In 1790, the U.S. government was in deep debt after the Revolution. In an attempt to establish itself, as well as to repay some of the massive debt, government passed an excise tax on all distilled spirits (whiskey). The tax was proposed by Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Needless to say, whiskey producers were not happy. However, small-scale producers of whiskey, such as those in the western frontier were even more unhappy. Small-scale producers paid higher taxes and were forced to pay it in cash – a resource rare in the western frontier.
Many in the west simply refused to pay the tax. Others threatened excise collectors with violence. The most effective way to avoid paying the tax, however, was to prevent excise collectors from establishing offices. This was accomplished by threatening the welfare of the collectors or by tarring and feathering or torturing them.
Resistance to the whiskey tax was strongest in the western counties of Pennsylvania. Even before the implementation of the tax, such residents were unhappy with the federal government and felt they were represented poorly. They felt the tax was oppressive to the poor and were irate about paying such taxes to a government that failed to represent their interests. Many tried to convince the people to stage an open insurrection, others, such as Albert Gallatin, tried to convince the people to voice their opposition peacefully. In 1794, residents of Washington County, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) carried out their threats and staged a rebellion. They shot at and burned down the house of Federal tax collector John Neville, and then intercepted mail from Pittsburgh in an attempt to see who was against their rebellion. In response to their acts of disobedience, president George Washington sent 12,950 troops to the area to quell the rebellion. Although 20 prtesters were arrested, none were ultimately prosecuted.