Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

A We The People Resource
Created October 6, 2010


The Lesson


Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion: Washington

This lesson plan examines a critical episode in George Washington's second administration, when federal efforts to collect an excise tax on liquor sparked armed resistance in the frontier communities of western Pennsylvania. Students first review the events that led up to this confrontation, then read from the diary that Washington kept as he gathered troops to put down the insurrection. Focusing on Washington's account of a meeting midway on his march, with spokespersons for the rebels, students outline the arguments on both sides and explore the risks and benefits of the options Washington had before him: whether to uphold the law with military force or withdraw and let the already-waning rebellion sputter out. After debating this choice, students consider the political climate of the times, as reflected in the message Washington delivered to Congress upon his return from the frontier, and consider how far Washington's actions in the Whiskey Rebellion crisis were motivated by politics rather than principle. Finally, students return to the central issue raised by the Whiskey Rebellion to compare Washington's decision with the those of later presidents who faced this same question of constitutional authority: When is the federal government justified in using force against American citizens?

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and its significance in the early history of the United States
  • To explore how George Washington made the choice to meet this challenge to federal authority with military force
  • To evaluate the extent to which political pressures may have influenced Washington's decision
  • To weigh the merit of Washington's policy in light of more recent challenges to federal authority
  • To gain experience in working with private diaries, letters, and public speeches as resources for historical study.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Review of circumstances surrounding Whiskey Rebellion of 1794

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 is regarded as one of the first tests of federal authority in United States history and of the young nation's commitment to the constitutional rule of law. Introduce students to the circumstances surrounding this pivotal event, referring for background to the "Editorial Note" to George Washington's diary of his campaign against the rebels, available through EDSITEment at the Papers of George Washington website. (At the website's homepage, click on "Selected Documents" in the navigational frame, then select "The Whiskey Insurrection, from Washington's Diaries.") The following timeline, drawn from the "Editorial Note," may also prove helpful:

  • March 1791: Federalists in Congress succeed in passing an excise tax on domestically distilled spirits (i.e., liquor) and provide an elaborate system of local inspectors and collection officers to insure that the tax is paid.
  • September 1792: The excise tax provokes opposition in frontier areas, where spirits were distilled primarily for personal use, not for sale, and where a tradition of militant individualism objected to the presence of tax inspectors. In response, George Washington issues a presidential proclamation condemning activities that tend "to obstruct the operation of the laws of the United States for raising a revenue upon spirits distilled within the same."
  • July 1794: Following unsuccessful petitions against the excise tax, an armed group in western Pennsylvania attacks a federal marshal when he attempts to serve papers on those who have not registered their stills as required by law. Two days later, insurgents burn the home of the local tax collector. As the uprising spreads, government agents and local citizens sympathetic to the government become the target of violence and harassment.
  • August 2, 1794: Washington confers with Pennsylvania officials and his cabinet to set a course for meeting this emergency. He decides to lay the matter before a Justice of the Supreme Court in order to determine, as one cabinet member wrote, "all the means vested in the President for suppressing the progress of the mischief." Two days later the court rules that circumstances in western Pennsylvania cannot be controlled by civil authorities and warrant a military response.
  • August 7, 1794: Washington calls up the militia in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to assemble a force of nearly 13,000 men, "feeling the deepest regret for the occasion, but withal, the most solemn conviction, that the essential interests of the Union demand it." He also offers amnesty to all insurgents who "disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes" by September 1.
  • August 21, 1794: Washington sends three federal commissioners into western Pennsylvania in a final attempt to resolve the situation peacefully. Their efforts are met with violent resistance, and on September 24 they report that "there is no probability that . . [the laws] can at present be enforced by the usual course of civil authority, and that some more competent force is necessary to cause the laws to be duly executed."
  • September 25, 1794: Washington issues a proclamation ordering the militia to assemble and march against the insurgents: "Every form of conciliation not inconsistent with the being of Government, has been adopted without effect . . . [and] Government is set at defiance, the contest being whether a small portion of the United States shall dictate to the whole union, and at the expence of those, who desire peace, indulge a desperate ambition; Now therefore I, George Washington, . . . deploring that the American name should be sullied by the outrages of citizens on their own Government; . . . but resolved . . . to reduce the refractory to a due subordination to the law; Do Hereby declare . . . that a force . . . adequate to the exigency, is already in motion to the scene of disaffection; . . . And I do, moreover, exhort all individuals, officers, and bodies of men, to contemplate with abhorrence the measures leading directly or indirectly to those crimes, which produce this resort to military coercion."
Activity 2. Consult relevant sections of the Constitution

As Washington's consultations with the Supreme Court suggest, the Whiskey Rebellion raised questions about governmental authority under the new Constitution. Was this a situation in which the President was empowered to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" (Article II, Section 3)? Was it a situation in which the Congress was required "to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions" (Article I, Section 8, Number 15)? Or was it simply a local matter, a breakdown of law and order in western Pennsylvania which the state should deal with on its own (as implied by the Tenth Amendment)? Have students consult these sections of the Constitution, which is available through EDSITEment at the Avalon Project website.

