George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 4 August 1794

From Henry Knox

War department August 4th 1794


In obedience to your directions that the heads of the department<s,> and the Attorney General should give, in Writing, their opinion on the measure<s> proper to be pursued by the Executive, in consequence of the resistance which has been manifested in the Western Counties of Pennsylvania to the law imposing a duty on spirits distilled within the United States,1 I have the honor to submit to your consideration the following sentiments.

It appears that the Act in question is a law which is in general operation throughout the United States.

That the Constitution imposes upon the President of the United States the duty of enforcing the execution of the laws.

It does not appear that the President has any constitutional legal authority to suspend the execution of the laws.

The act approved the Second day of May 1792 provides for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions. The last section of this law states "that it shall continue and be in force for and during the term of two years<, and thence> to the end of next session of Congress thereafter and no longer"2—<Congress> were in session at the end of the two Years and made no ac<t for the> continuance of the law—But it is understood from the practice <of> Congress as well as the expressions of the Act that this act will <not> expire of itself until the end of the next session of Congress.

Hence it would appear that it is not only the duty of the Executive to see that the laws be duly observed but that means have been provided for that purpose.

The questions then which appear to be important to be decided in the first instance are

1. Whether the state of things in the Western Counties of Pennsylvania may be deemed an opposition to the laws and a combination too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings—and

2dly Whether the evidence is such as the law contemplates.

The official papers which have been received from General Nevil Major Butler and Major Craig and the affidavits of Colonel Mentges and the Post Rider leave no doubt on the mind that the opposition and combination mentioned in the first question really exist.3 And the answer to the Second will depend upon the opinion Judge Wilson may entertain upon the subject, and whether he will give the Certificate required by the last mentioned Act.4

Presuming that the certificate will be given by him, it appears that the following measures would be necessary and proper.

First. That the Governor of Pennsylvania should be informed in <writing> of the state of things, the necessity of enforcing the laws, and to request <his opi>nion whether the well affected Militia of Pennsylvania are sufficient <for the> purpose. At the same time it may be proper to intimate the number that the President deems to be competent to the object.

On this point the Opinion is submitted that good consequences will arise from having even a super abundant force. The interests of humanity and good order will be combined by preventing the deluded people from entertaining hopes of a successful resistance. The power of the Government to execute the laws will be demonstrated both at home and abroad.

The numbers in the Counties West of the Mountains, which may be stated to be disaffected to the law, have been estimated at Ten thousand and that of those Seven or eight thousand may be armed—If this should be near the numbers then a force equal to Twelve thousand four hundred should be marched into those Counties and which may be appointed as follows on the supposition that the Governor of Pennsylvania should abide by his verbal declaration that the Militia of Pennsylvania would be insufficient for the object—to wit—

  Infantry Horse Artillery  
Pennsylvania 4500 250 200  
New Jersey 1500 500 100  
Maryland 2000 100    
Virginia 3000 250   Total
  11,000 1,100 300 12,400

In this case it is to be presumed that the United States will supply the deficiency of Arms, and will make arrangements to furnish the ammunition, artillery Camp equipage rations and forage.

The proclamation directed by law,5 to be previously issued in due season in which a short but comprehensive recital should be made of the mild measures which heretofore have been taken with the people of the refractory district, and of the principles which constrain the use of the militia, and of the objects intended to be attained thereby.

These ideas are founded on the supposition that the Judge will furnish the Certificate required by the law which appears to be the only basis of any legal measures. If this should not be furnished the interference of the Executive by the militia appears to be entirely precluded. With perfect respect I have the honor to be Your obedient Servant

H. Knox secy of war

LS, DLC:GW. Where the edge of the LS is damaged, the characters in angle brackets are taken from a transcript made by Jared Sparks after he was given access to GW’s papers in 1827 (MH).

1For this act of 3 March 1791, see Stat description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends . 1:199-214.

2For this act, see Stat description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends . 1:264-65.

