Washington’s Rules for Rebellion

Rebellions are a natural phenomenon. Until the millennium arrives, all governments will, from time to time, have to handle violent challenges to their authority. One purpose of having a democratic system is to minimize rebellion by ensuring that the people are heard. The desire to be elected and re-elected will ensure that government has the pulse of the people. Ballots and not bullets should rule, or, as Jefferson put it to John Adams, “we use no other artillery than goose quills.” For the people to ensure that they are heard they need to make noise, but there’s a clear line between peacefully making oneself heard and attacking persons or property. That line, will, however, be crossed from time to time. The question is what to do about it.

What do rebellions tell us? A rebellion is, to quote Jefferson again, “like a storm in the Atmosphere.” They are a sign of disorder. Perhaps a better metaphor is that they are like a fever. They are a signal that there is something like a sickness in the body politic. People will always complain, and they often will have reason. But when they reach critical mass, it seldom happens that there is not somewhere behind it a legitimate claim. Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable. That does not mean that the proximate complaint is, in fact, the true problem. Especially in a country with a long history of relative domestic calm, to see regular, recurring violence against persons and/ or property, as the US has seen since last May, is probably a sign that something is not right. The question is what to do about it.

Solutions must be tailored to particular problems. There are, however, general rules one might consider. We could do worse, and probably will, than to consider some lessons from the first serious uprising under the Constitution, the Whiskey Rebellion. In that case, as in so many others, President Washington offered something like a clinic in republican self-government. Herewith a few rules of action in such case.

Rule 1: Prevention

As noted, the purpose of having regular elections is to ensure that as much as possible, the government has the pulse of the people. Similarly, the reason why the Congress is Article I is that ensuring that the laws and rules under which citizens live are negotiated in the political process, and not in other, less democratic parts of government. The focus on the legislature as the heart of the system was, to a great degree, the line separating Whig and Tory in the American Revolution. Interestingly one of the few places in the official record of the Constitutional Convention where Washington contributed to the debate, rather than merely presiding over it was on the last day, when he supported reducing the size of Congressional districts from 40,000 to 30,000 people per representative, for “The smallness of the proportion of Representatives had been considered by many members of the Convention, an insufficient security for the rights & interests of the people.” He also noted that such a change would probably reduce popular criticism of the Constitution.

All governments rest on public opinion. As Madison noted, “public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” And Madison realized that it was important to ensure that the people supported the new government. That is one reason why Madison changed his mind about a Bill of Rights for the U.S. Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, he agreed with James Wilson that because rights come from God and not from the King, the U.S. didn’t need a Bill of Rights. Yet Madison would soon become the Father of the Bill of Rights, probably even more than he was the Father of the Constitution. Why? The principal objection to the Constitution was the lack of a Bill of Rights. At Virginia’s ratifying convention, Madison pledged on his word as a man of honor, that he would work to ensure that a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. And he was as good as his word. He also ensured that the actual Bill of Rights that was passed minimized the real potential dangers in a badly written one, or one that included items that would have crippled the new federal government. The result? It was one reason why the U.S. Constitution went rapidly from approval from probably a bit over 50% at ratification to overwhelming approval.

President Washington himself tried to keep abreast of public opinion. One reason why he made sure to tour all the states in the first couple years after he was elected was both to generate support by the mere fact of his trip through the states, and to get in touch with the people throughout the Union to ensure he understood public opinion. (He had to make a separate trip to Rhode Island because they took so long to ratify the Constitution. One happy result was the famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport). Despite these efforts, Washington was, in the end, misinformed. Washington traveled up and down the coast. But the U.S. had vast inland territories, which were rapidly being settled, often by relatively new arrivals from Europe. Washington inquired about conditions on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains, but he did not get accurate information. The settlers were much angrier about the Whiskey Tax than he was told. And the rebellion swelled.

Step 2: Preemption

Try to defuse the situation before things get out of hand. If there are rumblings, try to cut them off as soon as possible. That’s what Washington did in the case of the Newburgh Conspiracy, as Natalie Taylor and Tillman Nechtman recently noted here. But in what order ought one to work?

First, one has to note that the protesters are crossing a very clear line as soon as they move from shouting, demonstrating and the like, with minimal pushing and shoving, to direct attacks on persons and/or property. Discontent is inevitable in every country, and public discontent is inevitable in every free country. As Madison put it in Federalist 10 “liberty is to faction as air is to fire.” The question is the nature of the discontent and the action taken by those who are not happy with public policy. The 18th century was a more violent time than our own. Fisticuffs, tarring and feathering, and worse were not all that unusual. The republic was designed to transform those violent rituals into more peaceful ones, and, to a remarkable degree, it did so. The republic would, in Hamilton’s words in the first Federalist, produce government by “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” The key to that transformation was the rise of government by public discussion and public reason. Political violence is an attack on that system.

