Whiskey Rebellion 1791 – 1794

Government in Debit

The United States government was in enormous debit at the conclusion of the American Revolution and as such it needed to raise funds through taxing distilled products. In 1791 Congress passed the “The whiskey excise act” colloquially known as the “Whisky Tax”. The farmers in western Pennsylvania were needing to get their excess grains to market and the best way to do it was through distillation of their grains onto whiskey. As a lot of these farmers served in the American Revolution, they saw the tax as “Taxation without representation”. The federal government did not see it that way and felt fully justified in the new tax as means of regulation trade.

This is an early challenge to the fledging country and specifically. George Washington’s ability to govern all the 13 states with the authority to pass laws and to enforce it’s policies. There was a dispute over the fairness of this new tax and the western Penn. farmers may have even been justified in their position, but the fact is, the federal government was not to be challenged at this point, so after negotiations broke down, the US was “forced” to act. For a more detailed history of the Whiskey Rebellion please refer to this wikipedia article Whiskey Rebellion.

As there was no real standing army in the US at the time, Washington called upon New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to raise its militias to enforce the new federal law.

This is the point Gov. Richard Howell enters into the story.  

As governor of New Jersey, it was incumbent upon Governor Howell to raise his state’s militia. As a veteran of the revolution he was going to personally command his countrymen under the ultimate leadership of George Washington into Pennsylvania to confront this domestic threat.

In 1898 Daniel Agnew wrote the following excerpt about Gov. Howell and the “Whiskey Insurrection” in a Biological Sketch of Governor Richard Howell, New Jersey

In 1794, while Governor, Major Howell obeyed the requisition of President Washington calling into service a quota of the militia of New Jersey to assist in quelling the insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, known as the ” Whiskey Insurrection.” The Governor, being Commander-in-Chief by virtue of his office, and a soldier, took command in person. The following letter to his mother, dated Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania, September 25,1794, illustrates his character and his motives :

” My Dear Mother :?I have been so hurried that I could not write before, but my duty impels me, on the march, to request that you and my brothers and sister would not be troubled with my again taking up arms as a duty of my office. You know that the same Providence that so often cared for me in the day of battle can do so again-if I deserve it, and if I do not, I submit. It would ill become an old soldier to sit calmly by and see the ruin of his country ; and on that principle I take an active part.
“Thy son,
“Richard Howell.”

“I hope I shall return, but if not, consider this an adieu to thee and all.”

The troops broke camp at Trenton, and began their march September 22, 1794, crossing the Delaware and passing through Newtown, Norristown, Reading, Hummelstown, crossing the ” Sweet Array” (Swatara), and reaching Harrisburg October 3. President Washington met them here, and accompanied the Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops on their march thence, passing through ” Carlisle, Shippings burg, and Strasburg, and crossing the Blue or North Mountain, Horse Valley, Cattertona Mountain, Path Valley, and Tuscarora;” thence through “a wilderness called the Shadows of Death, a deep valley between two mountains, so nearly joining, and so amazing steep and high, that the valley only affords a narrow wagon path between them.” They reached the Juniata and came to Bedford October 17, where they encamped until October 23. Leaving that place by slow and toilsome marches, through storm and rain, and mud and mire so deep that they made sometimes only from seven to ten miles a day, they arrived finally, on Sunday, November 15, at Colonel McNair’s, within seven miles of Pittsburgh. By this time the flight of Bradford and other leaders of the insurrection and the dispersion of the citizens to their homes ended the campaign. General orders for the return of all the troops were issued, ” Pittsburgh Headquarters, November 17,1794.” The New Jersey Line was directed to move on Thursday, November 20, ” under the command of His Excellency, Governor Howell, who will be pleased to pursue from Bedford such routes as he may find most convenient.” While on the westward march over the mountains to Pittsburgh, after leaving Bedford, an interesting event took place, characteristic of the genius of Governor Howell. On reaching the mountains the Jersey troops began to murmur at the terrible hardships endured, owing to the inclemency of the season and great privation of com fort. Their discontent was fomented by a few designing men, who painted in dark colors the inhumanity of crossing the mountains to fire upon fellow-citizens who, as they alleged, were only defending themselves against an unjust and oppressive tax upon whiskey, the only product of that section which brought them cash.

The discontent seemed likely to break out into open insubordination. Governor Howell, being possessed of a poetic vein, and knowing the effect of a sentiment, united with simple melody, to fire the feelings and give impulse to the heart, composed a patriotic song, ” Jersey Blues,” sung to a popular air. It was set afloat in the camp, and the troops, catching its inspiration, marched forward with renewed life.

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