In 1791, Alexander Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury in the brand new United States of America. Hamilton proposed a tax on distilled spirits production to help pay down the national debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. In spite of opposition from people like Thomas Jefferson, congress approved the tax. The fallout in western Pennsylvania was so serious and violent that President George Washington himself led a force of troops there, to put down what is known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
My maternal grandfather’s family tree was centered in western Pennsylvania, with one branch in Westmoreland County leading back to Sarah DeCamp (1778-1854). Her father John DeCamp died in 1778; the story I’m still researching is that he was killed by an enslaved man he held. Sarah’s stepfather was Nehemiah Stokely (1753-1792) , a Revolutionary War captain and state legislator that her mother Susannah married in 1779. Nehemiah seems to have been active in local politics and took a leading role in the Whiskey Rebellion.
The 25% excise tax imposed on whiskey was presented as a luxury tax, but in the western frontier areas, whiskey was actually used as barter in place of scarce currency issued by the new government. The distillers in western Pennsylvania worked on a small scale and were harder pressed to afford the added tax, compared to larger operations located in eastern Pennsylvania. Frontier distillers reacted quickly and fiercely, organizing to resist the new tax, including many living along the banks of the Monongehela River in the southwest part of the state. An unlucky tax collector named Robert Johnson was subjected to local anger while out on his rounds in September of 1791, in an area called Pigeon Creek. A gang of men, disguised with soot-blackened faces, bandanas, and women’s clothing, attacked him. His hair was cut off, and he was tarred and feathered – stripped of his clothing and painfully covered with hot tar and feathers. He managed to escape with his life, forced to walk several miles to find help.
There followed several years of opposition to payment of the whiskey tax and continued violence toward the collectors. In August of 1794, Hamilton wrote a letter of complaint to Washington, detailing the problems centered in western Pennsylvania. He wrote about the tarring and feathering incident, as well as resistance organizing in the area, listing names of rebellion leaders including Nehemiah Stokes. Stokes had been elected as one of two delegates for Westmoreland County to a rebel meeting held in September of 1791 in Pittsburgh, at the Sign of the Green Tree Tavern. Hamilton wrote to Washington that
“These Meetings composed of very influential Individuals and conducted without moderation or prudence are justly chargeable with the excesses, which have been from time to time committed; serving to give consistency to an opposition which has at length matured to a point, that threatens the foundations of the Government & of the Union; unless speedily & effectually subdued.”
Washington had hoped to resolve the insurgency peacefully, but at Hamilton’s urging, he finally responded by personally leading a militia of almost 13,000 men to western Pennsylvania. The rebellion was quelled, with the resistance breaking up before the troops even reached Pittsburgh. About 150 men were arrested for treason, but few were brought to trial. The only two who were found guilty were later pardoned by Washington, and Thomas Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax in 1802 when he became president. I haven’t found any evidence that Nehemiah Stokely was among those arrested; he definitely wasn’t one of the two men convicted of treason.
- George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.org, Whiskey Rebellion, 2021
- The Bradford House and the Whiskey Rebellion by Jon Guss, Penn State University 2007
- Smithsonian Magazine, The First Presidential Pardon Pitted Alexander Hamilton Against George Washington by Carrie Hagen, 2017
- Archives.gov, Founders Online, letter From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington [5 August] 1794
- 1794 The Whiskey Rebellion, Washington in Carlisle, 2021
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