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Our Pride and Our Glory
George Washington, The Whiskey Rebellion, and Military Tribunals
May 23, 2002
By Joseph Wayne Gadway

Since 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 of 1794.

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 States.

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." (2) 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 different.

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 to establish.

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.


(1) Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, Oxford University Press, 1993, p.475
(2) Flexner, James Thomas, George Washington: Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799) Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1969, 1972, p.63
(3) Ibid. p.164
(4) Ibid. p.177

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