Early in his political career Albert Gallatin became embroiled in the Whiskey Rebellion, where his courage, wisdom and moderation helped the region, and propelled him onto the national stage.
In the years after the Revolutionary War the land west of the Appalachian Mountains was the American frontier. Gallatin was attracted to this region and the potential it held. In 1786 he purchased property in western Pennsylvania which he named Friendship Hill. Within three years he had built a brick house on his 400-acre farm establishing himself as one of the wealthier local citizens. Most of his neighbors were poor farmers with very little money. These isolated families farmed their land and after the harvest converted their surplus grain into whiskey. Whiskey became the local currency.
The federal government passed a law that taxed distilled spirits, known as the whiskey tax, in the spring of 1791. The tax was very disagreeable to the western farmers, with whiskey being virtually their only marketable product. Another major complaint was that western farmers accused of breaking the law had to be tried in federal court, 300 miles away in Philadelphia. Many of the poor frontiersmen didn’t even have enough cash to pay the tax.
That July, Gallatin attended a meeting of local men to discuss the tax and work for its repeal. Gallatin was elected clerk. The resolve the men passed stated that the law was dangerous to liberty and particularly oppressive to the people of the western counties of Pennsylvania.
That fall a tax collector was tarred and feathered, and more were to follow. As the Whiskey Rebellion went forward, two simultaneous local movements protested the tax; a peaceful one attempting to legally repeal the law, and a violent one attacking any supporters of the tax. Gallatin always supported the former.
A pattern developed, when officials tried to collect the tax, the rebels would retaliate with assaults and threats, and when no one attempted collection, things were quiet. After a lull, in 1794 the regional tax collector, John Neville, began working hard to collect the tax. Each attempt to open a tax office or hire a tax collector was countered with violence.
That June Congress modified the law, changing one of the most egregious elements. Local courts could now handle cases. With this change Gallatin thought resistance to the tax might go away. However, Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had other plans.
Hamilton, President Washington, and the federalist government had been very upset with the western region’s lack of compliance with the law and the violence against tax collectors. One week before the new law went into effect, Hamilton had sixty-one farmers in western Pennsylvania charged with violating the law. The accused were summoned to court in Philadelphia. The marshal rode out to serve the farmers their papers.
Gallatin had just arrived back at Friendship Hill, when he attended a meeting of local farmers. The marshal had given 30 men in the county their papers. Gallatin counseled his neighbors to pay the tax or give up distilling. At the meeting they heard the news that rebels had attacked Neville’s house and one of them had been killed.
Gallatin thought it was his duty to work towards a peaceful solution. He was selected to attend a regional meeting at Parkinson’s Ferry on August 14-15. He was elected to be the secretary of the meeting. Many men spoke of armed resistance. Gallatin and others voiced a moderate view, in favor of law and order. On the second day news arrived. The president had called out the militia to prepare for a march against the rebels, but he had also sent commissioners to negotiate with them.
Gallatin was one of the men who met with the commissioners. The commissioners were inflexible and wanted total submission. The disappointing results of the negotiations had to be reported back to the people on August 28 at Brownsville. Fearing their angry response no one wanted to speak. Gallatin agreed to be the first to address the gathering. In a “long, sensible and eloquent” speech he asked the men to accept submission. The delegates voted. A little over half in favor of submission. The angry rebels talked about kidnapping Gallatin, but fortunately did not carry out their plan.
The next month, the men of western Pennsylvania could vote on whether they wanted to submit to the law or not. The majority voted to submit, but it was not overwhelming. President Washington ordered the army to march west.
Hamilton and other federalists mistakenly thought that Gallatin was a ringleader, and that he had stirred up violence. As the army headed across the mountains a friend wrote him there were "large rewards for your head,” and another said that his name was high on a list of men “who were to be destroyed.” Fearing for his safety Gallatin left the region.
When Secretary Hamilton arrived with the army, he vigorously tried to gather proof of Gallatin’s treason, even imprisoning witnesses. However, everyone testified that Gallatin had spoken for compliance and Hamilton never got any evidence.
That fall Gallatin got a pleasant surprise. Not even knowing he was on the ballot; the two neighboring counties had elected him to the United States House of Representatives. That started three decades of work in the United States government.
During the Whiskey Rebellion Gallatin didn’t waiver from his principles, even though he was threatened by both the federalists and the rebels. Later he wrote he had made one misstep. One of the petitions he had signed not only outlined their complaints and asked for a repeal of the tax, but also said tax collectors were “unworthy of friendship” and deserved to be treated with contempt. He didn’t really agree with these sentiments, but believed they weren’t illegal. He said it was his only “political sin."
Compiled by Park Ranger Jane Clark
Walter, Raymond Jr., Albert Gallatin, Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1957
Last updated: August 2, 2020