Pride and Our Glory
George Washington, The Whiskey Rebellion, and Military
May 23, 2002
By Joseph Wayne Gadway
September 11, 2001 President Bush and the American people
have struggled to deal with the latest attack on the United
States. Numerous measures have been taken to meet the threat
of terrorism and protect the lives of Americans. Some of these
measures, those involving increased airport security, for
example, have been relatively non-controversial, at least
in principle. Other measures have been far more worrisome.
We have been told, among other things, that civilian courts
simply cannot handle terrorist cases and that military tribunals
will be needed. President Bush issued an order authorizing
such tribunals, for non-U.S. citizens, on November 13, 2001.
So far, a majority of Americans have supported Bush's call
for military justice. This support has probably been based,
at least in part, on the administration's insistence that
military tribunals are a part of the American tradition. Tribunals
have been used before, we are told, and were even used by
that greatest of all Americans, George Washington himself.
To those who have been swayed by this appeal to history it
may come as a surprise to learn that during the first great
attack on the United States - the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794
- George Washington explicitly and firmly rejected the use
of military tribunals. He even went so far as to state publicly
that such a misuse of the military would be incompatible with
the "essential principles of a free government."
If we really want to follow the example set by our first
president, as he dealt with the great national security crisis
of his time, we must begin by taking a look at the events
The Whiskey Rebellion occurred among the recent Scotch-Irish
immigrants of western Pennsylvania who relied on the sale
of hard liquor for much of their income. An excise tax on
whiskey, passed by the U.S. congress in 1791, was viewed by
many in the region as both oppressive and discriminatory.
Violent opposition to this tax, and to the government officials
attempting to collect it, flared up in 1792, simmered through
1793, and then exploded into a state of open insurrection
in the summer of 1794.
In July of 1794 an excise inspector named John Neville, accompanied
by U.S. marshal David Lenox, served processes on numerous
whiskey producers who had failed to register their stills
the previous year. These people were expected to go to Philadelphia
where they would face trial in the federal court there. Instead,
they gathered a mob of 500 armed men and attacked Neville's
home. Lenox and a small group of soldiers were captured in
the ensuing battle. Neville himself managed to escape, whereupon
the attacking mob set fire to his house.
This incident triggered a general uprising and the complete
breakdown of law and order in western Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh-Philadelphia
mail was robbed and letters were examined in an attempt to
identify government sympathizers. Based on this information
threats were made, often in the form of bullet-riddled stills
and burned barns. Government officials who remained in the
region were tarred and feathered, or, in at least one case,
seared with hot irons. The most radical of the rebel leaders
began to talk of secession from the U.S. and suggested a guillotine
be set up to deal with enemies of the movement. By August
1 the rebellion had grown to the point where 6000 armed men
could be assembled to threaten an attack on Pittsburgh. Terrified
inhabitants of that town managed to save themselves only by
marching out to join the uprising.
Based on information arriving from the west, U.S. Supreme
Court justice James Wilson authorized the mobilization of
state militias on August 4 when he certified that the rebellion
was the work of "combinations too powerful to be suppressed
by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." By this time
many of the rebels were beginning to feel they were too powerful
to be successfully opposed at all. Even one of the most moderate
leaders of the movement, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, sent a dire
warning to an acquaintance in the U.S. capitol: "Should an
attempt be made to suppress these people I am afraid the question
will not be, whether you will march to Pittsburgh, but whether
they will march to Philadelphia, accumulating in their course,
and swelling over the banks of the Susquehanna like a torrent,
irresistible, and devouring in its progress." (1)
As President Washington studied the increasingly alarming
reports from western Pennsylvania it must have been difficult
for him to retain his habitual demeanor of quiet confidence.
Obviously, there is no good time to deal with a rebellion,
but the summer of 1794 was an especially bad time for such
a crisis to occur. By itself the Whiskey Rebellion was a serious
threat to national security. What made the situation potentially
catastrophic was that Washington was confronted, simultaneously,
by a possible war with Spain, a possible war with Great Britain,
an actual war with the Indians of the Ohio country, AND the
seemingly subversive activities of at least 35 "Democratic
Societies" which had recently sprung up across the United
The possibility of war with Spain was based on that nation's
control of the mouth of the Mississippi. Given the importance
of river transport in the late eighteenth century this put
Spain in a position to control the entire Mississippi basin.
