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Tarring & Feathering an Excise Officer


Laws made by common consent must not be trampled upon by individuals. ~George Washington

The United States Constitution is a series of laws and compromises that form the basis of American life and liberty. In it is enshrined the duties and privileges of the majority rule and protection for minority opinion. However, in the course of human events, circumstances arise that challenge our understanding of what it means to live in a democratic republic. What happens when one finds oneself in the political minority? How does one dissent and what form should it take: peaceful or violent? Presidents from George Washington to the present have confronted this problem. This paper will discuss how Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant handled armed domestic insurrections and how Washington’s decision to sent the militia to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion crisis affected subsequent president’s responses to civil disobedience.

In the summer of 1794, western Pennsylvania erupted into chaos and violence. The people were protesting Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s nine cent excise tax on whiskey and other spirits. In what became known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”, twenty counties in four states openly engaged in seditious acts; rebelled against the established law and order; disrupted the collection of taxes; tarred and feathered tax collectors; and obstructed militia recruitment. The tax, passed in 1791, was part of Hamilton’s fiscal policy geared towards paying off America’s wartime debt. To build the United States foreign credit, he had pushed for the national government’s assumption of individual state debts. Western Pennsylvania, however, had been hit hard by recession in the aftermath of the American Revolution and was under a constant fear of Indian attack. The farmers felt the “luxury and/or sin” tax unduly targeted their economic interests and kept them from being competitive with eastern wheat farmers. Westerners traditionally turned their excess grain into whiskey to supplement their income and, as hard currency was scarce in the region, whiskey also became the basis for a barter system.

whiskeyWith the threat of armed violence spreading, President George Washington considered the rebellion as a violation of the Constitution and a “direct threat to the authority of the Federal Government.”[1] He asked Congress to declare a state of anarchy and authorize him to use the militia to reassert the rule of law. Washington’s critics, namely Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, felt that this was a gross violation of executive authority and would infringe on the peoples’ right to protest an unjust law or government. “No taxation without representation” had been a popular slogan during the Revolution, but Washington firmly believed that sentiment was not applicable in this case. The farmers had representation and that representation had either supported the tax or had been outvoted by the opposition.

“From Washington’s perspective, the republic established by the Constitution created a government of laws that must be obeyed once the duly elected representatives had reached a decision.”[2] Congress agreed with the president and gave him permission to use the militia to quell the rioters. “He was not disputing the right of aggrieved citizens to dissent, but he was insisting that dissent could not take the form of flagrant violation of federal authority.”[3] Stung by criticism, Washington appointed a peace convention and issued a statement “commanding all the insurgents to disperse peaceably by the first day of September.”[4] The peace commissioners offered them full pardons for the crimes they had committed and forgiveness for their unpaid taxes.

But by September 1794, it was clear to Washington and his peace commissioners that the protestors, heady with their supposed successful thwarting of governmental authority, would not return home peacefully. Washington, along with 13,000 militiamen, marched into Western Pennsylvania. The rebellion immediately collapsed. The protestors had not figured on Washington’s personal magnetism and an actual invasion of the Federal army. With the rebellion over, the president returned to the Capitol and left Hamilton in charge of rounding up the worst of the offenders.



Thirty-eight years later, during the Nullification Crisis of 1832, Andrew Jackson faced a similar dilemma, though not on a similar scale, during his second term as president. South Carolina and Vice-President John C. Calhoun argued that states had a right “to nullify a law if and until the Constitution were to be made specifically amended to the law in question part and parcel of the Constitution.”[5] The law that most aggrieved the South was the Tariff of 1828, a protective trade tax designed to protect Northern industrial output from being overwhelmed by cheaper, foreign-made goods. The South relied heavily on imported goods, mostly from England and France, as the region had little to no manufacturing of its own. It also indirectly restricted England’s ability to trade merchandise for cotton, the South’s major cash crop. South Carolina declared the tariff to be unconstitutional, and went on to add, that the Constitution was a non-binding agreement between the States themselves and that the Federal Government had overstepped its authority by imposing a burdensome tax on the people. This move directly challenged the authority of the president. South Carolina, then, absolved itself of the obligations and duties regarding other states and moved towards creating and organizing its own separate sovereign government.

