George Washington Papers

Proclamation, 7 August 1794


[Philadelphia, 7 Aug. 1794]

Whereas combinations to defeat the execution of the laws laying duties upon Spirits distilled within the United States and upon Stills, have from the time of the commencement of those laws existed in some of the Western parts of Pennsylvania. And whereas the said Combinations, proceeding in a manner subversive equally of the just authority of Government and of the rights of individuals have hitherto effected their dangerous and criminal purpose; by the influence of certain irregular meetings whose proceedings have tended to encourage and uphold the spirit of opposition, by misrepresentations of the laws calculated to render them odious, by endeavours to deter those who might be so disposed from accepting offices under them, through fear of public resentment and of injury to person and property, and to compel those who had accepted such offices by actual violence to surrender or forbear the execution of them; by circulating vindictive menaces against all those who should otherwise directly or indirectly aid in the exectution of the said laws, or who, yielding to the dictates of conscience and to a sense of obligation should themselves comply therewith, by actually injuring and destroying the property of persons who were understood to have so complied; by inflicting cruel and humiliating punishments upon private citizens for no other cause than that of appearing to be friends of the laws; by intercepting the public officers on the high ways, abusing, assaulting and otherwise ill treating them; by going to their houses in the night, gaining admittance by force, taking away their papers and committing other outrages; employing for these unwarrantable purposes the Agency of Armed Banditti, disguised in such manner as for the most part to escape discovery: And whereas the endeavors of the Legislature to obviate objections to the said laws, by lowering the duties and by other alterations conducive to the convenience of those whom they immediately affect (though they have given satisfaction in other quarters) and the endeavors of the Executive officers to conciliate a compliance with the laws, by explanations, by forbearance and even by particular accommodations founded on the suggestion of local considerations, have been disappointed of their effect by the machinations of persons whose industry to excite resistance has increased with every appearance of a disposition among the people to relax in their opposition and to acquiesce in the laws: insomuch that many persons in the said western parts of Pennsylvania have at length been hardy enough to perpetrate acts which I am advised amount to treason, being overt acts of levying war against the United States; the said persons having on the sixteenth and Seventeenth of July last past proceeded in arms (on the second day amounting to several hundreds) to the house of John Neville Inspector of the Revenue for the fourth survey of the District of Pennsylvania, having repeatedly attacked the said house with the persons therein wounding some of them, having seized David Lenox, Marshal of the District of Pennsylvania, who previous thereto had been fired upon, while in the execution of his duty, by a party of armed men detaining him for some time prisoner, till for the preservation of his life and the obtaining of his liberty he found it necessary to enter into stipulations to forbear the execution of certain official duties touching processes issuing out of a Court of the United States—and having finally obliged the said Inspector of the Revenue and the said marshal from considerations of personal safety to fly from that part of the Country, in order by a circuitous route to proceed to the seat of Government; avowing as the motives of these outrageous proceedings an intention to prevent by force of Arms the execution of the said laws, to oblige the said Inspector of the Revenue to renounce his said office, to withstand by open violence the lawful authority of the Government of the United States, and to compel thereby an alteration in the measures of the Legislature and a repeal of the laws aforesaid.1 And whereas by a law of the United States intitled "An Act to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union suppress insurrections and repel invasions," it is enacted "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 that act, the same being notified 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 shall not be 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: Provided always that whenever it may be necessary in the judgment of the President to use the military force hereby directed to be called forth; The President shall forthwith and previous thereto, by Proclamation, command such insurgents to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes within a limited time."2 And whereas James Wilson an associate Justice on the fourth instant by writing under his hand did, from evidence which had been laid before him, notify to me 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."3 And whereas it is in my Judgment necessary under the circumstances of the case to take measures for calling forth the militia in order to suppress the Combinations aforesaid and to cause the Laws to be duly executed, and I have accordingly determined so to do, feeling the deepest regret for the occasion, but withal the most Solemn conviction, that the essential interests of the Union demand it, that the very existence of Government and the fundamental principles of social order are materially involved in the issue, and that the patriotism and firmness of all good Citizens are seriously called upon, as occasion may require, to aid in the effectual suppression of so fatal a Spirit.