Hence the next step is public reason. On September 15, 1792, as the rebellion was gaining steam, Washington issued a “Proclamation” addressing the gestating rebellion. This Proclamation was an attempt to put forth the reasons why a violent response to the Whiskey Tax was unacceptable. He began, “Whereas certain violent and unwarrantable proceedings have lately taken place, tending to obstruct the operation of the laws of the United States for raising a revenue upon Spirits distilled within the same, enacted pursuant to express authority delegated in the Constitution of the United States.” Note the way Washington presented the issue. The tax is legitimate—“pursuant to the express authority delegated in the Constitution.” The “violent and unwarrantable proceedings” tend “to obstruct the operation of the laws.” The republic cannot be a government of laws, and not of men if such violent attacks on those who enforce the law are accepted. The resort to violence is, in other words, an attack on the foundation of the republic. These “proceedings,” he continued, “are subversive of good order, contrary to the duty that every Citizen owes to his Country and to the laws, and of a nature dangerous to the very being of Government.” In other words, Washington is trying to draw the rebels up, reminding them of their duties as men and citizens, as he had appealed to the enlightened self-interest of the would be Newburgh Conspirators. And, he added, the President doth “most earnestly admonish and exhort all persons whom it may concern, to refrain and desist from all unlawful combinations and proceedings whatsoever, having for object or tending to obstruct the operation of the laws aforesaid.”

That proclamation didn’t work, and things escalated in the West. The rebels started attacking would-be revenue collectors more actively. Not only that, they also attacked anyone who had the temerity to comply with the law. Washington tried a second warning that was more explicit that he would have to send in troops to end the insurrection. In August, 1794, he issued another Proclamation. This time he called up militia to prepare to subdue the Rebellion. The language of this proclamation largely tracks that of the first. In 1792 Washington pointed what he characterized as a good faith effort of the government to ensure that the law was reasonable. In 1794, he pointed to “the endeavors of the legislature to obviate objections to the said laws, by lowering the duties and by other alterations conducive to the convenience of those whom they immediately affect.” That point was, however, much disputed in the back country. If there was a mistake in Washington’s response this was it. If a large groups of citizens feels that their point of view is being ignored, and they have reached the point of active rebellion, then telling them that they’re wrong is more likely to generate anger than it is to generate submission to law. It is like telling someone who is having a hissy fit to “calm down.” And the rebels did not disperse.

Step 3: Resolution

If words and the threat of bringing in troops is insufficient to stop the violence, then it is time to bring troops in. And in late September 1794, Washington officially Proclaimed that the Counties of Western Pennsylvania were in open rebellion and he determined to use troops to end the uprising. At the start, Washington explains his thinking. “I thought it sufficient, in the first instance, rather to take measures for calling forth the Militia, than immediately to embody them.” Yet that proved to be insufficient. Hence, he notes, that “the moment is now come, when the overtures of forgiveness with no other condition, than a submission to law, have been only partially accepted—when every form of conciliation, not inconsistent with the being of Government, has been adopted without effect.” Note again the public reason. Washington is explaining that these attacks cannot be reconciled with the very “being of Government.” That is why a military response is necessary. It was necessary to defend the republican experiment, “as the people of the United States have been permitted under the divine favor, in perfect freedom, after solemn deliberation, and in an enlightened age, to elect their own Government; so will their gratitude for this inestimable blessing be best distinguished by firm exertions to maintain the Constitution and the Laws.”

When one does use force against one’s own citizens, one has to be smart about it. That entails selecting the target well, and using the right amount of force.

To state the obvious, no one likes to be attacked, and no one likes to see their neighbors attacked. In our day, images of police or National Guard attacking citizens are often used by clever organizers as recruitment tools. And it is often a tactic of radicals to undertake attacks that seem, to the uninitiated, to be minimally provocative, but which, in fact, need a strong response (think of using fireworks, which can spark larger fires, and laser pointers, which can cause permanent blindness, in Portland. Ditto “doxing” police officers who work to stop riots.  To prevent that, governments send in officers in unmarked cars, and officers with no name tags). What’s the goal? To make recruits by convincing people who might be somewhat sympathetic but disinclined to radicalism that the government is run by thugs who cannot be trusted. Hence sending in a small force, which is likely to result in pitched battles, is not usually a good idea. It is as likely to increase alienation from government as it is to restore lawful order. Curfews keeping everyone off the streets after dark seem to have worked much better this past summer.

