Eyewitness 1794: The Whiskey Rebellion fails, Hugh Brackenridge survives

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By August 1794, Western Pennsylvania's whiskey rebels had their own flags, their own army and their own martyr: Capt. James McFarlane.

A veteran of the Revolutionary War, Capt. McFarlane had become a leader of what was increasingly violent opposition to a federal excise tax on whiskey. He had been shot to death a few weeks earlier outside the home of tax collector John Neville. Angry frontiersmen then burned Mr. Neville's house on Bower Hill in what is now Scott.

As many as 7,000 armed men mustered at Braddock's Field, about eight miles east of Fort Pitt, on Aug. 1-2, 1794, for what a state historical marker at the site calls "the high tide of the Whiskey Rebellion."

Rather than the French, the British or Native Americans, it was probably that ad-hoc army that represented the greatest threat to the still small settlement at the Forks of the Ohio.

The rebels viewed Fort Pitt, and the cluster of houses, taverns and businesses nearby known as Pittsburgh, as a stronghold of support for the federal revenue agents, like John Neville, who licensed stills and collected the whiskey tax.

Led by David Bradford, a Washington County lawyer turned general, the rebels marched to The Point. Once there, they couldn't decide whether to burn down Pittsburgh or simply intimidate its residents into disavowing their loyalty to the federal government in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital. Lobbied by a teacher-turned-chaplain-turned-lawyer named Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Mr. Bradford and his army chose the less violent course.

It was a wise decision.

Pittsburgh residents offered them free whiskey, food and boat rides across the Monongahela River. Mr. Brackenridge then ordered all the ferryboats to return to the Pittsburgh side, according to author William Hogeland's 2006 history "The Whiskey Rebellion."

The week after the rebels' march on Pittsburgh, President George Washington declared martial law and began calling up state militias. He assembled and personally led a 13,000-man army as far west as Bedford.

Facing overwhelming force, the rebellion collapsed, with Mr. Bradford escaping down the Ohio River to Spanish territory.

Mr. Brackenridge, who had tried to keep a foot in both the rebel and federal camps, managed to convince Alexander Hamilton that he had not committed treason. Mr. Hamilton had been given command of the American army that occupied Pittsburgh after Washington returned to Philadelphia.

While he avoided prison or a rope, Mr. Brackenridge couldn't escape public censure from his neighbors on both sides of the rebellion.

Isaac Craig was the son-in-law of John Neville, whose home had been burned by rebels. In the Oct. 11, 1794, edition of The Pittsburgh Gazette, Mr. Craig disputed Brackenridge's claim that he had saved Craig from banishment when the rebels briefly took control of Pittsburgh. Mr. Craig called on the rebel leader, David Bradford, to identify the "scoundrel" who had lied about Mr. Craig's role.

"I must inform you that Mr. Brackenridge has either a very treacherous memory, or a strong disposition to assert falsehoods if he asserted as you state," Bradford wrote in reply. "The first day at Braddock's Field Mr. Brackenridge told me the people of Pittsburgh were well pleased, that the country were [sic] about to banish the persons whose names had been mentioned. [H]e added that they ought to go further -- that little Craig ought to be punished, for he was one of the damned junto."

Brackenridge recognized his position was perilous. In that same issue of The Pittsburgh Gazette, he informed voters in Washington and Allegheny counties that he was still a candidate for Congress.

To withdraw, he wrote, "would imply a fear of submitting my conduct to investigation. ??? I may at present have less popularity than I had, but the time will come when I shall be considered as having deserved well of the country, in all the delicate conjunctures in which we have been situated."

He was, however, unable to win elective office after 1794. Mr. Brackenridge later campaigned for Thomas McKean in his successful race for governor, and Mr. McKean appointed him to the state Supreme Court.

Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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