Alexander Hamilton Papers

Conference Concerning the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, [2 August 1794]

Conference Concerning the Insurrection
in Western Pennsylvania1

[Philadelphia, August 2, 1794]2

The President opened the business by stating that it was hardly necessary to prepare the subject of the conference, as it was generally understood, and the circumstances which accompanied it were such as to strike at the root of all law & order; that he was clearly of opinion that the most spirited & firm measures were necessary to rescue the State as well as the general government from the impending danger, for if such proceedings were tolerated there was an end to our Constitutions & laws. He then observed that there were some papers besides those already communicated to the Gov’r which would throw additional light on the subject, and he presented them to the Secretary of State who read them aloud.

The papers consisted of letters from Gen’l Nevil,3 Presley Nevil,4 Maj. Lenox5 and Capt. Butler,6 a Deposition of Col. Menges7 and a deposition of the Post Rider whose mail had been stopped.8 In some of the letters were inclosed sundry extracts from the Pittsburgh Gazette which had been published in the papers of Phila.

The President declared his determination to go every length that the Constitution and Laws would permit, but no further; he expressed a wish for the co-operation of the State Government, and he enquired whether the Governor could not adopt some preliminary measures under the State Laws, as the measures of the Gen’l Gov’t would be slow, and depended on the certificate of Judge Wilson, to whom the documents had been delivered for his consideration.9

The Secretary of State read the act of Congress under which the Gen’l Gov’t were proceeding10 and repeated the enquiries, whether some more expeditious, preliminary course, could not be pursued, referring to a particular act of the state.

The officers of the State Government remaining silent for some time, the Att’y Gen’l of the U.S. turned to the act of the 22d Sept., ’83, authorizing calls of the Militia on sudden emergencies,11 but the Secretary of the Comm’th referred him to a note in the index, subjoined to title militia, and suggested his opinion that the law referred to was repealed,12 whereupon the Att’y Gen’l of the U.S. asked the Sec’y of the Com’th, what was his opinion respecting the power of the Governor to call out the Militia on such occasions, to which the secretary replied, that as an individual he had no objection to give a private opinion—that independent of the law referred to, or any other special law, the executive Magistrate was charged with the care of seeing the laws faithfully executed, and that upon the requisition of the civil authority declaring it incompetent to the task, the very nature of the Executive Magistrate’s duty and obligations, required that he should aid the civil authority by an exertion of the military force of the Government.

The intention of proceeding against the Rioters in Allegheny co., being declared by the President, the Chief Justice expressed it as his positive opinion, that the judiciary power was equal to the task of quelling and punishing the riots, and that the employment of a military force, at this period, would be as bad as anything that the Rioters had done—equally unconstitutional and illegal.

The opinion of the Secretary of the Treasury was introduced by argument upon the general necessity of maintaining the Government in its regular authority. He referred to the various co-operating sources of opposition to the Constitution and laws of the U.S., (The Judiciary,13 excise,14 Mississippi navigation,15 erecting a new State,16 &c., &c.,) and insisted upon the propriety of an immediate resort to Military force. He said that it would not be sufficient to quell the existing riot to restore us to the state in which we were a few weeks back; for, before the present outrages, there was equal opposition to the laws of the U.S.,17 though not expressed in the same manner; but that now the crisis was arrived when it must be determined whether the Government can maintain itself, and that the exertion must be made, not only to quell the rioters, but to protect the officers of the Union in executing their offices, and in compelling obedience to the laws.

The Secretary of the Com’th stated, as information, that in a conversation with Judge Addison,18 the Judge had declared it as his opinion that if the business was left to the courts, the rioters might be prosecuted and punished, and the matter peaceably terminated; but that a resort to military force, would unite in the resistance, the peaceable as well as the riotous opponents of the excise, upon the Idea that the military was intended to dragoon them equally into submission. He also stated that similar riots against the excise had been punished in the State courts.19

The secretary of the Treasury observed, that the Judge alluded was among those who had most promoted the opposition in an insidious manner, that perhaps it would lead to a disagreeable animadversion to point out the particulars of the Judge’s conduct; but that they were stated at large in a report to the President, which the President said was the case.20

Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 144–46.

1For background to this document, see “Deposition of Francis Mentges,” August 1, 1794.

