The Whiskey Rebellion

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The state of the scholarship about the Whiskey Rebellion is surprisingly paltry. There have been a few historical monographs written in the past decade that have contributed to our scholarly understanding of this event, but by and large a thorough study of the Whiskey Rebellion and its complex causes and effects is lacking in our modern scholarship. Thomas P. Slaughter is perhaps the most prominent Whiskey Rebellion scholar, but his important monograph about the event was published more than twenty-five years ago, in 1986. It is my sincere hope that scholarship about this complex and fascinating moment in our early American history catches up with the interesting studies being done about similar events in this period, such as Shays’s Rebellion.

A great deal of my understanding about the “broad strokes” of the Whiskey Rebellion is owed to the aforementioned book by Thomas Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), and to William Hogeland’s more recent work, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). Both of these books are excellent points of entry into the Whiskey Rebellion and provide a broad historical overview.

Much of my research for this particular project was done from primary sources. Primary source documents from the Whiskey Rebellion are scattered throughout archives on the eastern seaboard, and no complete archive exists of the Rebellion. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, and the National Archives all hold small collections of Whiskey Rebellion materials. Geography and time prevented me from visiting these archives for the purposes of this project, but I was able to do some research from digitized materials and accounts that have been reproduced in anthologies. Founders Online, a project of the National Archives, makes available transcripts from letters between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton discussing the Whiskey Rebellion. The most important of these is the August 5, 1794 letter from Hamilton to Washington in which Hamilton summarizes the Whiskey Rebellion (“To George Washington from Alexander Hamilton, 5 August 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives). The University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Research Library has compiled a nice collection of digital materials as part of their Historic Pittsburgh project. Of this, the shining star is a digitized 1804 painting by George Beck which is believed to be the earliest illustration of Pittsburgh. This Beck painting allowed me to zero-in on the site of the Sign of the Green Tree tavern, a location previously unknown to scholars. The best anthology of primary source accounts of the Whiskey Rebellion is The Whiskey Rebellion: Past and Present Perspectives, edited by Steven R. Boyd. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985). This volume contains contemporary accounts such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s “Incidents of the Insurrection,” William Findley’s “History of the Insurrection,” and letters such as Jude Alexander Addison to General Lee (23 November 1794). This volume also contains some valuable modern scholarship (being from the 1980s. it is now not so modern) such as Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau’s “A New Look at the Whiskey Rebellion.” The Pittsburgh Gazette is another great resource for the study of the Whiskey Rebellion, since many of the key players on both sides published their thoughts, grievances, and resolutions in this newspaper. Tom the Tinker, widely thought to be a pseudonym for John Holcroft, was a particularly prolific writer who published numerous witty accounts of the insurrection in the Gazette.

A study of the Whiskey Rebellion would not be complete without a more thorough investigation of the history of mob violence throughout the colonial period. For this, I turned repeatedly to Gary B. Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), which I feel is a quintessential monograph which provides the reader a deep understanding of political crowd action in colonial America.

For the purposes of geo-locating the Whiskey Rebellion sites, the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program was invaluable. This program has located many important sites related to the Whiskey Rebellion and offers precise geographic coordinates for each marker on their website. Although the historical context provides on the state historical markers is sometimes inaccurate, I would not have had the ability to locate many of the more esoteric sites from the rebellion without this program.