Washington knew what he was doing. He gathered an overwhelming force of nearly 13,000 militia from New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Moreover, Washington selected his target well. Anger at the Whiskey Tax, and resistance against it, was pervasive in the backcountry. Yet Washington focused on the part of the rebellion that took place in Pennsylvania. That was, perhaps, the best place for the strategy to work.  One has to be careful with such a strategy. It can backfire. The British had tried to focus on the rebellion in Boston after the Tea Party with the Coercive Acts of 1774. Rather than subduing Boston, the acts united the backcountry of Massachusetts with Boston, and the other colonies with Massachusetts.

The Whiskey Rebels felt that they were not being represented. They sometimes pointed back to the resistance to the Stamp Tax. There was, of course, one significant difference: they were, in fact, represented.

Washington himself rode to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, demonstrating that he was in charge. Given Washington’s fame, and the love so many Americans had for him, reviewing the troops was also a way to provide an additional shot of confidence that these measures were necessary. Washington’s presence in Carlisle also allowed him to manage the troops himself, minimizing the chance that they would be zealous and abusive in their efforts to stop the rebels.  The troops went into the countryside, and the rebellion dispersed. It was ended more than it was actively put down. And that was a very important part of the success of Washington’s strategy. No martyrs were made, and minimal actual attacks by the militia on civilians. Hamilton wanted to make an example of some of the men who were caught in the end, to try them and execute them. Washington, almost certainly correctly, realized that that was a bad idea. He pardoned those who had been sentenced to death for their part in the insurrection. They would not become fallen heroes for the next wave of rebels to honor. By singling out the part of the Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, Washington had, in fact, made an example of one group of rebels, even if he had also minimized actual violence. This was an important step. The U.S. was a new country. The nations of Europe were waiting for the republic to fail and/ or for the Union to break up. By ending the rebellion, Washington demonstrated that the government was capable of being a functioning government.

Step 4: Restoration

The problem was not yet solved. If people are disinclined to rebel in large numbers unless there are genuine injustices going on, one must address the underlying problems, even if one cannot be perceived to be doing so under duress. Aspirin alleviates fever, but does not end it until the disease has passed. Similarly, if a critical mass of people is angry enough to take up arms, they can, temporarily, be convinced to go back home.  But if the deeper problems that spurred the uprising remain, then it’s just a matter of time till clever, ambitious, and designing men gin up another rebellion. It is, in other words, a bad idea not to remove the factors that made the region a tinderbox in the first place.

In some ways this is the most difficult step. Why? Partly due to our emotions. After a battle we are angry at the other side. Magnanimity after victory is difficult. And there are always men, like Hamilton, who are eager to punish those they blame for the rebellion. They cannot see past their anger at the attacks on the laws, and perhaps on members of their political tribe to see what is truly best for the republic. It’s easy to dismiss their desires as wicked or misguided. Yet all governments rest on public opinion, a democratic republic more than any other. Public opinion is a political fact; it must be accommodated if there is to be no spiraling cycle of violence.

But the proximate cause of the rebellion and the deeper causes of the discontent are not always the same. To be sure, taxing whiskey was hard on people in the West because whiskey sometimes served as a medium of exchange in a region where coin was scarce. But there were deeper problems, and they could be addressed, and Washington ensured that they were addressed.

The Whiskey Rebels felt that they were not being represented. They sometimes pointed back to the resistance to the Stamp Tax. There was, of course, one significant difference: they were, in fact, represented. The colonists had zero representatives in Parliament. The West did have representatives. The trouble was that they were outvoted. All laws, however, will be unpopular in some places, and all taxes will bear harder on some than on others. In the West they sensed that they were poorer than those elsewhere, and yet this tax seemed to single them out. The requirement that they pay in hard currency, and other provisions seemed to be particularly unfair. That was just the luck of the draw, even if it was galling. There were also deeper problems.

They had to pay taxes that were hard for them to pay, and yet they were not, they felt, enjoying the benefits the U.S. Constitution was supposed to bring. They were in danger of attacks by Native Americans; the British were still in Fort Detroit, from which location they could provide guns and ammunition to Natives, and stir them up against the Americans, and, finally, Spain had closed the Mississippi to U.S. commerce, so they could not get their whiskey or other goods to market. In other words, they were paying for a government, but not enjoying the protections of life and limb that government exists to provide.  The result was they felt that they were being told to shut up and follow their “betters” the would be “gentlemen” who ran the government, and yet these “great men” were not, in fact, ensuring their safety and, hence, their ability to pursue happiness. It was as if the government was saying, “shut up, peasant; pay your taxes and be grateful we even allow you to vote. This country is not for you.” Many of these settlers were relatively recent arrivals in North America, and many, perhaps most of the others had been under the jurisdiction of King George, before July, 1776. Their loyalty was up for grabs. In this context, it’s worth remembering that in 1789 Andrew Jackson pledged his allegiance to the King of Spain. Perhaps that was just a means of allowing his goods to get to market, but even so it does demonstrate how fluid allegiance was in the West at the time.

