Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from George Washington, 15 September 1792

From George Washington

Mount Vernon Septr. 15th. 1792

Dear Sir

This letter goes Express, to obtain the signature of the Secretary of State to the enclosed Proclamation. The reasons for sending it in this manner, are, to avoid the circuitous rout by Richmond, and the delay it might meet with by the Post, not having reached my hands until this morning, too late for the Mail of this day—nor in time for any other before Tuesday next—and because it is unknown to me, when one will set out from Richmond for Charlottesville.

If good is to result from the Proclamation, no time is to be lost in issueing of it; as the opposition, to what is called the Excise Law, in the Western Survey of the District of Pennsylvania, is become too open, violent and serious to be longer winked at by Government, with out prostrating it’s authority, and involving the Executive in censurable inattention to the outrages which are threatened.

I have no doubt but that the measure I am about to take, will be severely criticised; but I shall disregard any animadversions upon my conduct when I am called upon by the nature of my office, to discharge what I conceive to be a duty—and none, in my opinion, is more important, than to carry the Laws of the United States into effect.

The Secretary of the Treasury; the Secretary of War and the Attorney General, concur in the expediency of the Proclamation; as forbearance seems to have produced no other effect than to spread the evil.

I have scored a few words, which possibly may as well be omitted; and if, upon an attentive perusal of the draught, others should appear which you think might as well be expunged or altered; mark them in like manner with a pencil, and I will give due consideration thereto.

Your note of the 27th. ulto. with the enclosures to Mr. Tayler, were forwarded in the manner you desired, by1 the first Post after they came to my hands. With sincere & affectionate regard, I am Dear Sir, Your very hble Servt.

Go: Washington

RC (DLC); in a clerk’s hand except for signature; at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr. Secretary of State”; endorsed by TJ as received 18 Sep. 1792 and so recorded in SJL. Dft (DNA: RG 59, MLR); lacks clipped portion containing concluding lines and signature. FC (Lb in same, SDC). Recorded in SJPL.

This letter was part of a chain of events that has aptly been described as a dress rehearsal for the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 (Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 [New York, 1975], 1601). The excise on distilled liquors had been politically unpopular in many quarters ever since Alexander Hamilton recommended it to Congress in 1790 as one method of raising revenue for the payment of the public debt. The state legislatures of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia had protested against the excise on economic and ideological grounds while the measure was still under consideration by Congress, and opposition continued to mount after it was enacted into law early in 1791. Republican newspaper essayists, drawing upon a long tradition of Anglo-American antagonism to excise taxes, denounced the excise as one of the most iniquitous components of the Hamiltonian financial system, and the tax encountered widespread evasion and opposition in the frontier regions of Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the entire state of Kentucky. TJ shared Republican objections to the excise and made them part of a sustained critique of Hamilton’s policies, which he had submitted to the President in the previous May and which Washington had conveyed to the Secretary of the Treasury (TJ to Washington, 23 May 1792; note to James Madison to TJ, 12 June 1792; Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xii, 129–34; Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution [New York, 1986], 93–105, 117–18; Donald H. Stewart, The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period [Albany, 1969], 83–6).

From the beginning, opposition to the excise was especially conspicuous in the Western survey of the District of Pennsylvania, a frontier region in which locally distilled whiskey was both a source of personal delectation and an essential medium of exchange. Popular violence against excise officers and formal protests against the Excise Act by extralegal assemblies soon combined to prevent the collection of any excise taxes in western Pennsylvania. These two forms of opposition struck with particular force in August 1792. The threat of mob violence forced a local resident to cancel an agreement permitting the use of his house by an excise officer, and a gathering of delegates from various western counties meeting at Pittsburgh adopted a provocative set of resolutions against the excise. Denouncing the tax as “unjust in itself, and oppressive upon the poor,” as unenforceable “without vesting the officers appointed to collect them with powers most dangerous to the civil rights of freemen,” and as an economic hardship on the distressed farmers of the region, the delegates resolved to appoint a committee to petition Congress for repeal of the Excise Act, to create committees of correspondence to consult with opponents of the excise in Pennsylvania and other parts of the country, and to ostracize anyone who accepted an appointment as an excise official. These resolutions were then printed in the form of a broadside and distributed throughout Pennsylvania (Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xii, 305–9n; Slaughter, Whiskey Rebellion, 62–74, 110–17).

The Secretary of the Treasury took the initiative in responding to these latest manifestations of open, violent and serious opposition to the excise in western Pennsylvania. Although initially inclined to quell opponents of the excise through the use of legal proceedings and military force, Hamilton quickly decided that a proclamation denouncing opponents of the excise, to be followed by the application of force if the proclamation proved ineffectual, would be a more effective strategy. To this end, he drafted a harsh presidential proclamation denouncing the Pittsburgh resolves as criminal, calling for acceptance of the Excise Act, and threatening the use of military power if opposition persisted. He submitted this proclamation to Edmund Randolph, who advised him that these resolves violated no law and criticized the tone of the draft as too draconian. As a result, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General drafted a more moderate proclamation, which condemned unwarranted opposition to the excise and called for rigorous enforcement of the law. Then, having secured the approval of Secretary of War Henry Knox, Hamilton dispatched this proclamation to Washington at Mount Vernon along with his original draft. In doing so, Hamilton advised the President that although precedent required the Secretary of State to countersign the proclamation, the situation in western Pennsylvania was so serious that this step might be omitted if TJ was unable to sign it promptly (Syrett, Hamilton, description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends xii, 305–10, 311–12, 316–17, 334–5, 336–40, 341, 365–7).

Washington shared Hamilton’s estimate of the seriousness of the latest outbreak of opposition to the excise but was far less inclined to resort to military force to suppress it lest he thereby lend credence to Republican fears that his administration had created a standing army to curb American liberties. He was also much more insistent than Hamilton on obtaining TJ’s signature to the proposed proclamation calling for acceptance of the Excise Act, not only as a matter of precedent, but also for another reason “which has some weight in my mind.” Washington never explained what this other reason was, but there can be little doubt that it was to limit Republican criticism of the proclamation. In any event, the proclamation enclosed in the letter printed above was the one prepared by Hamilton in conjunction with Randolph, the text of which (like that of Hamilton’s original draft) has not been found (Fitzpatrick, Writings, description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends xxxii, 143–5, 151–3).

Despite his opposition to the Excise Act, TJ signed the enclosed proclamation. At the same time, he suggested the omission of a phrase justifying the passage of this law. Washington omitted the offending phrase, which Randolph had also found objectionable, and issued the proclamation in the form of a broadside bearing the date 15 Sep. 1792 (TJ to Washington, 18 Sep. 1792; Fitzpatrick, Writings, description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends xxxii, 150–1). Notwithstanding his ostensible acceptance of the need for this proclamation, TJ later indicated that in reality he had opposed the excise from its inception (TJ to Madison, 19 May 1793).

TJ registered the proclamation in SJPL under the date of 22 Oct. 1792. He also listed in SJPL four other documents apparently pertaining to this episode, none of which have been found: “Notes. Hamilton” under 6 and 11 Oct. 1792; and “[Notes] on Proclamn.” and “Clymer’s adventures,” under 22 Oct. 1792. George Clymer, the revenue supervisor for the district of Pennsylvania, had been dispatched by Hamilton to investigate opposition to the excise in western Pennsylvania (Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , xii, 305).

1Remainder missing in Dft.

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