Jackson saw thing differently, however. His challenge was “to preserve the Union without appearing so tyrannical and power-hungry that other Southern states might want to join with South Carolina, precipitating an even greater crisis that could lead to the secession of several states.”[6] Jackson used a three-pronged approach to this crisis. First, he surreptitiously sent arms and munitions to South Carolina, armed the Unionists and ensured that loyal, Jackson men headed the state militia in case actual insurrection occurred. Second, he issued his annual message to Congress. In language designed to mollify the nullifiers, Jackson made clear that he opposed nullification and advocated tariff reforms. This earned the president criticism from his detractors for surrendering to the nullifiers. Third, a week later, he issued a proclamation demanding that South Carolina recognize the authority of the Constitution and the Federal Government’s right to levy taxes. He re-enforced this demand with the threat of military action, which Congress had authorized.


A 1833 lithograph by Endicott & Swett, New York

Jackson managed to isolate South Carolina from other southern states, who had been considering nullification as an intellectually sound doctrine in support of State’s Rights. Without the other states’ support, South Carolina backed down. Jackson firmly believed that nullification was “incompatible with the existence of the union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.”[7] By forestalling the crisis in South Carolina, Andrew Jackson created a “doctrine of a permanent and indivisible Union, which later became the basis of Lincoln’s actions in the more serious secession crisis that followed a generation later.”[8]

It was Abraham Lincoln’s singular fate to guide the nation through the most turbulent and poignant era in American history. The long shadow of slavery could no longer be avoided and the sins of the fathers visited themselves upon their sons. When he was elected in the fall of 1860, seven southern states seceded, in what later became known as the Secession crisis of 1860-1861.[9] “Having secured the presidency upon a platform opposing the expansion of slavery, Republicans—Lincoln most of all—had to ponder whether to surrender the party’s principles to the blackmail of secession.”[10] Lincoln had no intention of allowing slavery to expand into the western territories, nor was he inclined to interfere with slavery where it already existed. This idea of containment and noninterference would put the peculiar institution on the road to extinction in the minds of many unwilling to see slavery ended by bloodshed and war.

Secession placed Lincoln into a difficult position. “The president-elect insisted that ‘the right of a state to secede is not an open or debatable question…It is the duty of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing government.’”[11] He could neither accede nor reject Southerners’ demands without it being a “total collapse of legitimate politics.”[12] Nor was he willing to sacrifice the preservation of the Union for mere political expediency. Lincoln rejected nearly all of the compromise proposals in the winter of 1860-61 that would allow for the expansion of slavery into the territories. Before drafting this inaugural address, Lincoln asked for a copy of the United States Constitution, Daniel Webster’s 1830 reply to Robert Y. Hayne, Andrew Jackson’s Nullification Proclamation of 1832, and Henry Clay’s Compromise speech of 1850. All of these documents directly or indirectly concerned States’ Rights and helped inform Lincoln on the precedents regarding slavery and secession. In the inaugural address, he reiterated his stance on slavery and promised not to open hostilities with the South. “There was no doubt, however, that as much as Lincoln wanted to avoid war, he would accept it as an alternative to disunion.”[13]


South Carolina’s “Ultimatum”.

Lincoln’s next crisis was whether or not the he should maintain federal authority over Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and Fort Pickens off the coast of Pensacola, the only two southern forts that remained in U.S. possession. Lincoln learned that Fort Sumter was in immediate need of resupply to avoid starvation and evacuation. Lincoln was faced with a choice to resupply the fort and risk initiating war or abandon the fort and appease the insurgents. William Seward, the Secretary of State, argued in favor of abandoning the fort. “Giving up the fort voluntarily would signal the peaceful intentions of the new administration, strengthening southern unionist sentiment, and allow the passions of secession to fizzle out.”[14] Postmaster General Montgomery Blair argued “to vacate Sumter would display weakness and embolden secessionists.”[15]


The Union is Dissolved!