Wherefore, and in pursuance of the Proviso above recited, I George Washington, President of the United States, do hereby command all persons, being insurgents as aforesaid and all others whom it may concern on or before the first day of September next to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes. And I do moreover warn all persons whomsoever against aiding abetting or comforting the perpetrators of the aforesaid treasonable Acts: and do require all officers and other Citizens according to their respective duties and the laws of the land to exert their utmost endeavors to prevent and suppress such dangerous proceedings.

In Testimony whereof I have caused the Seal of the United States of America to be affixed to these presents, and signed the same with my hand. Done at the City of Philadelphia the Seventh day of August one thousand seven hundred and ninety four, and of the Independence of the United States of America, the nineteenth.

Go. Washington.

By the President
Edm: Randolph.

Copy, DNA: RG 46, Third Congress, 1793-95, Senate Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; copy, PHi: Rawle Family Papers. The DNA copy, which was transmitted to the Senate on 20 Nov., in support of GW’s message to Congress of 19 Nov., is certified by George Taylor, Jr., chief clerk in the State Department, as a "True copy." The PHi copy was certified by Edmund Randolph on 12 March 1795.

The proclamation was printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser of 7 Aug. and many other newspapers. Secretary of War Henry Knox enclosed the proclamation in letters of this date to the governors of Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, requesting each "forthwith to issue your orders for organizing and holding in readiness to march at a moments warning a Corps of the Militia . . . armed and equipped as completely as possible . . . . As soon as the Corps shall be in readiness your Excellency will please to notify the same to this office. The time and place of rendezvous will be hereafter designated. The President defers naming them at present and until the effect of certain pacific measures which he is about trying with the deluded insurgents shall be known." Virginia was asked to ready 3,300 militia; New Jersey, 2,100; Maryland, 2,350; and Pennsylvania, 5,200 (to Henry Lee, PHi: Dreer Collection; to Thomas Mifflin, PHarH: Executive Correspondence, 1790-99).

A critical response to the proclamation was offered by the anonymous author Nestor in a public letter "To the President of the United States" that appeared in the General Advertiser (Philadelphia) of 12 Aug.: "In a government like the one under which we live every man is a monarch, for he knows no superior but the laws, and as this government has given every citizen the right to speak or publish his sentiments, I avail myself of this common privilege to offer my sentiments on the present delicate crisis of our country. The friend of freedom cannot be displeased with the expression of opinion which has nothing more than public good for its object, I feel, therefore, no difficulty in supposing that every sentiment will be treated by you with that attention its own merit deserves, whether coming from an anonymous writer, or in the more pompous and imperious garb of a minister of State. That constitution which is the product of the people of the United States has recognized no difference among citizens, but every citizen is equal in its eye; this equality, therefore, imposes an equal obligation upon all to contribute towards the general happiness, and as the delegation to power makes not a master but a servant, power in this case being not a gift but a trust, the man of the people should lend an attentive ear to the observations of even the obscurest citizen, who professes to be actuated by no motive but the general happiness. To claim the right of attention from professions of zeal in the cause of my country would perhaps, excite distrust of my disinterestedness, I shall, therefore, wave every pretension of this kind and leave the subject to your own candour and patriotism.

