From Alexander Hamilton
Treasury Departmt 1st Septr 1792.
I have the honor to inclose sundry papers which have been handed to me by the Commissioner of the Revenue, respecting the state of the Excise Law in the western survey of the District of Pennsylvania.1
Such persevering and violent opposition to the Law gives the business a still more serious aspect than it has hitherto worn, and seems to call for vigorous & decisive measures on the part of the Government.2
I have directed that the Supervisor of the District shall repair forthwith to the Survey in question, to ascertain in person the true state of the Survey; to collect evidence respecting the violences that have been committed in order to a prosecution of the Offenders; to ascertain particulars as to the Meeting which appears to have been holden at Pittsburgh; to encourage the perseverance of the officers; giving expectations as far as it can be done with propriety, of indemnification from the Government, for any losses which they may sustain in consequence of their Offices; to endeavour to prevail upon the Inhabitants of the County of Alleghany, who appear at present the least refractory, to come into an acquiescence with the Law; representing to discreet persons the impossibility of the Governments remaining longer a passive spectator of the contempt of it’s Laws.3
I shall also immediately submit to the Attorney General for his opinion, whether an indictable offence has not been committed by the persons who were assembled at Pittsburgh, and of what nature, the paper which contains their proceedings; with a view, if judged expedient by you, that it may be brought under the notice of the Circuit Court, which I understand is to be holden in October at York Town.4
My present clear conviction is, that it is indispensable, if competent evidence can be obtained, to exert the full force of the Law against the Offenders, with every circumstance that can manifest the determination of the Government to enforce it’s execution; & if the processes of the Courts are resisted, as is rather to be expected, to employ those means, which in the last resort are put in the power of the Executive. If this is not done, the spirit of disobedience will naturally extend and the authority of the Government will be prostrate. Moderation enough has been shewn: ‘tis time to assume a different tone. The well disposed part of the community will begin to think the Executive wanting in decision and vigour. I submit these impressions to your consideration previous to any step which will involve the necessity of ulterior proceedings; and shall hope as speedily as possible to receive your instructions.5
The Secretary at War will be requested to direct Captain Faulkner’s attendance at this place.6 With the highest respect and truest attachment I have the honor to be &c.
Hamilton had proposed an excise tax on domestically produced whiskey in his “Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit,” which he completed on 9 Jan. 1790 and submitted to Congress on 14 Jan. (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 6:51–168). “An Act repealing, after the last day of June next, the duties heretofore laid upon Distilled Spirits imported from abroad, and laying others in their stead; and also upon Spirits distilled within the United States, and for appropriating the same” was approved on 3 Mar. 1791 (1 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 199–214). Congress modified the original statute with “An Act concerning the Duties on Spirits distilled within the United States,” approved on 8 May 1792 (ibid., 267–71). Opposition to this tax was particularly strong in the frontier regions of all the states south of New York, and in western Pennsylvania it was often violent. As of August 1792, the federal government had failed to collect any taxes from that area (see Slaughter, Whiskey Rebellion, description begins Thomas P. Slaughter. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York, 1986. description ends 105–18).
1. Tench Coxe, commissioner of the revenue, recently had forwarded to Hamilton papers that Coxe had received from George Clymer, supervisor of the Pennsylvania district, who had received them from John Nevill, inspector of Pennsylvania’s fourth survey, comprising Allegheny, Bedford, Washington, and Westmoreland counties (see Hamilton to Coxe, 1 Sept. 1792, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 12:305–10). Former congressman Clymer had been appointed supervisor of the revenue for the District of Pennsylvania in 1791 (see GW to the U.S. Senate, 4 Mar. 1791). Nevill, who was a veteran of the 1755 Braddock expedition and the Continental army, served after the Revolutionary War on the Pennsylvania supreme executive council, in the state’s federal ratifying convention, and in the Pennsylvania constitutional convention of 1789–90 before being appointed an inspector of the fourth survey in 1792 (see GW to the U.S. Senate, 6 Mar. 1792).
2. The enclosed papers included a letter from Nevill to Clymer of 23 Aug., in which Nevill recounted the recent attack on Capt. William Faulkner’s home, where Nevill had established his tax office. Faulkner, a resident of Washington County, was captain of the rifle company of the 3d Sub-Legion in Gen. Anthony Wayne’s army currently stationed at Pittsburgh. Neither Nevill nor Faulkner was home at the time of the attack, but Faulkner was in the area searching for deserters when he encountered angry citizens “who reproached him for letting his House for such purposes. They drew a knife on him, threatened to scalp him, tar & feather him, and finally to reduce his House and property to ashes if he did not solemnly promise them to prevent the office of Inspection from being there.” Faulkner agreed to their demand and evicted Nevill. “I do not think,” Nevill wrote, “it will be possible to get another House in Washington County for the purpose, of course I shall be obliged to desist from further attempts to fulfill the law. The office at Pittsburg is open but no person makes an entry, many say they would willingly comply with the Law but for the severe denunciations of fire &c. with which they are threatened in case they do” (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 12:305–6, nn.2–3).
Nevill’s letter also contains an account of an extralegal convention held at Pittsburgh on 21–22 Aug. by opponents of the tax. “In the course of their debates,” Nevill wrote, “they agree’d that if I would resign no other person would ‘accept the appointment:’ & that it would give a ‘mortal Stab to the Business. ”’ He enclosed a copy of the minutes of the meeting and concluded, “however willing I may be, I do not see at present any chance of doing my duty in the office” (ibid., 307–10, nn.5–6).
3. Supervisor of the Revenue George Clymer left for the western counties in mid-September. His ludicrous attempts at secrecy, first posing as Henry Knox and then as a servant named Smith, failed to disguise his real mission, and his personal fear of violence kept him confined primarily to Pittsburgh where Wayne’s troops offered protection. Knox wrote to the commanding officer at Fort Bedford, Pa., on 11 Sept. asking him to protect Clymer “from all lawless violence, while on his journey to Pittsburg, if he should require the same. This being a matter of great delicacy, ought to be kept secret; and of course it can only be necessary to act on the defensive. Great caution and circumspection will be expected” (DLC:GW). Knox also wrote Wayne on that date asking him to protect Clymer “from all lawless violence” on his return from western Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, being sure to stay “within the limits of the law” and to act “with all due caution and circumspection” (DLC:GW). Unable to obtain any firsthand information, and becoming an object of ridicule on account of his disguises and fear, Clymer failed in his mission (see Slaughter, Whiskey Rebellion, description begins Thomas P. Slaughter. The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. New York, 1986. description ends 125–27).
4. The minutes of the extralegal convention held on 21–22 Aug. were published as a broadside (see Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 12:307–9, n.5). Edmund Randolph gave Hamilton his opinion in a lengthy letter dated 8 Sept. (see ibid., 336–40).
6. Knox wrote Wayne on 21 Sept.: “The Secretary of the Treasury has requested, that in case the Supervisor George Clymer should judge it necessary, that you will peremptorily order Captain Faulkner to repair to York Town in this State in order to give his evidence before the Circuit Court of the United States which will commence its session at that place on the 11th of October ensuing” (DLC:GW).