Has there ever been any serious desire to have southwestern Pennsylvania secede from the state? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Has there ever been any serious desire to have southwestern Pennsylvania secede from the state?

Question submitted by: Joseph Forbes, South Side

Sure. In fact, during the early 1790s, Pittsburghers thought of seceding from the whole country.

The reason? Pricier booze.

The Whiskey Rebellion, as the uprising came to be called, wasn't a matter of fighting for the right to party, or even opposing the state-store system -- two causes that seem to fire the blood of so many today. "It was ... at no time [in] evidence that Western Pennsylvania was more addicted to consumption of liquors than other parts of the country," Frank Harper's history Pittsburgh of Today takes pains to note.

But they cared a lot about the liquor they had. And the country found that out in 1791, when the fledgling U.S. government levied a tax on whiskey.

Western Pennsylvanians didn't have much money in the 18th century. It's not just that they were poor: With banking centers hundreds of miles away, there simply wasn't much currency. So western farmers used whiskey instead of cash: It was fairly portable, and one of the few crops a farmer could export eastward. Whiskey was the lifeblood of the frontier. And now it was being taxed by a government Westerners had little use for.

Those schoolkid lessons about the Founding Fathers notwithstanding, life for many Americans was just as bad after the British left. Roads in Western Pennsylvania were poor, and the government was little help fighting off the Indians. The American Revolution had been inspired by a tax on tea: Now the new government was taxing whiskey -- a levy which helped eastern bankers but hurt the frontier. It'd be like Gov. Ed Rendell giving a huge subsidy for development in Philadelphia -- and paying for it with a tax on pierogies. (Don't get any ideas, Ed: Roads here still aren't that great.)

And locals felt little allegiance to the state or the country to start with. The region had already been the subject of border disputes between Virginia and Pennsylvania. Plus, "There was no state west of Pennsylvania," notes historian George Fleming's History of Pittsburgh, despite the limitless amount of land there. Thus, "As early as 1782 there had been much talk of secession from ... Pennsylvania at least, and possibly from the United States."

Such talk came to a boil after the whiskey tax was imposed, and farmers erupted into open rebellion. Tax collectors were tarred and feathered, threatened in newspaper ads. Their farms were torched, and at one point, rebels threatened to burn down Pittsburgh itself. The culminating battle took place on Bower Hill, the Scott Township estate of Gen. John Neville, who as the federal Inspector of Revenue was one of the region's most hated men. For two days in July 1794, Neville and his contingent of slaves (!) fought off a siege by some 500 rebels.

The rebels were goaded on by the likes of David Bradford, a sort of Machiavelli-on-the-Mon. As a lawyer and man of prestige, Bradford had much to lose if the uprising were crushed, and Fleming summarizes his pitch thusly: "Mr. Bradford tactfully drew attention to the remoteness of the [frontier] ... and accentuated the indifference, the studied indifference, of those in the east to those in the western counties. ... [He claimed] it would be a matter of indifference to the former if the latter ... establish[ed] their own form of government." And since the rebels were already in trouble for accosting tax collectors, he argued, why not take on the rest of the government too?

That may not sound convincing. But many rebels saw themselves as continuing the American Revolution's fight against centralized oppressive government. In fact, the Whiskey Rebellion may be an early reflection of the Pittsburgh mindset. It was a tailgate party with consequences: a mixture of booze-fueled resentment and resentment-fueled boozing, combined with a nascent sense of social justice and contempt for out-of-town jagoffs.

Unfortunately, the jagoffs won. President George Washington sent some 13,000 troops westward, and the rebels fled to the hills. Bradford himself fled to the Spanish territories of the Southwest, and the uprising sputtered out.

But as Solon and Elizabeth Buck write in The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania, the spirit behind it fueled the rise of Jeffersonian, and then Jacksonian, democracy. "The insurrection was crushed," the Bucks acknowledge, "but the radicalism of the western farmer was not thereby abated." In fact, far from splitting the nation apart, it became part of our national character.

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