3John Nevill, the inspector of the revenue for western Pennsylvania, wrote Tench Coxe on 18 July: "The Blow is struck, which determines that the Revenue law cannot be carried into Execution in this country, untill Government changes their System and adds considerable force to the meas<u>res already adopted; from an easy & convenient situation in life, I am in few hours reduced to difficulties and distress." He stated that on 16 July his house was surrounded by "about 100" men, "Sixty of whom was well armed, the others with Sticks and clubs." Nevill repulsed that assault, "having wounded at least five of them, one or two supposed dangerously." He then requested assistance from various authorities, receiving twelve soldiers from the army commander at Pittsburgh but nothing from the judges, generals of militia, and county sheriff. On 17 July "about 5 OClock 500 men in regular order properly appointed, made their appearance." This time Nevill "quitted the House . . . leaving a friend aided by the 12 Soldiers to capitulate for the property." When no satisfactory terms were offered, an engagement commenced in which the defenders "kept up a smart fire about one hour, which was returned many hundred fold from without, when they were obliged to surrender during the Skirmish they had fired the Barn Stables and different out-Houses, and immediately on the Surrender a large and well finish’d dwelling house with all its appurtenences shared the same fate, the fences all destroyed, and two whole crops of Grain consumed" (PPi: Neville Papers).

Thomas Butler wrote Knox on 18 July, communicating "the lawless and disorderly state of this western country." He reported that "The deluded inhabitants are stimulated by designing men to oppose the law of the United States with respect to the excise, and have so far succeeded as to assemble numbers with arms to intimidate the officers," and he described the two assaults on Nevill’s house (Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 2d ser., 4:63-64).

Isaac Craig’s letter to Knox of 18 July described the destruction of Nevill’s house and added that he, the marshal David Lenox, and three others, "in Attempting to get into the House, with a supply of Amunition, were made Prisoners, disarmed & Confined, till the Action was Over, & then Carried several Miles to their Rendezvous, treated Major Lenox with the Utmost Indignity, and all of Us with Insult" (CtHi: Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Papers; see also Pa. Archives description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends , 2d ser., 4:63).

Francis Mentges testified in his deposition of 1 Aug. that it was a "matter of public notoriety and general conversation" at Pittsburgh "that several collections of armed men" had made "repeated attacks" on Nevill’s house, "for and on account of his holding and exercising" the office of inspector of the revenue, and had burned it down. Moreover, "David Lenox Marshal of the District had been taken into custody by some of the said armed collections in consequence of his having been there for the service of certain processes in relation to laws of the United States laying duties on distilled spirits and on stills," and both Lenox and Nevill "had descended the Ohio in a Boat to avoid personal violence or the being compelled by force to enter into engagements or do acts contrary to the duties of their respective Offices." Hugh Henry Brackenridge had informed Mentges about a meeting of about 140 persons "at Mingo Creek Meeting House in the County of Washington consisting generally of the most respectable people of that County including sundry Magistrates & principal Officers of Militia and the Recorder," at which it was "agreed to that the four Western Counties of Pensylvania and the neighbouring counties of Virginia should be invited to assemble by delegates in a Convention . . . to take into consideration the situation of the Western Counties and adopt such measures as should appear suited to the exigency." Mentges concluded by stating his belief "that it is intirely impracticable to execute the laws aforesaid by the means of civil process and Judiciary proceeding" (CtHi: Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Papers; see also Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends , 17:2-6).

The deposition of the post rider, Thomas Gould, has not been identified. He presumably reported the theft of mail sent from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia (see Abraham Kirkpatrick to GW, 28 July, and n.1 to that document).

4On this date, Associate Justice James Wilson gave to GW the following certification, which was required by section 2 of the act of 2 May 1792 in order to authorize the call for militia: "From Evidence, which has been laid before me, I hereby notify to you, that, in the Counties of Washington and Alleghany in Pennsylvania, Laws of the United States are opposed, and the Execution thereof obstructed by Combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary Course of judicial Proceedings, or by the Powers vested in the Marshal of that District" (ALS, DLC: Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion Collection; copy, DNA: RG 46, Third Congress, 1793-95, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; copy, PHi: Rawle Family Papers).

5A proclamation commanding the insurgents "to disperse, and retire peaceably to their respective abodes" was required by section 3 of the act of 2 May 1792.

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