Those present at this conference were George Washington, Edmund Randolph, H, Henry Knox, William Bradford, and the following officials from Pennsylvania: Thomas Mifflin, governor; Thomas McKean, chief justice; Jared Ingersoll, attorney general; Alexander J. Dallas, secretary of the Commonwealth.

2In the Pennsylvania Archives this document is dated “the 9th [2d?] August, 1794.” Internal evidence indicates that August 2 is the correct date.

5David Lenox was United States marshal for the District of Pennsylvania.

6This is a reference to Major Thomas Butler, commander of Fort Fayette, Pittsburgh, who wrote to Knox concerning the insurgents on July 18, 1794 (Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 74–75).

8This is a reference to the interception of the mail between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The intercepted letters were described by Hugh Henry Brackenridge as follows: “… these letters were from colonel Presly Neville, to his father-in-law, General [Daniel] Morgan; General [John] Gibson to the governor of Pennsylvania; James Brison, prothonotary, to the governor; Major [Thomas] Butler, to the secretary at war; and Edward Day [a clerk in Pittsburgh], to the secretary of the treasury” (Brackenridge, Incidents description begins Hugh H. Brackenridge, Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794 (Philadelphia, 1795). description ends , I, 45). Day’s letter to H has not been found.

According to Henry M. Brackenridge, the mail was intercepted on July 26 by John Mitchell, acting on orders from the leaders of the insurgents (Brackenridge, Insurrection description begins Henry M. Brackenridge, History of the Western Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, Commonly Called the Whiskey Insurrection, 1794 (Pittsburgh, 1859). description ends , 80). In describing the incident Hugh H. Brackenridge wrote: “The post was interrupted on the 26th of July, on the way from Pittsburgh, and near Greensburgh. The packet from Washington and Pittsburgh was taken out. It was carried by Benjamin Parkinson to Washington, and from thence it was accompanied, by [David] Bradford and [James] Marshall, and others, to Cannonsburgh, a village seven miles distant. It was there opened. No letter, on the late affairs, from any individual of Washington: There were letters from individuals of Pittsburgh; these letters gave great offence, and made the writers objects of resentment” (Brackenridge, Incidents description begins Hugh H. Brackenridge, Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794 (Philadelphia, 1795). description ends , I, 39). See also Alexander Addison to Hugh H. Brackenridge, January 18, 1795 (Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 522); Daniel Morgan to Washington, January 19, 1795 (LS, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives).

9In addition to this conference with the Pennsylvania officials, the cabinet apparently held at least one meeting on the disturbances in western Pennsylvania before August 2. In a letter of August 5 to Washington, Randolph stated: : “At our first consultation, in your presence, the indignation, which we all felt at the outrages committed, lead us to advise, that the information received should be laid before an associate justice or the district judge to be considered under the act of May 2d, 1792. This step was urged by the necessity of understanding without delay all the means, vested in the President for suppressing the progress of the mischief. A caution however, was prescribed to the attorneygeneral, who submitted the documents to the judge; not to express to him the most distant wish in the President that the certificate should be granted” (ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress). Randolph’s letter is printed in Wharton, State Trials description begins Francis Wharton, State Trials of the United States During the Administrations of Washington and Adams (Philadelphia, 1849). description ends , 156. See also H to Tench Coxe, August 1, 1794.

Randolph was referring to Section 2 of “An Act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasion” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 264–65 [May 2, 1792]), which reads as follows: “That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed. And if the militia of a state, where such combinations may happen, shall refuse, or be insufficient to suppress the same, it shall be lawful for the President, if the legislature of the United States be not in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other state or states most convenient thereto, as may be necessary, and the use of the militia, so to be called forth, may be continued, if necessary, until the expiration of thirty days after the commencement of the ensuing session.”

On August 4, 1794, Justice James Wilson of the Supreme Court submitted the following opinion to the President: “From Evidence, which has been laid before me, I hereby notify to you, that, in the Counties of Washington and Allegany 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, Pennsylvania Miscellany, Whiskey Rebellion, Vol. I, Library of Congress; copy, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia). Wilson’s opinion is printed in ASP description begins American State Papers, Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States (Washington, 1832–1861). description ends , Miscellaneous, I, 85, and Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 82–83.