"As the first executive officer of the United States you have made a requisition of a certain proportion of militia from four States to act against the citizens of the western country, who are in a state of hostile opposition to the excise law should they not return to their duty before the short time given to the 1st of September. It is certainly the duty of the first magistrate to see the laws which are entrusted to him faithfully executed, but the means by which they shall be put in operation depend in some measure upon his wisdom and discretion. It can hardly be supposed that the strong arm of power is immediately to be raised before lenient means are employed; for as freemen are more under the guidance of reason than the lash, the milder mode ought to be the first resort. When men enter into a social compact to secure their happiness and their rights every violation of them begets uneasiness, and when to this is added other causes of discontent, more than a common portion of forbearance is necessary to subdue the spirit of revolt. The citizens, Sir, of the western country consider an excise law as repugnant to liberty, they consider it as an invasion of those privileges which the revolution bestowed upon them, hence their opposition to the law. But it is not probable that this opposition would have appeared in military terror had not recent circumstances produced great irritation. It is a fact too well known to be disputed that the frontier people have not enjoyed that security and protection which the citizens of other parts of the states have experienced; their country has been ravaged by a barbarous foe, and their women and children have been exposed to the cruelties of the murdering savage. To protect its citizens, the State of Pennsylvania determined on an establishment at Presque isle, and in the moment of the execution of a law of the State to give security to its frontier citizens, you, Sir, interposed, and a suspension took place. If this interposition was caused by a desire to negociate with savages, and stop the effusion of blood, would not the same humanity which dictated it have led to pacific rather than military means to bring our own citizens to a sense of right? This act of suspension must have added to the discontents of those people, and a recourse to the rigor of the law in this moment of inflammation will explain the unfortunate state of the western country—Now Sir, permit me to appeal to those feelings of humanity which led to an appointment of a special envoy to the court of Great Britain, after every aggression which a nation could suffer. This appointment was dictated by a desire of peace, a benevolent wish to spare the effusion of blood. It surely cannot be contended that Great Britain had not been guilty of outrages great enough to excite us to resistance, whence then so great a concern for the lives of our citizens when a foreign foe was concerned, and such an immediate reference to arms when our own citizens are implicated? Negociation ought to be tried before hostilities are entered into, was the language when Great Britain was concerned, and why ought not the same temper to govern on the present occasion? Shall citizen be armed against citizen, shall a brother imbrue his hands in the blood of his brother before imperious necessity calls for it? Shall Pennsylvania be converted into an human slaughter house because the dignity of the United States will not admit of conciliatory measures? Shall torrents of blood be spil’d to support an odious excise system, producing a pitiful revenue, and millions be sacrificed rather than maintain our national sovereignty? Shall savages be entitled to conciliatory measures and our own citizens have less consideration than savages? Forbid it Heaven.

"Sir, the fate of the United States, like the tyrant’s sword, is suspended by a thread, and in your hands is the event. Coercion will destroy the slight web by which it is suspended, and a melancholy scene will ensue—a scene at which imagination starts appal’d, and every humane heart views with horror. I mean not to justify any outrage against the laws—I mean not to justify the conduct of the western people—it cannot be justified. Such hostility has my most decided disapprobation, and must be disapproved by every friend to order; but no more can an immediate appeal to arms meet with approbation than can their conduct be supported; for if war is the ultima ratio of monarchies, how much more ought it to be the dernier resort of republics. War in any shape is a real evil, but this evil comes armed with every horror when the swords of citizens are turned against each other.—To avoid this, I trust, will be your first care, for it ought to be the care of every friend to humanity.

"Consider, sir, the consequences of proceeding to extremity in this case. The heat of the western people will lead them to a violent resistance; they will, perhaps, find proselytes to their cause, and a flame may be kindled which will consume the fair fabric of freedom, and spread desolation thro’ our happy country. Let me conjure you to avert, if possible, such a calamity, and as a desire to prevent the shedding of human blood has in one case determined your conduct, let it not be said, that there is a want of consistency in your humanity, and that there was less anxiety to shed blood of American citizens than that of ferocious Britons or inhuman savages."

1For a more detailed exposition of these events, see Alexander Hamilton to GW, 5 Aug., and notes.

2For this act of 2 May 1792, 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.

3For Wilson’s certificate of 4 Aug., see Henry Knox to GW, 4 Aug., n.4.

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