The First Presidential Pardon Pitted Alexander Hamilton Against George Washington

How to handle the Whiskey Rebellion was the first major crisis faced by the new government

The Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion Wikimedia Commons

It would not take long after the adoption of the Constitution for the office of the President to exercise its power to pardon. First issued by George Washington on November 2, 1795, the pardon put a public end to the earliest major instance of civic violence in the United States since the Constitution’s establishment six years earlier. The presidential action forgave two Pennsylvania men sentenced to hang for treason, simultaneously quelling a nascent uprising and proving the power of the chief executive. The men’s crime? Protesting the most sensitive of matters: whiskey.  

For years, Washington had disagreed with Alexander Hamilton, his Treasury Secretary, on how to handle the insurrection of farmer distillers on Pennsylvania’s southwestern frontier that came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1791, Congress had passed an Excise Whiskey Tax championed by Hamilton, who believed this first tax on a domestic product would shrink the national debt amassed during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton even established a national revenue collecting system to ensure the success of the tax.

The Treasury Secretary considered liquor a “luxury” item, when in reality the tax burdened the poor farmers on the country’s western and southern frontiers the most. Rugged roads made shipping any goods costly, but whiskey could be moved more efficiently than grains themselves. The liquor became their main “crop,” even being used as a currency in some locales.

When the farmers learned that the new law’s regressive tax rate varied based on the size of the stills, not the volume of the product – circumstances that favored the wealthy – they refused to acknowledge the tax. Some revenue collectors, afraid of the public outcry, stopped collecting. Those that persisted were met with similar tactics that many of the protestors – largely Scotch-Irish, English and German immigrants -- had witnessed just years earlier during the fight against British “taxation without representation.” 

On September 6, 1791, Robert Johnson, a tax collector, approached Pigeon Creek, an area along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. Responsible for the Alleghany and Washington Counties, Johnson had the job of visiting any property in his territory with a still and collecting the levies in cash. His territory held especially good product: “Monongahela Rye” was a favorite on wealthy tables further east. 

For at least two months, Johnson knew, farmers had gathered at places like Redstone Old Fort, a remnant of the French and Indian War, to voice their discontent, plan protests, and send out instructions to distillers throughout western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley of Virginia. The message was clear: refrain from helping, communicating with, or above all, paying tax collectors. The Pittsburgh Gazette printed resolutions that labeled officers as “inimical” forces deserving of contempt for profiting from an economic injustice. 

At Pigeon Creek, Johnson faced more than refusals. No fewer than 16 men, armed and disguised with soot, bandanas and women’s clothing, grabbed him and took his horse. The attackers stripped Johnson, tarred and feathered his body, and cut off his hair. Johnson walked miles to find help but lived. The attack on Johnson was one of the earliest detailed in letters between Hamilton and Washington.  

Throughout the following year, reports of protests, threats, and isolated violent acts (rarely deaths) spread through Appalachia from southern New York to north Georgia. Washington charged Pennsylvania Senator James Ross with negotiating with the rebels, a task that also fell to members of the state senate, court clerks, local lawyers and law enforcement. The protestors saw the men of authority as complicit in their oppression.

The National Gazette sympathized with farmer distillers, writing on May 17, 1792, “A tax at a rate between 24 and 30 percent … produces a degree of oppression that is unknown in any country, which has a claim to freedom, and must necessarily discourage industry to an extent beyond calculation.”

Hamilton saw the acts as an affront to the sovereignty of federal government. Repeatedly, he asked Washington to act swiftly before the rebellion grew wider. Such a “persevering and violent opposition to the Law,” needed “vigorous & decisive measures on the part of the Government,” Hamilton wrote in a letter on September 1, 1792. “My present clear conviction,” he stated, “if competent evidence can be obtained, [is] to exert the full force of the Law against the Offenders.”

Washington believed that “forbearance” would settle the conflict. Hamilton saw waiting as a weakening of the national government in its first domestic challenge.

“Moderation enough has been shewn: ‘tis time to assume a different tone,” wrote Hamilton. “The well disposed part of the community will begin to think the Executive wanting in decision and vigour.”

“It is my duty to see the Laws executed,” Washington responded, stating that the government could no longer “remain a passive spectator.”

On September 9, 1792, just more than a year after the attack on Johnson, Hamilton pushed for a presidential proclamation that decried the acts. He drafted a warning for farmer distillers to “desist from similar proceedings” or face the law. Washington agreed, issuing one based on Hamilton’s draft that week.

Secretary Hamilton sent at least one revenue officer undercover into an organizational meeting held in Pittsburgh, hoping to find incriminating evidence. It wasn’t easy. The frontier appeared united in protesting the tax or protecting those who did. In his letters to Washington, Hamilton repeated timelines of events, encouraging the president to take military action. Washington issued more proclamations. Reports of attacks proliferated.