Lincoln agreed with Blair and chose to resupply the fort. He informed the Confederate government that he would be resupplying the fort with provisions only and not with weapons. Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, authorized his commanders at Charleston to open fire on the fort before federal supplies could arrive in the hopes that this act would provoke Lincoln into calling for troops which would push the Upper South and Border States into secession. On April 12, 1861, Confederate General P.T.G. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter and after 34 hours of continuous bombardment, Major General Robert Anderson, Federal commander of Sumter, surrendered. Three days later on April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 militia to serve for 90 days, the maximum allowed by law. This “coercive” act led Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and a reluctant North Carolina into secession.

Lincoln worked hard to keep the four remaining Border States (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri) within the Union. Missouri also issued articles of secession but pro-Union forces kept it from being enforceable and the state dissolved into its own intra-state civil war. Kentucky declared its neutrality in the coming conflict and warned both sides against violating its sovereignty, which the Confederacy did early in the Civil War. He greatly expanded the role of the presidency through what he called executive war powers. Lincoln argued that the president had the “constitutional authority to do whatever was necessary to preserve, protect, and defend the nation—including its capital” and the Constitution in a time of dangerous emergency.[16] He blocked the Maryland State Assembly from gathering to keep the state from convening a secession convention and joining the Confederacy. He suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which allowed for the for a speedy trial by a jury of one’s peers and the suspension allowed for the indefinite detention of suspected southern sympathizers and potential threats to the union. By asking for 75,000 volunteers and ordering the blockade of southern ports, Lincoln infringed on Congress’s sole right to declare war. Many of his detractors labeled Lincoln a tyrant.

The American Civil War lasted four years, from April 1861 to April 1865, and ended in a Union victory. “In May 1861, Lincoln explained that the ‘central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity, we must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.”[17] Not only was secession deemed unconstitutional but so was slavery, the latter ensured with three constitutional amendments: Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1864, shattering his and the South’s hopes for a lenient Reconstruction. Vice-President Andrew Johnson became president and ruined the Radical Republicans’ hopes of fundamental change in Southern society. Johnson had proven himself the wrong man to lead the Reconstruction effort. He was a southerner from East Tennessee and while he hated the Secessionists, but he hated the Negro more. He fought the Radical agenda to give the freedman suffrage and enfranchisement and established a fairly lenient Reconstruction policy. This infuriated the Radicals who impeached Johnson.


The Freedman’s Bureau

General Ulysses S. Grant was elected to the presidency in 1869. Many Republicans hoped he would rescue the peace which the Union forces had fought hard for and won. Grant’s election was supposed to put an end to the political controversy created during Johnson’s administration because the General was seen as apolitical. Grant was to secure the fruits of the Union victory which was in serious danger of being lost because of the growing unpopularity of Reconstruction policies. Republicans were divided overall on many economic issues and Southern Republicans were concerned with the loss of power if the Democrats regained control of the Southern states and disenfranchised the black vote.

“Grant saw his task [as president], as any decent man would have, as being to bring about peace and reconciliation between the north and south and to enforce the rights of citizens for blacks. He soon learned that he could not do both.”[18] Grant wanted to be president to all Americans: to ex-slaves who felt betrayed by Lincoln’s legacy and to ex-Confederates, who wanted no part in Negro enfranchisement. His Southern strategy “simultaneously sought to protect black civil and political rights and conciliate white southerners in aiming to establish a stable postwar political order resting on the consent of all of the governed, white and black.”[19]

By 1868, all but four states had regained statehood.[20] Grant recommended to Congress to reinstate the remaining states, which it did in 1870. Reconstruction had already been fiercely contested since the end of the Civil War and many Northerners believed that enough had been done already with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and they were ready to move on to other things. Republican rule in the south was based more on collaboration than compulsion with Southern Republicans relying more of Southerners’ support than black voters. White supremacist groups, like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia, frequently disrupted the North’s efforts to maintain control of the new political order and their ability help the freedman.