In the early 1790s, John Adams had noted that the basic political passion was the desire to be loved, or, at least, to be recognized and acknowledged.

When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one, who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger, who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart; to the history of human life and manners; and to the rise and fall of empires. To feel ourselves unheeded, chills the most pleasing hope, damps the most fond desire, checks the most agreeable wish, disappoints the most ardent expectations of human nature.

A significant portion of Americans in the West felt unrecognized, and unconsidered. That feeling is often at the heart of rebellion. Rebellions are often, in some ways, efforts of people who feel disrespected to put themselves on display, or to do so vicariously by associating themselves in their own minds with an heroic seeming Tribune who is himself conspicuous. To cite another version of this phenomenon, consider the story of Babel. (I’ll cite the King James translation, as it was a commonly used one in the Founding era). “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The people want a “name,” so they build a tower to put themselves on display. God does not approve, so he disperses men across the earth, and multiplies languages so that there is no universal communication. What is the result? There are now many communities around the globe, and there are now many more places in which men might seek recognition from their fellow men. A consolidation works the other way, and provokes a more intense competition for status and recognition. One purpose of our federal system is to allow for just such a multiplication of communities, and dispersing political competition.

Back to the back country. These were still, in a sense, frontier regions. They were in the process of setting up their local institutions which could provide a field for the settlers’ ambitions on any significant scale. The area still had not achieved a regular republican order.

Between 1794 and 1796, Washington addressed many of the underlying problems. He sent troops and they effectively secured the region for U.S. settlers. (One of the tragedies of U.S. history is that the creation of our republic of free and equal citizens, something which we are still working on, seemed to require the end of Native sovereignty over territory in most of North America. The 1795 Grenville treaty made that official in most of the old Northwest.) Also in 1795, the U.S ratified the deeply unpopular Jay Treaty. It was unpopular because it represented, in some ways, a knuckling under to Britain. Yet it also made Britain’s exit from Fort Detroit official (after the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, it no longer had much strategic use for the British). And, precisely because the Jay Treaty seemed to make the U.S. the junior partner of the British, giving the British most favored nation status, even as the U.S. did not get the same respect in Britain’s possessions, it scared the Spanish into making a good settlement of the questions in the Southwest—the Mississippi River would now be open for U.S. trade, and the border settlement was quite favorable to the U.S. History is often full of ironies. And political life is often unfair. Few Americans made a direct connection among these actions and the treaty with Spain, and, beyond that, the larger prosperity those treaties fostered.  Those goods would seldom, in the public mind, be connected with the hated Jay Treaty. In other words, having taken necessary actions for the good of the republic, Washington’s reputation nonetheless suffered.

The key point is that, thanks to these actions, Washington addressed many of the underlying grievances that had made the West fertile soil for rebellion. Moreover, it was clear that the government was, in fact, listening, for they now had many fewer worries about being attacked by Natives, and they could ship their goods down to New Orleans, and from there out to the rest of the world.


Washington’s response was measured and thoughtful. The goal of democratic-republicanism, a new thing in his day, was to ensure that the people’s voice is heard regularly and respected in the centers of power. It is also designed to show respect to citizens across the country, and make them feel that they are, in fact, being heard. A rebellion is often a sign that that system is breaking down, or that, in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, has not yet truly been set up.

The purpose of the system being to replace bullets with ballots, any sustained political violence has to be crushed. But a republican statesman cannot allow anger at the disorder to obscure the likelihood that there are real grievances at work. Hence, after subduing the rebellion, and, if possible, making no martyrs for the cause, he needs to find a way to address whatever legitimate grievances are at work, or the effort to put down the insurrection will only be a temporary reprieve from political violence, and the danger to republican practice will only increase.

As we know from the Civil War not all grievances can be addressed. Some disagreements grow from incommensurable views and desires.  As Jefferson noted at the time of the Missouri Crisis, when there is “A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political” that divides the nation, then the problem is not that there is a temporary sickness in the system, but, instead, that there are, essentially, two incompatible republics. But such cases, thankfully, are relatively rare, provided our leaders recognize and respect public opinion, and try to meet it where it is, and treat public opinion with the respect it deserves if citizens are to be respected as equals, rather than trying to censor it and to shut it down.