To westerners, especially in Kentucky, this created an intolerable
situation as it put their economic fate in the hands of a
foreign power. When the Federal government turned to potentially
long, and always uncertain, diplomatic efforts to resolve
the problem many Kentuckians felt the time had come for more
drastic measures. Supplied with military commissions from
France (which was already at war with Spain) local leaders
began raising volunteer armies. As these forces assembled
the situation grew so dangerous that Washington actually posted
U.S. troops along the Ohio River to prevent Kentucky from
launching a private war against Spanish forces at New Orleans.
Of course, this raised the possibility that if Kentucky moved
anyway, an international war might only be avoided by fighting
a civil one.
Washington could not spend all his time thinking about the
Spanish problem because there was also a potential war with
Great Britain to worry about. At this time France was at war
with Britain as well as Spain, and in 1793 the French minister
to the U.S., citizen Genet, had commissioned American vessels
as privateers to capture British merchant ships which were
then sold as prizes in American ports. This was done in defiance
of an official proclamation of neutrality issued by Washington.
Naturally Britain retaliated, and was able to recoup its losses
by seizing 250 U.S. ships in December 1793.
If war did break out Washington was uncomfortably aware that
enemy troops would be close at hand. Great Britain had never
abandoned its forts in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.
as it had agreed to do in the 1783 treaty ending the American
Revolution. Early in 1794 the British even built a new fort
on U.S. soil, in what is now Ohio, and then informed the Indians
that Britain and the U.S. would soon be at war. This raised
the alarming possibility that Great Britain might provide
military assistance to the rebels in western Pennsylvania
in an effort to weaken, or even split, the United States.
At least Washington didn't have to worry about provoking
a war with the Indians. The U.S. was already at war with them.
In 1790 a military expedition under General Joseph Harmar
was driven out of Indian territory. This setback exposed western
settlements to increased Indian attacks. A second expedition,
under General Arthur St. Clair, suffered a disastrous defeat
in 1791 with 950 soldiers killed or wounded. By the summer
of 1794 yet a third campaign was underway against the Indians,
this one commanded by General Anthony Wayne. With most of
the U.S. Army committed to this mission Washington would have
to rely on state militias if force was needed to put down
the rebellion in Pennsylvania. As the uprising grew in strength
Washington had not heard anything from General Wayne for several
weeks and, given the fate of previous expeditions, could not
be completely sure that he ever would.
These external threats from Spain, Great Britain, and the
Indians were obviously serious, and clearly added to the context
of crisis in which Washington had to deal with the Whiskey
Rebellion. Perhaps even more alarming to the president, however,
was the potential internal threat to national security posed
by the Democratic Societies. These groups had begun to form
in 1793 to provide enthusiastic support for Genet's efforts
to drag the U.S. into war with Great Britain. They quickly
demonstrated a taste for violence and vice-president John
Adams later recalled, "…the terrorism excited by Genet
in 1793, when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia,
day after day threatened to drag Washington out of his house."
Adams took the threat of being dragged out of his own house
seriously enough to procure trunk loads of arms from the War
Department for self-defense.
As the violence Adams described in Philadelphia spread to
New York City and Boston Washington felt certain the Democratic
Societies represented an extreme threat to the U.S. government.
He believed they were led by "artful and designing men," and
he characterized their activities as "the most diabolical
attempts to destroy the best fabric of human government and
happiness that has ever been presented for the acceptance
of mankind." (3)
The fact that two Democratic Societies had been established
in western Pennsylvania just before the rebellion occurred
was seen as strong evidence of their involvement in the uprising.
This looked like an ominous foreshadowing of what other societies
might be planning to do throughout the country.
Faced with all these external and internal threats to the
very existence of the United States many would not have been
surprised had Washington resorted to very drastic measures
indeed, perhaps even temporarily setting aside constitutional
safeguards, for example. Instead he selected a more complex,
mixed approach to the crisis; a kind of carrot-and-stick method
he had used throughout his career. The first step was to send
a delegation to western Pennsylvania with an offer of amnesty
and "perpetual oblivion for everything which has passed" to
any rebels willing to take an oath of loyalty to the government.
