George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 7 September 1792

To Alexander Hamilton

Mount Vernon 7th Septr 1792.


The last Post brought me your letter of the first instant, with the enclosures respecting the disorderly conduct of the Inhabitants of the Western Survey of the District of Pennsylvania, in opposing the execution of what is called the Excise Law; & of the insults which have been offered by some of them to the Officers who have been appointed to collect the duties on distilled spirits agreeably thereto.

Such conduct in any of the Citizens of the United States, under any circumstances that can well be conceived, would be exceedingly reprehensible; but when it comes from a part of the community for whose protection the money arising from the Tax was principally designed, it is truly unaccountable, and the spirit of it much to be regretted.

The preliminary steps taken by you in ordering the Supervisor of the District to repair to the Survey where these disorders prevail, with a view 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 the particulars as to the Meeting which appears to have been held at Pittsburg; to encourage the perseverance of the officers in their duty, & the well disposed inhabitants in discountenancing such violent proceedings &c. &c.”—are prudent & proper, and I earnestly wish they may have the desired effect.1 But if, notwithstanding, opposition is still given to the due execution of the Law, I have no hesitation in declaring, if the evidence of it is clear & unequivocal, that I shall, however reluctantly I exercise them, exert all the legal powers with which the Executive is invested, to check so daring & unwarrantable a spirit. It is my duty to see the Laws executed: to permit them to be trampled upon with impunity would be repugnant to it; nor can the Government longer remain a passive spectator of the contempt with which they are treated. Forbearance, under a hope that the Inhabitants of that Survey would recover from the delirium & folly into which they were plunged, seems to have had no other effect than to encrease the disorder.

If it shall be the Attorney General’s opinion, under a full consideration of the case (adverting, as I presume he will as well to the Laws & Constitution of Pennsylvania, as to those of the United States) that the Meeting which appears to have been held at Pittsburg was illegal, and the members of it indictable; and it shall further appear to you from such information as you may be able to obtain, from a comparative view of all circumstances that it would be proper to bring the matter before the Circuit Court to be holden at York town in October next, you have all the sanction and authority I can give to do it.2 I am Sir, &c.

G: Washington


1GW is quoting from Hamilton’s letter of 1 September. For background on the issues and events mentioned by GW, see Hamilton to GW, 1 Sept. 1792, and notes.

2Attorney General Randolph answered Hamilton’s query on 8 Sept.: “Thus, Sir, you discover my opinion to be against an attempt to a prosecution at this moment, when the malignant spirit has not developed itself in acts so specific, and so manifestly infringing the peace, as obviously to expose the culpable persons to the censures of the Law. . . . I thought of a proclamation, as an eventual substitute, if the law should be found inadequate. It struck me that a proclamation was objectionable, because it seemed that the Executive ought to consign to the course of the law any violations of it, and not to animadvert upon acts to which no Law had prescribed a penalty, and because an improper interference of the President might excite an idea of usurpation and inlist against him even those who execrate the spirit of the Pittsburg proceedings. But after the anticipation of a part only of the consequences, which the silence of Government would produce, after recollecting that these obnoxious things have been transacted in the very state which is the temporary residence of the Administration, that they will carry with them a kind of eclat, as being done at a spot where the United States are certainly not unpopular, that the western Settlers in other States, from a Sympathy of situation, and the want of intelligence may imitate the conduct of the Pennsylvania counties, unless they will be restrained by a timely admonition, that few of the serious oppositions to Government have existed, which were not capable of being blasted, if encountered before men committed themselves too deeply, and that acquiescence of the President may be imputed to a suspicion of the inconstitunality or at least gross inexpediency of the Excise Laws, I yeild to the necessity of a Proclamation. I derive the Presidents right to issue it, from the duty of seeing the laws executed, and the fitness of preventing the growth of a crime by salutary advice rather then waiting to press the infliction of punishment.” Randolph then suggested several alterations to a draft proclamation relative to the current opposition to the whiskey tax that Hamilton had sent him (Syrett, Hamilton Papers description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 12:336–40). GW issued a proclamation on 15 Sept. 1792 urging compliance with the excise tax. For GW’s instructions to Randolph to attend the U.S. circuit court session held on 11 Oct. in York, Pa., and the results of that session, see GW to Randolph, 1 Oct., and note 1.

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