WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799). Autograph letter signed ("Go: Washington") as President to Major General Daniel Morgan (1736-1802), Carlisle, [Pennsylvania] 8 October 1794.
Three pages, 228 x 186mm (a few small spots, page four with small strip of paper affixed bearing 1864 inscription).
George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion—the first great test of federal authority: "if the minority, & a small one too,— is suffered to dictate to the majority ... there can be no security for life—liberty—or property" A strongly worded expression of Washington's deepening concern over the spread of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. Writing to an old military companion who will soon join him in the field, Washington bitterly attacks the anti-Federalist Democratic Societies (which he believed were actively fomenting the insurrection), condemns their actions as threats to the Constitution and calls for strong action to suppress the rebellion. Washington was about to undertake his last military command, a 15,000-man army preparing to march into the troubled counties of western Pennsylvania, where the rebellion was centered.
The 1791 excise law, drawn up by Hamilton, imposed a tax upon distilled spirits, a commodity which functioned on the frontier as a common medium of barter. Resistance to the tax and to its enforcement steadily increased in western Pennsylvania, culminating in mass defiance of the law, armed attacks on U.S. marshals and a threat to take over Pittsburgh. Washington and many Federalists considered the disorder a potentially serious test of the new government. With Washington in command, the militia from four states were summoned to put down the rebellion. Washington writes: "In the moment I was leaving the City of Philadelphia...your letter...was put into my hands. Although I regret the occasion which has called you into the field, I rejoice to hear you are there..." He explains that either at Fort Cumberland or at Bedford, "my ulterior resolution must be taken, either to advance with the Troops into the Insurgent counties of this state, or to return to Philadelphia for the purpose of meeting Congress..." He adds that "Imperious circumstances alone can justify my absence from the seat of government whilst Congress are in Session but if these...should appear to exist—the lesser must yield to the greater duties of my office, & I shall cross the Mountains with the Troops..." "I am perfectly in sentiment with you, that the business we are drawn out upon, should be effectually executed; and that the daring, & factious spirit which has arisen (to overturn the Laws, & to subvert the Constitution) ought to be subdued. --If this is not done, there is an end of, and we may bid adieu to all government in this Country; except mob, or club government; from whence nothing but anarchy & confusion can ensue; --for if the minority, & a small one too,– is suffered to dictate to the majority, after measures have undergone the most solemn discussions by the Representatives of the people, and their Will, through this medium, is enacted into Laws; there can be no security for life—liberty—or property; nor, if the Laws are not to govern, can any man know how to conduct himself with safety; for there never was a law yet made, I conceive, that hit the taste exactly of every man, or every part of the community –of course, if this be a reason for opposition, no law can be executed at all without force; & every man or set of men will, in that case, cut & carve for themselves. The consequences of which must be deprecated by every class of men who are friends to order, & to the peace & happiness of the country. But how can things be otherwise than they are, when clubs & societies [Democratic Clubs] have been instituted for the express purpose (though cloathed in another garb) by their diabolical leader G[ene]t whose object was to sow sedition;— & to poison the minds of the people of this country;— & to make them discontented with the government of it, and who have labored indefatigably to effect these purposes..." In retrospect the "rebellion" appears to have been a relatively minor affair, which mainly served to strengthen Hamilton and the Federalists over the frontier Democratic Republican Societies. Jefferson shrewdly summed it up when he wrote "an insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against, but could never be found." Published in Fitzpatrick, 33:522-524 (with some minor variant readings). Provenance: Major General Nathaniel P. Banks (1816-1894), Comdg Dept. Gulf, presentation inscription, from Julian Neville, affixed to verso, 1 January 1864) – Malcolm Forbes (his sale, Christie's, New York, 27 March 2002, lot 19).