The Oregon Insurrectionists and the Whiskey Rebellion

As it stands right now, an undetermined number of persons have taken over several buildings in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns Oregon, to protest what they see as the unconstitutional activity of the Federal government’s use of land. Many of the protesters are self-professed “militiamen,” who are armed and profess a desire to hold out in the buildings in order to return the use of the Federal land to “the people.” The core group of these dissidents is made up of the so-called “patriots” of the 2014 Bundy Ranch incident (outlined in the above link). They state that they represent the true Constitutional beliefs of the nation and are willing to use violence, if necessary, to preserve what they perceive to be their rights. They have called for “patriots” from across the nation to join them in a larger action against the Federal government.

This hearkens back to another armed rebellion. No, not that of 1861 that began the Civil War, but the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. The American Revolution was barely even a decade in the past when the young Republic felt its first growing pains.

In an effort to pay off the states’ massive debts from the American Revolution, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, developed a system of consolidating all debts into the Federal government,  and then using tariffs and domestic taxes to pay down the debt. The first such tax, which had been made legal under the Constitution, was on distilled alcohol, namely, whiskey, enacted in 1791.  As Americans were averse to any taxes and loved whiskey, this did not sit well. Pennsylvania farmers, in particular, had long been accustomed to distilling their own whiskey and selling it where they wished. Cries of the injustice of the new tax and rumblings of British-like tyranny from President George Washington’s  government went up across the state. People did not understand why they should be made to pay other people’s debts under the new Constitution, nor why they were being taxed without local representation. Sound familiar?

Tax collectors were harassed, and in many places suffered indignities such as being tarred and feathered. Armed groups of dissidents raised Liberty Poles, a symbol from the American Revolution, and took over local militia groups. Areas of western Pennsylvania became in essence lawless as Federal officials could not enter them without fear for their personal safety.

Events reached a head in July of 1794. Armed men surrounded the home of a Federal marshal, David Lenox, who had been issuing subpoenas for the arrest of those who had not paid the excise tax. Lenox was supported by ten U.S. Army Soldiers from the garrison in nearby Pittsburgh. On July 17, 600 armed men, led by Revolutionary War veteran James MacFarlane assaulted Lenox’s home and a firefight ensued. MacFarlane was killed in the action, leading to his status as a martyr for the rebels. Lenox and the Soldiers were captured; the Soldiers were sent away, while Lenox would later escape.

With this, western Pennsylvania exploded. The insurrectionists held conventions in Pittsburgh to debate secession, and perhaps ally themselves with Great Britain or Spain. Most of the rebels were poor farmers or “squatters” (landless persons occupying either Federal lands in the Ohio Valley or Indian lands) who had economic grievances against the new Federal government. This insurrection gave outlet to their rage.

President Washington took a two-pronged approach. He sent commissioners to meet with the insurrectionists to try to negotiate with them to end the crisis. On August 4, Justice James Wilson of the Supreme Court declared the western counties of Pennsylvania to be in rebellion. That gave Washington the right to call up the militia. He called on the insurrectionists to disperse by September 1 while raising an army of nearly 13,000, a force comparable to that which he lead in the American Revolution. Washington himself took control of the Army as it entered Pennsylvania in October (the first and only sitting President to lead troops) before turning it over to Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee (ironically, the father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee).

George Washington inspecting his Army near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, prior to moving into Pennsylvania to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In the face of this massive force, the insurrection disintegrated. Ten ringleaders were captured and charged, and two were sentenced to death. Their sentences were commuted by Washington, and their lives were spared. The incident demonstrated that the new Federal government had the capacity and capability to put down local rebellions. It was received favorably by most of the rest of the nation, although there were local objections to the Federalization of militias. Overall, the incident can be seen as part of the long discussion between Federalists (for a Federal Constitution) and anti-Federalists (against a Federal Constitution) as to the role of the Federal government.

Fast forward to present day. The Oregon protesters fit neatly into the camp of anti-Federalists, who oppose what they see as the ever-increasing power of the Federal government. That they invoke the Constitution is ironic, as they parrot the views of those who disliked the Constitution from its inception. The historical precedents for groups such as this show that they stand diametrically opposed to the Constitution and the rule of law in the Republic. Their claim to be part of the “unorganized militia” flies in the face of U.S. laws that have outlined the “unorganized militia” as those eligible for the draft or for call-up by State authorities, as outlined in U.S. Code Titles 10 and 32. They hold no legal authority to bear arms on behalf of the American people.

It remains to be seen how the local, State, and Federal authorities will confront the Oregon issue. It is to be hoped that cooler heads will prevail in order to avoid a replay of the 1993 Branch Davidian incident in Waco, Texas. Perhaps leaders will take a glance back to how President Washington handled the Whiskey Rebellion and preserved one of the first threats to a united Republic.

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2 Replies to “The Oregon Insurrectionists and the Whiskey Rebellion”

  1. A good overview. Washington led the Army, as he moved along present day routes US 40&30 in his carriage, before entering a town, Washington would mount his war horse, and in his generals uniform enter the town. Washington was honored, and celebrated by the locals, Hamilton ran the day to day operations of the Army. While Washington was at Bedford PA when the Rebellion ended. You forgot too mention, At the time, Washington was the largest distiller in the young Republic. Had his own label brewed at Mt. Vernon. In addition, Washington wasn’t to keen on calling out the Army, to enforce the Law. Hamilton convinced Washington to do so, the enforcement of Federal Law was the underlying effect.


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