In case this carrot should be rejected Washington went to
work preparing his stick- a massive show of military force.
Since Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton estimated
the rebels might put 7000 men into the field Washington ordered
the assembly of nearly 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, Maryland,
New Jersey, and loyal counties in Pennsylvania.
On September 24 Washington received a report from his delegation.
It acknowledged that the rebels were beginning to waver but
concluded there was still no possibility of enforcing law
in the region without extra-judicial help. To provide this
help Washington ordered militia units to an advance base at
Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he joined them on October 4.
By this time Washington's willingness to use military force
in putting down the rebellion was clear to everyone. Many
people assumed that military force would be accompanied by
military justice. At least one militia unit from Philadelphia
began drawing up a list of suspected traitors to be executed.
Washington soon made it clear that his approach would be quite
In a last effort to avoid bloodshed Washington met personally
with two representatives appointed by the rebels. He assured
them that no military tribunals would be used unless the militias
were met with armed resistance. The rebels were already distinctly
unenthusiastic about facing the large army marching against
them, especially since it would be led personally by the hero
of the Revolution. Washington's assurance that all cases would
be decided in civilian courts (apparently the earlier offer
of amnesty had been withdrawn) was finally enough and the
rebels laid down their arms. Within a short time the situation
had improved so dramatically that Washington felt justified
in returning to Philadelphia, leaving the militias to complete
the work of restoring order without him.
In his farewell address to the troops Washington defined
their mission with great care; explaining the relationship
that must exist between military and civilian authorities
in a free society. "The essential principles of a free government
confine the provinces of the military to these two objects:
first, to combat and subdue all who may be found in arms in
opposition to the national will and authority. Secondly, to
aid and support the civil magistrate in bringing offenders
to justice. The dispensation of this justice belongs to the
civil magistrate, and let it ever be our pride and our glory
to leave the sacred deposit there unviolated." (4)
In this statement Washington is simply reminding his citizen-soldiers
of the division of powers which lies at the heart of the U.S.
Constitution and the U.S. government. The work of the military
is vitally important but must always be limited to its proper
sphere within the executive branch. The work of administering
justice, which is equally important, belongs to the civilian
courts of the judicial branch and must not be intruded upon
by the military. Only in a state of open warfare, where civilian
institutions either cease to exist or are unable to carry
out their normal functions, would the imposition of military
law, and the use of military tribunals, be justified.
What makes Washington's statement of this principle, and
his adherence to it, so remarkable is that this occurred,
not in a time of peace and safety, but in a time when external
and internal enemies appeared to be threatening the very existence
of the United States. A time very much like our own, in fact.
Even at this moment of extreme danger, when many might have
argued that military tribunals were not only justified, but
perhaps necessary, Washington insisted on upholding the "essential
principles of a free government."
The multiple crises Washington faced in the summer of 1794
were all eventually solved without violating any of those
essential principles. The problems with Spain and Great Britain
were at least reduced through diplomatic efforts. The Indians
were finally defeated by General Wayne at the Battle of Fallen
Timbers. The Democratic Societies, publicly condemned by Washington
in an address to Congress, quickly faded away.
The Whiskey Rebellion itself, faced with the threat of overwhelming
military force on the one hand, and with the promise of fair
treatment in civilian courts on the other, simply collapsed.
The troops Washington left behind arrested or interrogated
about 150 suspected participants in the uprising. About 20
of these went to trial in Philadelphia and two were eventually
sentenced to death. Washington pardoned them.
It is clear that Washington's firm leadership and willingness
to use military force when necessary helped to save the U.S.
from disintegration in 1794. His insistence that the division
of powers be honored, that the administration of justice be
left in the hands of civilians, may have been equally important.
Washington demonstrated that, for him, the U.S. government
was built upon "essential" principles; principles that would
not be abandoned regardless of circumstances or dangers. He
understood that he might save a country by compromising these
principles and resorting to the use of military tribunals,
but it wouldn't have been the country he fought the Revolution
As the Bush administration, and the American people, seek
out precedents for dealing with our current crisis this might
be a good one to keep in mind.
Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism:
The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, Oxford University
Press, 1993, p.475
Flexner, James Thomas, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell
(1793-1799) Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1969, 1972,