In his letter of August 5 to Washington Randolph wrote concerning Wilson’s statement: “The certificate has been granted, and altho’ the testimony is not, in my judgment, yet in sufficient legal form to become the groundwork of such an act; and a judge ought not a priori to decide, that the marshall is incompetent to suppress the combination by the posse comitatus; yet the certificate, if it be minute enough, is conclusive.… But the certificate specifies no particular law, which has been opposed. This defect I remarked to Judge Wilson, from whom the certificate came, and observed, that the design of the law being, that a judge should point out to the executive where the judiciary stood in need of military aid, it was frustrated if military force should be applied to laws, which the judge might not contemplate. He did not yield to my reasoning, and therefore I presume, that the objection will not be received against the validity of the certificate” (ALS, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).

Washington quoted Wilson’s opinion in his proclamation of August 7, 1794 (GW description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington (Washington, 1931–1944) description ends , XXXIII, 457–61).

10“An Act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions” (1 Stat. description begins The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America (Boston, 1845). description ends 264–65 [May 2, 1792]). See note 9.

11“An Additional Supplement to an Act, Entitled ‘An Act for the Regulation of the Militia of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’” (Pennsylvania Laws, 7th Sess., Ch. LXXXIII).

12The act of September 22, 1783, was repealed by Section XXXIV of “An Act for the Regulation of the Militia of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” which was passed on April 11, 1793 (Pennsylvania Laws, 1793 Sess., Ch. CLXXVI).

13This is a reference to the case of Chisholm v Georgia, in which the Supreme Court ruled on February 18, 1793, that a citizen of one state (in this case South Carolina) could bring suit against another state (Georgia) for breach of contract (A. J. Dallas, Reports of Cases Ruled and Adjudged in the Several Courts of the United States and of Pennsylvania, Held at the Seat of the Federal Government. Second Edition. Edited, with Notes and References to Later Decisions, By Frederick C. Brightly [New York, 1914], II, 419). Georgia reacted first (in 1792) by attempting unsuccessfully to secure the adoption in the state legislature of a resolution declaring that the state would not be bound by the decision of the Court. After the Court rendered its decision, the legislature again tried—once more unsuccessfully—to pass a bill providing that any official who tried to execute the process issued by the Court should be “guilty of felony and shall suffer death…” (Herman V. Ames, State Documents on Federal Relations: The States and the United States [Philadelphia, 1906], 10). For the opposition in Massachusetts to a similar suit in Vassall v Massachusetts, see Fisher Ames to H, August 31, 1793, note 3.

15This is a reference to the dissatisfaction of the citizens of Kentucky with the Government’s efforts to negotiate with Spain for the free navigation of the Mississippi River. For information on the Kentucky resolutions of May 24, 1794, see Randolph to Bradford, H, and Knox, July 11, 1794, note 1; H to Washington, July 13, 1794.

16This is a reference to the attempt by Elijah Clark, major general in the Georgia militia, and citizens of Georgia to erect a new state on lands reserved for the Creek Indians. See Randolph to Bradford, H, and Knox, July 11, 1794; H to Washington, July 13, 1794.

17See notes 13, 14, 15, and 16.

18Alexander Addison was presiding judge of the County Court of the western district of Pennsylvania. See Bartholomew Dandridge to H, April 19, 1794, note 1; Washington to H, second letter of May 29, 1794.

19This is presumably a reference to “the conviction of Samuel Wilson, and the submission of the other rioters in Allegheny county…” (Addison to Mifflin, March 31, 1794 [Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV description begins Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., IV (n.p., 1876). description ends , 60]).

20This document ends with the following statement: “Here the minutes of the conference suddenly terminate.”

Presumably the cabinet met on August 9, 1794, to discuss the insurrection in western Pennsylvania, for on August 8, 1794, Washington wrote to Randolph: “… I request also, that all the information that can be obtained from the Inspector Nevill, & the Marshall, may be had as soon as they shall have arriv’d in the City, & wish it to be delivered before your self & the other Gentlemen, that all of you being thoroughly possessed of the facts—and digesting them well—may be ready to meet me at my Ho. in the City tomorrow morning with your opinion on the propriety of changing any measure already resolved on, or for adding others thereto according to the information which shall be received from them …” (ALS, RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters, 1790–1799, National Archives).

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