The Whiskey Rebellion examined
For its May program meeting, the Bridgeville Area Historical Society welcomed back one of its favorite speakers, Todd DePastino, and was rewarded with an entertaining presentation on the Whiskey Rebellion. His talk turned out to be an excellent complement to the society’s recent “Second Tuesday” workshop, which focused on George Washington’s role in that significant event.
DePastino is a legitimate historian, gifted with the ability to place specific events in context with the overall trends in history when they occurred. In this case, he described the Whiskey Rebellion as merely one event, albeit a very relevant one, in a long-term class struggle in the early days of our country.
He described three major schisms in the society of our brandnew nation, schisms which to a certain extent have survived until today — those between the rich and the poor, rural areas and cities, and the frontier versus the establishment.
The settlers in this area, for the most part, were poor, rural and frontiersmen who believed no one in the new government had any interest in helping them. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s Distilled Spirits Tax was the final straw when it was passed by Congress in 1791. To the settlers west of the Alleghenies, it appeared to be specifically intended to punish them.
DePastino described the reaction on the frontier as being a replay of the days immediately preceding the Revolution, when the Sons of Liberty performed violent, obviously illegal actions while the Continental Congress provided a facade of responsibility. In 1791, it was the Mingo Creek Association burning barns and tarring and feathering tax collectors, while high-level citizens’ committees met and presented the appearance of trying to work within the system.
David Bradford, deputy attorney general for Washington County, was the leader of a faction advocating independence for the frontier settlements and the establishment of Westylvania, the 14th state that never was. His ambitions were opposed by other prominent citizens, notably Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Albert Gallatin and William Findley.
The events of mid-July 1794, culminating in the destruction of Tax Inspector John Neville’s mansion, Bower Hill, gave Hamilton the excuse to carry out his plans. Militias from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia were combined to form an army of 13,000 men that marched across the mountains to Pittsburgh and convinced the locals that rebellion was a bad idea. An estimated 2,000 rebels followed Bradford west and escaped arrest.
We local history buffs tend to view the Whiskey Rebellion as an extremely exciting series of local events with national significance. It is interesting to consider its place in the “Big Picture” and to realize that many of its aspects are still relevant today and have not been resolved.
July 20 and 21 are already circled on our calendar — that is the weekend of “Woodville Market Faire” at Woodville Plantation, an 18th-century market featuring entertainment, sutlers and craftsmen. Rumor has it Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton will be there, collecting his onerous excise tax on whiskey!
The Historical Society’s final program for the 2018-19 season is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 25 in the Chartiers Room, Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Cortney Williams will discuss “The 1927 Brinks Armored Car Robbery in Bethel Park by the Flathead Gang.”