The rebels threatened to burn down the houses of revenue officers on the frontier who did not renounce their offices and turn over paperwork. Ringleaders set many buildings aflame, including the barns of eyewitnesses who talked to local law enforcement. Judges drew up warrants for sheriffs to make arrests, but the officers were afraid.

“The prevailing spirit of those Officers,” wrote Hamilton, “has been either hostile or lukewarm to the execution of those laws.”

The Whiskey Rebellion culminated during the summer of 1794, when General John Neville, a war veteran and Inspector of the Revenue, received word on July 16 that a crowd would soon arrive at his home with their demands.

Neville armed his slaves and a group numbering near 100 arrived. Neville fired the first shot, killing an opposition leader. The following day, between 400 and 500 men returned. Anticipating a second fight, Neville had asked local magistrates for militia aid but was told “very few could be gotten who were not of the party of the Rioters.” About a dozen came to stand with him against the several hundred rioters.

Holding a truce flag, a group of protestors approached the house, asked General Neville to step outside, renounce his office and hand over his accounting. A negative response led to gunfire between the two groups, and after the opposition set fire to surrounding buildings and finally Neville’s home, his camp surrendered.

The increased number of rioters forced Washington’s hand. Aware of rumors that the opposition spoke of torching Pittsburgh, Washington gave the rebellion one last chance to peacefully desist. Throughout August of 1794, a government commission met with resistance leaders yet failed to strike an agreement.

Hugh H. Brackenridge, a local lawyer, served as a mediator between the federal government and the farmers from the start of the rebellion. On August 8, 1794, Brackenridge warned Tench Coxe, Hamilton’s assistant secretary of the Treasury, against sending the militia to quell the protest. Years later, Brackenridge’s son included his father’s memoirs in a book about the insurrection.

“Should an attempt be made to suppress these people,” Brackenridge told Coxe, “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.”

Washington authorized military intervention in a statement on September 25, 1794, saying that militia forces from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia had responded with “patriotic alacrity in obeying the call of the present, though painful, yet commanding necessity.” Washington himself would lead the troops, approximately 1300 strong. The number, the president said, was adequate “according to every reasonable expectation.”

Soon after arriving in central Pennsylvania, Washington realized that rumors and reports had inflated the opposition’s confidence. In his diary, he wrote of meeting with insurgent leaders in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on October 9, 1794. The men said that “they had got alarmed” at news of the militia’s advance. They committed to accepting the governance of civil authority.

Recognizing that his men would not be met with resistance, Washington soon left and Hamilton helped to lead the troops for two months.

The assault on Neville’s house, however, would not go unanswered. On November 14, in what would later be labeled as “the dreadful night”, the Hamilton-led militia spread through southwestern Pennsylvania, invading homes in the early morning and arresting boys and men they believed to have taken part in the Neville raid. The militia secured 150 suspects, but due to a lack of evidence or eyewitness testimony, just about 10 made it to trial. Only two men, John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, were convicted and sentenced to hanging, unfortunate enough to have eyewitness testimony place them at Neville’s house. Twice, Washington issued stays of execution, and his pardon came on November 2, 1795.

One month later, in his seventh State of the Union Address, Washington explained his decision to pardon Mitchell and Weigel. Hamilton and John Jay drafted the address, as they had others, before Washington made the final edit.

“The misled have abandoned their errors,” he stated. “For though I shall always think it a sacred duty to exercise with firmness and energy the constitutional powers with which I am vested, yet it appears to me no less consistent with the public good than it is with my personal feelings to mingle in the operations of Government every degree of moderation and tenderness which the national justice, dignity, and safety may permit.”

With these words, Washington justified his approach to civic unrest: to wait to exercise his “sacred duty” until he could understand the situation well enough to apply “every degree of moderation and tenderness” that it would allow.

Hamilton’s letters don’t reveal his personal response to the pardon, but seven years before, in Federalist No. 74, he had advocated for the president’s right to extend pardons, even in the case of treason. The position disagreed with founders such as George Mason, who thought the power of a pardon belonged to Congress, not a solitary man with his own political agenda.

“It is not to be doubted,” wrote Hamilton, “that a single man of prudence and good sense is better fitted, in delicate conjunctures, to balance the motives which may plead for and against the remission of the punishment, than any numerous body whatever.”

History has conceded the public end to the Whiskey Rebellion as an immediate victory for Hamilton and his Federalist vision. Although the militia did not have to fight, it had acted on a president’s defense of the Constitution, enforcing the needs of the federal government over localized protests and regional needs. In 1802, President Jefferson, an anti-Federalist, repealed all direct taxation, including the Excise Whiskey Tax. Unlike Hamilton, Jefferson saw tariffs as enemies to the constituents of a free democracy, limiting the worker’s ability to benefit fully from his labor.

While the pardons showed the power of the presidency, Jefferson’s repeal proved the power of American democracy. Even though the farmers lost the rebellion, they succeeded in checking the federal government’s early reach into civic liberties. That legacy of the grappling between government authority and individual freedom would become as much, if not more, a part of the American story as the pardon itself.

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