While Bradford, Washington and our old friend Hamilton wait in the wings, let’s pause and consider the position of the growing city of Pittsburgh at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion. 

Pittsburgh’s population in 1794 was only about 376.  The city consisted of about 200 buildings of brick, frame and log, and a warren of muddy, unpaved streets, stretching from the Point only as far as present-day Grant Street.

But this modest town was what passed for The Big City on the 18th-century frontier.  By 1794, the city boasted a post office, a newspaper (The Pittsburgh Gazette), at least one iron furnace, and several smithies and boat works.  Already, the air was smoky and dusty from the coal burnt in homes and new small manufactories.  The rivers swarmed with commerce.

And commerce makes money.  Money makes gentlemen.  And gentlemen usually like to maintain the status quo. 

To the whiskey rebels, ramshackle little Pittsburgh was the seat of the moneyed elites who kept them from making a decent living. 

Men like Hugh Henry Brackenridge, founder of The Pittsburgh Gazette and prominent Pittsburgh citizen, sympathized with the Whiskey Rebellion.  He called it “a stand of the democratic, poverty-ridden West against the encroachments of the aristocratic Money Bags of the East, a people who feel themselves taxed in order to fasten the yoke of Plutocrats about their necks.”  But Brackenridge was also a businessman and business thrives on law-abiding order.  Doubtless, most Pittsburghers felt the same, even in the working class.  Their city was prosperous and growing and the future looked bright. 

Now an angry mob of rye farmers with guns threatened that.

Meanwhile in Braddock…

Braddocks Field a key site in the Whiskey Rebellion
Stereopticon image of Braddock’s Field as it looked about 100 years after the Whiskey Rebellion

Bradford had mustered as many as 7000 rebels at Braddock’s field, intending to march on Pittsburgh and burn it.  Brackenridge, playing both sides, urged them to merely march through the city as a show of force.  Meantime, he had also advised the Pittsburghers to welcome the rebels, and offer them food and drink. 

It worked.  Bradford and his militia completed their march, enjoyed the hospitality of the young city and left it unharmed. 

The Whiskey Rebellion falls apart

On August 14, 1794, Brackenridge and Albert Gallatin met with the rebels again at Parkinson’s Ferry in Monongahela, PA, and convinced them to allow time for negotiation with the federal government.  Brackenridge and Gallatin must have been persuasive, because Braford and his men stood down – for a while. 

But negotiations failed.  The federals were willing to reduce the tax further, but would not guarantee amnesty to the rebels.  On September 19, President Washington personally led a 13,000-man army out of Philadelphia, on their way to the west to crush the rebellion. 

George Washington on his way to crush the Whiskey Rebellion 1794
Washington personally led 13,000 federal troops west to crush the Whiskey Rebellion

Washington turned back at Bedford, PA, leaving his army in the hands of Hamilton and “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  Hamilton and Lee continued west, arriving in Washington County on October 24. 

Anyone smart enough to survive on the frontier is also smart enough to know that a rabble of 7000 farmers doesn’t stand much of a chance against 13,000 trained federal troops. 

David Bradford escaped down the Ohio River, eventually resettling in Spanish Louisiana (see my previous blog post on Bradford).  An estimated 2000 of the rebels left western Pennsylvania for parts further west, primarily Kentucky.  Most of the rest laid low. 

On November 19, Hamilton and Lee arrested and imprisoned about 150 rebels on a cold, sleety night known as “The Dreadful Night.”  In the end, they released most of the prisoners, transporting only twenty of them to Philadelphia for trial.  All were ultimately pardoned.

By 1799, even Bradford, the leader of the 7000-man militia, had been pardoned.  And on April 6, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax.  Turns out it was hard to enforce. 

but it lives on

The new U.S. federal government had prevailed in the first test of its sovereignty.  But Pennsylvania became, and still is, a microcosm of one of the most stubborn fault lines in American politics: rural, working-class, anti-taxers who mistrust the distant federal government versus elites in the big cities who favor big business and big government and tend to be the ones making the rules.  The little guys suspect that the elites are looking down on them and making rules to favor themselves.  Our nation’s two-party system owes its existence to the internal conflicts exposed by a few thousand struggling farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania who didn’t want to pay their taxes. 

Sources

Bradford House Historical Association; The Bradford House: A National Historic Landmark; Washington, PA; 2015

Lorant, Stefan; Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City; Lenox, MA, Authors Edition, Inc.; Fourth Edition, 1988

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

http://www.maptherebellion.com/neatline/show/the-whiskey-rebellion#records/10

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bradford_(lawyer)

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