A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

The Whiskey Rebellion - August 1794

While John Jay journeyed to Britain, trouble was brewing in western Pennsylvania. Heated opposition to the excise tax on distilled liquors which had been simmering as long as the tax had been in effect, broke out into open insurrection after tax collectors were attacked by an angry mob. After various efforts on the part of government officials to hold talks with the insurgents, Washington decided that military force was needed to quash the rebellion, which was rumored to have grown to a band of five thousand armed men.

Hamilton was particularly strident in his support of the use of military force against the insurgents, whom he termed "traitors." He requested that Washington allow him to accompany the military, because, he told the General, it would be good public relations for the originator of the objectionable policy to put himself in harm's way for the sake of upholding the policy. Of course, Hamilton's presence in uniform at Washington's side as they rode out to engage the "traitors," had little but the opposite effect.

When the militia, with Washington and Hamilton at its head, reached western Pennsylvania, it became clear that there would be no armed resistance. Representatives of the insurgents asked for clemency, and Washington granted it with the stipulation that they comply with federal laws thereafter. Washington returned to Philadelphia, leaving Virginia governor Henry Lee in charge of the federal troops. Despite the fact that no shots were fired, Hamilton immediately drafted instructions calling for the rooting out and imprisoning of dissidents, of whom over 100 were arrested.

Upon his return, Hamilton was castigated by the press. His actions provided undeniable proof to Republicans that Hamilton was a monster who would stop at nothing to defend his corrupt policies, a budding Caesar bent on establishing a monarchy. For his part, Hamilton dismissed the criticism: "It is long since I have learnt to hold popular opinion of no value . . ."

But what was at the root of Hamilton's extreme reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion? Hamilton was, after all, much too astute politically to believe his official reasoning that his involvement would have a positive effect. Nothing was more basic to Hamilton's personality than a love of military command and all the danger and glory it afforded; and the opportunity to once again ride out in uniform with Washington must have been irresistible to him. There was also the lingering influence of Genet, who during his short tenure as France's representative on American shores had helped stir up much opposition to government policies. At the time of the Whiskey Rebellion, the reign of terror was well underway in France. The Whiskey Rebellion brought shades of France's anarchy and violence to the American republic, and the fear of similar mob rule on the part of the administration and its supporters cannot be underestimated.

In addition, and probably more importantly, Hamilton was planning to leave his position at the end of the year. It was therefore crucial to him to entrench as deeply as possible the policies he had put into place. For the remainder of his life Hamilton worried that his work would be destroyed, his system dismantled, under the opposition. His almost irrational reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion was the first of many desperate attempts Hamilton would make at the end of his career to keep the United States on the track on which he had set it.