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Act of Congress Attempting to Mitigate Brewing Whiskey Rebellion, Signed by Edmund Randolph
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all spirits which shall be distilled in the United States, in stills which shall not have been previously entered at some office of inspection, shall be liable, together with the stills or other vessels used in the distillation thereof, to seizure and forfeiture.” (sec. 2)

any person or persons, who shall counterfeit the certificates for, or the marks or numbers to be set upon any cask, vessel or package containing wines, teas, or foreign or domestic distilled spirits, or upon stills... shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of one hundred dollars.” (sec. 7)

That it shall and may be lawful for the judicial courts of the several states, and of the territory of the United States northwest of the river Ohio, and of the territory of the United States south of the river Ohio, to take cognizance of all and every suit and suits, action and actions, cause and causes, arising under or out of the laws for collecting a revenue upon spirits distilled in the United States, and upon stills, which may arise or accrue at a greater distance, than fifty miles from the nearest place established by law for holding a district court.” (sec. 9)

That the judicial courts of the several states, to whom, by this act, a jurisdiction is given, shall and may exercise all and every power… for the purpose of obtaining a mitigation or remission of any fine, penalty or forfeiture, which may be exercised by the judges of the district courts, in cases depending before them... ” (sec. 18)

EDMUND RANDOLPH. Document Signed as Secretary of State. An ACT making further provision for securing and collecting the Duties on foreign and domestic Spirits, Stills, Wines and Teas, June 5, 1794. Philadelphia: Childs and Swaine. Signed in type by George Washington as President, Ralph Izard as President pro tempore of the Senate, and Frederick Muhlenberg as Speaker of the House. 4 pp., 8 x 13⅜ in.

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Historical Background

Congress imposed a tax on whiskey in 1791 without fully considering that on the western frontier, surplus rye, barley, wheat, and corn was routinely distilled into whiskey which could be transported to distant markets or even used as a medium of exchange. Farmers resisting the tax included veterans who declared that they were fighting for the principles of the American Revolution. 

In May of 1794, federal district attorney William Rawle issued more than sixty subpoenas to Pennsylvania distillers who had not paid the tax.The distillers were required to travel to Philadelphia to appear in the federal district court, a journey most could not afford. Congressman William Findley, an Irish-born farmer representing southwestern Pennsylvania, urged relief.

Attorney General William Bradford later argued that while federal marshal David Lenox had been attempting to compel compliance, he did not intend to hold the trials in Philadelphia. In any case, hundreds of western Pennsylvania farmers attacked the home of a tax inspector in response.

This Act, passed on June 5, 1794, addressed some of the complaints. For instance, it allowed trials in state courts if the defendant was farther than fifty miles from the federal district court. However, many westerners continued to refuse to pay the tax and the rebellion grew.

Edmund Randolph (who succeeded Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State) was the only member of President Washington’s cabinet to oppose the use of force to impose compliance. In August, Washington sent peace commissioners to meet with the rebels but also summoned the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia militias into service. The force of nearly 13,000 militia marched westward in September and October. After consulting with the commanders in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Fort Cumberland, Maryland, Washington returned to the capital in Philadelphia, while Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton continued with the army. As the army marched into western Pennsylvania, the rebellion collapsed. A few rebel leaders were tried, but only two were convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. President Washington later pardoned them. The Whiskey Rebellion contributed to the formation of political parties. After Thomas Jefferson and his allies took control of the Presidency and Congress in 1801, the tax was repealed.

As Thomas Jefferson had done before, Randolph signed two official copies of each Congressional act for distribution to each of the fifteen States (Vermont joined in 1791 and Kentucky in 1792). Very few of the original signed Acts like this survive. After the Third Congress, the Secretary of State was no longer required to hand-sign these official copies.

Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), born to a prominent family in Williamsburg, Virginia, graduated from the College of William and Mary. His loyalist father returned to Britain, but Randolph joined the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to George Washington. He served until 1779, when he was chosen a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. He maintained his legal practice, and handled a number of legal issues for Washington.

Randolph trained John Marshall in the law, and when voters elected Randolph governor of Virginia in 1786, Marshall took over his practice.

Randolph was influential in the 1786 Annapolis Convention, and introduced the Virginia Plan in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Appointed by President Washington as U.S. Attorney General, one of the five original cabinet members, he provided a useful neutral voice in disputes between Jefferson and Hamilton. After succeeding Jefferson as Secretary of State, he opposed Jay’s Treaty, and pushed negotiations for what became Pinckney’s Treaty.

The British government, hoping to neutralize Randolph’s opposition to the Jay Treaty, provided his opponents with intercepted documents written by French Minister Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet. Federalists used the otherwise innocuous documents to claim that Randolph had disclosed confidential information and solicited a bribe. Washington affirmed his support for Jay’s Treaty, and with the entire cabinet gathered, demanded that Randolph explain the letters. Though innocent, Randolph’s standing with Washington was permanently weakened. He resigned in 1795, and returned to Virginia to practice law. In 1807, in John Marshall’s court, Randolph successfully defended Vice President Aaron Burr against charges of treason.