By the time of Grant’s inauguration, public support was greatly diminished and only extremely violent circumstances warranted federal intervention. Intervention was a contentious policy. “Not to intervene left Southern Republicans to defend themselves against acts of intimidation and violence; to intervene left the impression that Southern Republicanism could not survive on its own and was dependent on outside support, rendering difficult its search for legitimacy and acceptance as part of the postwar political order.”[21] The prevailing attitude was that the more the federal government intervened the more it would have to intervene and that was becoming increasingly unacceptable to northern opinion. Grant had difficulty in mobilizing Northern support to protect blacks from Southern violence. Nonetheless, he still had enough political clout to get the Ku Klux Act passed in 1871. It was legislation designed to protect life, liberty, and property and the enforcement of the laws in all part of the United States. It gave the president the authorization to call out military force and suspend the writ of habeas corpus to enforce court orders and black suffrage.


Thomas Nast. “The Union as it was / The Lost Cause, worse than slavery.” Harper’s Weekly, v. 18, no. 930 (24 Oct 1874), p. 878. The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-128619.

When violence erupted in South Carolina, Grant sent twelve companies of infantry and four of cavalry to end the insurrection. The terrorists, who viewed the conflict as a struggle for political survival, had targeted black voters and their Republican supporters. The president was criticized for the occupation and charged by his opponents as creating a military dictatorship. The election season of 1872 proved to be a mixed bag for the Republican Party. Georgia’s legislature was redeemed and became Democratic, due mostly to blatant Republican corruption under Governor Rufus B. Bullock’s administration, while Republicans gained ground in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. “But the results in Louisiana were under dispute, and there were rival claimants for the state government there as well as in Arkansas and Alabama.”[22] Louisiana was so contentions that the rivals both claimed victory and held inaugural balls. Violence erupted in New Orleans. Grant intervened in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama to insure a Republican victory but was displeased at the kind of unscrupulous men he was forced to endorse.

More violence erupted across the south during 1874, when only four states were still controlled by the Republicans. Grant dispatched General Phil Sheridan to New Orleans to stop the crisis, but Sheridan issued a declaration that the only way to deal with the insurgents was to pronounce them ‘banditti’ and try them in a military court and execute the terrorists. This shocked many Northerners. When Mississippi violently “redeemed” itself in 1875, Grant “had lost interest in helping southern Republicans who did not help themselves, especially when to do so might cost the party votes in the North” and refused to send troops.[23] “By this time he succumbed to the deep rage of the white Southerners, whose fury at the ‘impudence of those niggers’ was so monumental.”[24] Reconstruction had seriously damaged Grant’s enormous popularity, and the man who never wanted to be president decided not to run for a third term, throwing his support behind Rutherford B. Hayes for the Republican nomination. In a highly disputed election, Southerners agree to a Hayes victory and in exchange, the Republicans withdraw the remaining troops from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina ending finally the nightmare of Reconstruction. “In other words, the Republicans surrendered the Negro to the Southern ruling class, and abandoned the idealism of Reconstruction, in return for the peaceable inauguration of their president.”[25]



Their heads on a platter: Presidential portrait tray. Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Washington set the presidential precedent of federal interventions in domestic insurrections. For him, it was a simple matter of what form dissent among the populous allowed (or not) to take. He recognized that every American at some point would strongly disagree with the majority opinion. But that dissent must be channeled through the established political channels. Violent opposition would destroy the fragile American Republic. Washington, however, was very aware that everything he did while president would set a precedent. His decision to use military force against the population was necessary to ensure that established rules of law and order were followed. Subsequent presidents have looked to Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion ever since when faced with disgruntled and violent citizenry.

But why did this policy work reasonably well for Washington, Jackson and Lincoln when it failed for Grant? And how are these four men similar? Differences? And did their similarities/dissimilarities factor into their success or failure to quell the insurrections they faced as Commander-in-chief?

