Whiskey Rebellion cases

Philip Vigol and John Mitchell

In the first few decades of its existence, during the last few decades of the Eighteenth Century, the geographic boundaries that defined Pittsburgh and the legal authority that secured those boundaries were still being defined. Particularly on the frontier, where the benefits that accrued from stable state authority were less in evidence, claims of federal authority over the citizenry were treated with suspicion. It is these circumstances that led to the Whiskey Rebellion and to the imposition of federal death sentences on Philip Vigol and John Mitchell, the first such sentences imposed in American history and the last such sentences imposed in Allegheny County history.

Tax Resistance as Treason: The Whiskey Rebellion Cases

The costs of fighting the Revolutionary War left the United States government and the governments of the states in significant debt. With new, limited, and largely untested powers of taxation, the federal government faced a critical fiscal challenge. One response devised by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was a federal excise tax on distilled spirits. Enacted in 1791, that tax was immediately unpopular and widely resisted, particularly along the western frontier of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, which became a state in 1792.

By 1792 and 1793, tax collectors on the frontier were being tarred and feathered, their homes were being burned, and taxes were not being collected. In the spring of 1794, the federal government forced a showdown by issuing subpoenas for tax resisters to appear for trial in Philadelphia; a move that compounded legal jeopardy with a substantial travel burden. When subpoenas were followed in July by writs compelling appearance, the revolt came to a head at the Bower Hill, Allegheny County home of tax collector John Neville, a wealthy planter and slaveholder. Over several days, a number of federal agents and rebels were killed, including Major James McFarlane, before federal forces were forced to withdraw. For the duration of the summer and into the fall of 1794, the rebels, under the leadership of prominent Washington County elected official, David Bradford, became increasingly radicalized. Talk of organizing a militia, gathering arms, even secession, was heard. Determined to establish federal authority, President Washington ordered the militias of several states to the scene, and then led some of them toward battle. The insurrection collapsed in October 1794.

In a powerful initial show of force, fifty-one men faced federal indictments for their roles in the rebellion, thirty-one for treason, with trials to be held in Philadelphia. Quickly tempering that force, only nine of those men were tried for treason and two of them – Philip Vigol and John Mitchell – were convicted and sentenced to death in 1795. Both men were described as simpleminded and neither was a central figure in the rebellion. They were the first people convicted of treason in American history. The German-born Vigol was convicted for a series of violent actions against tax collectors in three counties, including the burning of Neville’s home. Mitchell was convicted for “one continuing act” of treason that included robbing the United States mail, an action he took at the urging of David Bradford, and burning Neville’s home.

Further suggesting the tenuousness of federal authority and the reluctance to assert it fully, President Washington pardoned Vigol and Mitchell on November 14, 1795; the first men to receive presidential pardon in American history. Bradford, who had also been indicted for treason but who fled United States jurisdiction into Louisiana, was pardoned by President Adams in 1799.

After a brief and intense effort to enforce federal and military authority and the newly formed boundaries they protected, even at the cost of life, no additional capital charges for violations of military or federal law have been brought in Allegheny County history. The investment of resources to support and legitimate federal and military authority resulted in fewer challenges to those laws and a broader range of legal responses to those challenges. Though desertions continued until Fort Fayette went out of service after the War of 1812, they were fewer and were not treated as capital offenses. From 1795 forward, the only capital cases brought in Allegheny County were brought under state authority.