Activity 3. Read Washington's Diary

Turn from these constitutional issues to Washington's handling of this crisis by having students read his Diary for the period from September 30 to October 20, when he rode west to review his troops at their assembly points and issue commands for their march into western Pennsylvania. Focus attention on Washington's entry for October 6 to 12, where he describes a meeting with two representatives from the insurgent region, William Findley and David Redick, both prosperous landowners who had infiltrated the rebel movement. Divide the class into study groups and have each group outline the arguments made on either side. Then stage a Nightline-style investigative report into what happened at the meeting. Assign students to speak for Findley, Redick, and Washington, and after each explains his objectives in the meeting and his views on why negotiations "broke down," have members of the class raise questions about the positions each side took and about options they might have considered. For example:

  • Why did Findley and Redick attempt to halt Washington's army? Were they seeking to protect the rebels? If they were really as frightened by the rebels as they claimed, why did they resist this chance to restore law and order?
  • Why did Washington reject the argument that he should turn back since the insurgency was losing steam and would soon blow over anyway? Wasn't he worried that bringing federal troops into the area might stir up fresh trouble, as federal tax inspectors had done in August? What was he trying to accomplish by marching 13,000 men into this remote part of the country against a rag-tag array of small farmers?
  • When Findley and Redick asked Washington what proof he wanted that the rule of law had been restored in their region, he answered that "they knew as well as I did." What proof did Washington require? What would have satisfied him? Could any community produce proof that its citizens are in "absolute submission" to the law?
  • Why did Findley and Redick emphasize that the rebels were ignorant and "men of little or no property"? Were they implying that the insurgency was really the work of an underclass, people who would sink back into impotence and insignificance now that the excitement was over? To what extent did Washington share this "blame it on the riff-raff" view of the situation? Would he have marched an army into a prosperous community that took up arms when its petitions had been ignored?
  • Were there other options open to Washington? Why couldn't he keep his army at the ready to see if the rebellion had really run its course? Why couldn't he have told Findley and Redick that he would withdraw if the people of their region would hand over the rebel leaders? Why did he feel it necessary to press on with the invasion?
  • What was really at stake for Washington in this confrontation? The security of the nation? Civil order and tranquillity? Respect for federal authority? What mattered so much that he was willing to run the risk of war between the government and its citizens?
Activity 4. Produce and share newspapers probing aspects of Washington's decision

After students have probed these aspects of Washington's decision, remind them that during this period he faced increasing political controversy as well. The excise tax had been a Federalist measure, after all, designed to help pay the costs of Hamilton's financial policies, and its opponents included those who were organizing what would soon become the Democratic-Republican party under Jefferson. Antagonism between these groups deepened over Washington's handling of the Whiskey Rebellion: "An insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, but could never be found," Jefferson said of it, whereas Hamilton argued that suppressing the rebellion "will do us a great deal of good and add to the solidity of everything in this country."

  • Have students explore this dimension of Washington's decision by reading his Sixth Annual Message to Congress, delivered soon after his return from western Pennsylvania. The speech is available through EDSITEment at the Presidential Speeches website. (At the website's homepage, click on "George Washington," then select "Annual Message, 1794-11-19.")
  • Divide the class into two "factions," as they were called at the time, Federalist and Democratic-Republican. Form study groups within each faction and have each group produce a partisan newspaper reporting on Washington's address and his recent actions against the insurgents. In their newspapers, students should comment on Washington's analysis of the situation, his justification for employing military force, and his claim that "consolations" have come out of this crisis.
  • Have students on both sides note in particular what Washington had to say about "the origin and progress of the insurrection," where he fixes the blame on "combinations of men who . . . have disseminated . . . accusations of the whole Government." Who are these "combinations of men," which he elsewhere describes as "certain self-created societies"? And how did his suspicions about them influence his decision to carry through with the use of military force? To what degree were his actions, in other words, a show of political power designed to send a message to his political opponents as well as an exercise of executive power against those who would defy the law?
Activity 5. Discussion reporting on closing chapters of Whiskey Rebellion

After students have produced and shared their newspapers, discuss in class how each side might have reported on the closing chapters in the Whiskey Rebellion:

  • November 17, 1794: Hamilton writes to Washington from western Pennsylvania that "the list of prisoners has been very considerably increased, probably to the amount of 150. . . . Subsequent intelligence shews that there is no regular assemblage of the fugitives . . . only small vagrant parties . . . affording no point of Attack. Every thing is urging for the return of the troops."
  • November 19, 1794: Hamilton notifies Washington that the army "is generally in motion homeward," leaving behind a regiment to maintain order.
  • July 10, 1795: Washington issues a pardon to those insurgents who were taken prisoner but were not yet sentenced or indicted. By this time, most had already been acquitted for lack of evidence.
Activity 6. Applying Washington's policy to later examples of civil unrest

Conclude the lesson by having students consider how Washington's policy for dealing with the Whiskey Rebellion, and the reasoning that motivated his actions, would apply to later examples of civil unrest. Would he have viewed those who fought for racial equality in the Civil Rights Movement in the same light as the Pennsylvania insurgents who fought against an onerous tax? Have students offer more recent examples of citizens threatening civil order in the belief that their cause is just. What can we learn from Washington's precedent-setting response to the dilemma that arises in such situations? Did the insurgents' cause weigh in his decision to force submission to the law? Should the cause for civil disobedience determine how government responds?

Extending The Lesson

For a different view of George Washington, exploring his public image, see the EDSITEment Lesson Plan "The Living Symbol." Further study of the rise of political parties in the United States should begin with Federalist Paper No. 9, "The Union as a Safeguard against Domestic Faction and Insurrection," by Alexander Hamilton, and its sequel, No. 10, "The Same Subject Continued," by James Madison, available through EDSITEment at CongressLink's THOMAS site.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Research
  • Synthesis