Meriwether Lewis’s first experience in the military came in the Virginia state militia during the conflict known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Lewis joined up at age 20 in August of 1794, when President George Washington issued a proclamation calling out the militia to put down a revolt among the settlers in western Pennsylvania.
The “Whiskey Rebellion” sounds like an out-of-control frat party, but at the time, the conflict rocked the Federal government to its core. The name of the uprising comes from the Whiskey Act of 1791, an excise tax on whiskey that treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton imposed to help fund the national debt. Whiskey was an important cash and barter crop in western Pennsylvania, which lacked both economic infrastructure and good roads. Without any practical means to get their grain to market, Pennsylvania farmers found the most profitable use of grain was to ferment it and distill it into alcohol.
Hamilton’s tax effectively eliminated any hope the farmers had of making a profit. Adding insult to injury, many larger distillers based in the east paid their tax all at once with a flat upfront fee, while smaller farmers (mostly in the west) could not afford the flat fee and ended up paying a higher tax per gallon. Even more galling, the western farmers felt like they were being taxed for nothing. Indian raids had ravaged the western frontier, and settlers received little protection or help from the Federal government.
It was tea-party politics at its most contentious, and Hamilton’s tax was the last straw. Led by a man named David Bradford, farmers in western Pennsylvania started rioting in river towns, with enraged mobs erecting “liberty poles” and roughing up tax collectors. The attacks flared into real violence in July of 1794, when federal marshal John Neville arrived to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. More than 500 armed Pennsylvanians attacked Neville’s home in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Two protesters ended up dead and Neville’s house was burned to the ground. The federal government was facing a serious challenge to its authority.
When President Washington issued his proclamation calling for troops in 1794, Meriwether Lewis was one of those who responded. As a staunch Jeffersonian, Lewis was no fan of Alexander Hamilton and certainly no defender of the whiskey tax—but excitement, patriotism, and the siren song of adventure could not be ignored. Lewis joined a combined force of approximately 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, and New Jersey — as large as the army that had defeated the British — under the command of General “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, the sitting Governor of Virginia. President Washington himself, as the commander-in-chief, set out at the head of the troops to suppress the rebellion.
At issue was nothing less than the strength and authority of the U.S. government. For the very first time, the federal government was going to attempt to enforce order in a U.S. state. The result was an anticlimax. By the time the first troops reached Pittsburgh in October 1794, the ringleaders of the “Whiskey Boys” had already fled down the Ohio River. David Bradford escaped to Spanish territory and took up residence at Natchez. The militia arrested about 20 people and took them to Philadelphia for trial, with (in the words of historian John Bakeless) “minor brutality.” George Washington ended up pardoning the lot.
As for Lewis, he was far from disappointed with his army experience. On the contrary—he was hooked. Despite the Virginia militia being late on the scene and missing all the fun, Lewis had been promoted to ensign. He wrote home to his mother that the food was good: “We have mountains of Beef and oceans of Whiskey and I feel myself able to share it with the hartiest fellow in camp.” By November of 1794, most of the militia were already heading home, but Lewis volunteered remain with a small force near Pittsburgh, stationed there in case another outbreak of rebellious feeling broke out. Lewis wrote to his mother, “I am quite delighted with a soldier’s life.” He assured her that he was not missing the comforts of home and layed it on a bit thick with, “The general idea is that the Army is the school of debauchery but believe me it has ever proven the school of experience and prudence to your affectionate son.” He sent his regards to all the girls, announcing that he will bring “an Insergiant Girl to them next fall bearing the title of Mrs. Lewis.”
Lewis’s mother needn’t have worried about an insurgent girl, as her son was now a confirmed army man. In May 1795, Lewis was eligible for discharge, but volunteered for summer operations and transferred to the Regulars in the the 2nd Sub-Legion of Anthony Wayne’s army, retaining the rank of ensign. He wrote to his mother that he had had an epaulet sent from Philadelphia. Not long after this he was headed down the Ohio to join Wayne’s forces. He was assigned to the Chosen Rifle company, commanded by one William Clark.