Military experience is an obvious common trait, with Washington, Jackson, and Grant all reaching the rank of general. Lincoln famously (or infamously) served for three months as a volunteer in the Black Hawk War. He only reached the rank of captain. Lincoln had no battlefield experience to speak of but was a rather successful president. Washington was rather unsuccessful on the battlefield having lost nearly every battle he commanded. However, he too was a successful president. Grant had the opposite problem: successful on the battlefield, unsuccessful as president., while Jackson was successful at both.

Another common trait is political experience. With the exception of Grant, each man held at least one political office. Washington was the president of the Constitutional Convention before being elected as the first President of the United States. Jackson was a delegate to Tennessee’s constitutional convention, as well as, a U.S. Representative and a Senator for the state. Lincoln was elected as a Illinois state legislator before serving one term as a U.S. Representative. Grant’s sole political experience came through his military career. One has to be pretty politically savvy to reach the rank of general, but that experience does not necessarily translate into the public arena.

But the real issue is one of duration and scale. The Whiskey Rebellion only lasted a few months and encompassed parts of four states. Grant, however, had to contend with an entire geographical region under near-constant upheaval his entire eight years in office. If the roles were reversed and Washington had to deal with a longer uprising than he faced, historians might not feel the same way about the Whiskey Rebellion as they currently do. Each president takes a hit politically from their opposition when they send troops against their fellow Americans. Even Washington, though his opposition did not come out strongly or directly against him. Grant “lost” Reconstruction because he lost the support of the people. It had dragged on too long and was too bloody and people simply became fatigued. Lincoln faced a similar experience. The North became increasingly frustrated with the war because their generals would not fight and each battle ended in defeat or stalemate with more of their boys either dead or maimed. Lincoln would have been a one-term president, if not for the Union victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg and Sherman’s March to the Sea, which gave the North some hope that overall victory was possible.

In a democratic republic, governed by laws, its citizenry must abide by the majority opinion. While dissent is allowed, it must take the form of exercising ones’ political rights and voting against issues one disagrees with. Dissent cannot take the form of violent insurrection. Minority opinion is valued and protected under the Constitution but it must and should not be allowed to subvert the political system with violence and anarchy. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and Grant believed strongly in the rule of law and order, and sought an appropriate and measured constitutional response to the instances of domestic insurrection facing each administration. Only Grant failed. He lost the will of the people and black Americans were sacrificed for political expediency and peace.


Ambrose, Stephen E. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. New York and London: Simon & Schster, 2002.

Brinkley, Alan and Davis Dyer, ed. The American Presidency. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brotheres: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, 2000.

—. His Excellency George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

McPherson, James M. Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Meacham, Jon. American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009.

Simpson, Brooks D. The Reconstruction Presidents. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas , 1998.

Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

Waugh, Joan. U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

[1] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), pp. 140.

[2] Ibid., pp. 145.

[3] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), pp. 225.

[4] Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Republic (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), pp. 214.

[5] Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009), pp. 184.

[6] Ibid., pp. 223.

[7] Ibid., pp. 227.

[8] Harry L. Watson, “Andrew Jackson” in The American Presidency, ed. Alan Brinkley and Davis Dyer (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pp. 100.

[9] South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

[10] Brooks D. Simpson, The Reconstruction Presidents (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1998), pp. 12.

[11] James M. McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), pp. 10.

[12] Simpson, pp. 12.

[13] Simpson, pp. 15.

[14] Simpson, pp. 15.

[15] Simpson, pp. 15.

[16] McPherson, pp. 29.

[17] McPherson, pp. 5.

[18] Stephen E. Ambrose, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian (New York and London: Simon &Schuster, 2002), pp. 63.

[19] Simpson, pp. 135.

[20] Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas

[21] Simpson, pp. 136.

[22] Simpson, pp. 165.

[23] Simpson, pp. 188.

[24] Ambrose, pp. 70.

[25] Ambrose, pp. 70.