Harry Truman left the White House in 1953, returning to Independence, Mo., to read and reflect on his presidency and the state of the world. His memoirs were published in two volumes in 1955 and 1956.
In February 1959, This Week Magazine, distributed in Sunday newspapers across the country, published an article by Truman, in which the former president described the six “great turning points” in American history, one of those being the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
It is that revolt by Western Pennsylvania farmers, incensed by a federal tax on the whiskey made from their grain, that we celebrate this week with the Whiskey Rebellion Festival in downtown Washington, which begins today.
The United States government in its early years struggled with enormous debt from the War of Independence. To address this, it imposed an excise tax on all stills and alcohol. Farmers in this part of the state were furious; the only economical way to ship their grain to the populated east was by reducing it to the much more transportable whiskey.
The farmers refused to pay the tax, and the federal agents who tried to collected it met fierce resistance. Facing the first test of the strength of the new federal government, President George Washington mobilized 13,000 troops, and the rebellion was quickly quelled.
David Bradford, the Washington lawyer and leader of the revolt, fled to Spanish West Florida – what is now Louisiana – never to return. The leaders were charged with treason, but only Bradford was never pardoned.
Washington residents can take great pride in the fact that the house Bradford finished building in 1788 still stands on South Main Street, open to the public as a museum of 18th-century life. It is our tangible connection to and our ownership of one of those great turning points in American history.
The David Bradford House, its garden and log-cabin kitchen, along with the LeMoyne House and garden, will be focal points of activities Saturday in the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, but they are just part of a much larger celebration. Following today’s Main Street Farmers’ Market, the Washington Symphony will perform at 8 p.m. under the big tent in the city lot directly across the street from the Observer-Reporter building. The city lots will be hopping with “blues, brews and barbecue” Friday night, while the annual Whiskey Rebellion Dinner goes on at the George Washington Hotel.
A parade at 10 a.m. kicks off Saturday’s events, which include historical theater, live music, carriage rides, children’s activities, trade and craft demonstrations and bus transportation to and from the Frontier History Center at Washington Park. The third History & Heritage Art Show will be on display in the George Washington’s Pioneer Grill. All these attractions, including the musical acts and fireworks Saturday night, are free.
The festival, now in its third year, grew out of the city of Washington’s bicentennial celebration in 2010. It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy to raise the money and organize such a large event, and the volunteers who have done it deserve our praise and support.
We here in Western Pennsylvania, once the very edge of the frontier, and specifically in Washington, are blessed with a long and rich history peppered with events critical to the development of the nation. The Whiskey Rebellion is worth remembering and worth celebrating.
And now is our opportunity.