Who Were the First U.S. Citizens Convicted of Treason?

June 23, 2013 in Trivia

Whiskey Rebellion, believed by Frederick Kemmelmeyer

Pictured is George Washington and his troops near Ft. Cumberland, Md., before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Source: Unknown, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer.

Philip Vigol and John Mitchell from western Pennsylvania were convicted of treason for tax resistance, specifically for their participation in the Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s presidency. In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania were forced to pay a new tax when they began using their leftover grain and corn in the form of whiskey as a means of exchange. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton imposed the tax to increase the power of the federal government and to raise funds to assume war debts unpaid by certain states.

Protests in counties in that region responded to tax collection efforts using violence and intimidation against federal officials. Thousands took up arms ready to resist. Most notably, more than 500 armed men attacked Tax Inspector General John Neville’s home. Washington responded by sending both peace commissioners and a militia force to suppress the insurrection.

By the time the federal militia arrive, the armed men had disbanded and there was no direct confrontation. However, the federal court in Philadelphia issued 48 indictments against alleged participants in the tax resistance, including 31 specifically for treason. About 20 were actually arrested.

Ultimately in 1795 only two individuals, John Mitchell and Philip Vigol, were found guilty on the charge of treason. Both were sentenced to be hanged. Washington pardoned both however based on the fact that neither man had primary responsibility for instigating the resistance. Thus the two also became the first Americans to enjoy a presidential pardon.

In 1801, the whiskey tax was repealed, after Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency, following John Adams.