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The Whiskey Rebellion

From 03 March 1791 with the passage of an Act levying new duties on distilled spirits until June 1795 when trials were held for the men imprisoned for refusing to pay those duties a situation known as the Whiskey Rebellion engulfed the western counties. Westmoreland, Washington and Fayette Counties became a virtual war zone. Bedford County, though not the scene of any destruction, played a unique role in the Rebellion. Approval was given on 19 September 1794 by the Pennsylvania Assembly for Federal troops to suppress the Rebellion. President George Washington led those Federal troops to accomplish that mission. Two bodies of troops rendezvoused at Bedford County before heading farther west. 'Light Horse' Harry Lee brought troops westward from Carlisle while George Washington brought a body northward from Fort Cumberland. The armies arrived at Bedford on 19 October. President Washington took up lodging in the stone dwelling then owned by David Espy during the time that he remained at Bedford.

The distillers of the counties of western Pennsylvania were outraged at the new tax, feeling that they were being unfairly singled out. Protests were made throughout the region and eventually, in September and October, the new Federal government made the decision to send a Federal army to quell the rebellion. It was the first and only time in the history of the nation that the President functioned as the title suggests: commander-in-chief. It is believed that the troops were paraded in the fields to the west of the town. Washington reviewed the troops that evening and then took up lodging in the town at the stone house owned by David Espy. Despite claims that he 'slept' in the Jean Bonnet Tavern and two or three other taverns in Bedford, but there is no evidence that he stayed anywhere other than the Espy House.

It is believed a liberty pole was raised outside of the stone structure of the Old Forks Tavern owned by Jean Bonnet in the days prior to the arrival of the Federal army. The purpose of raising a liberty pole was to signal that anyone who wanted to speak out against the current authority could do so at that place. The raising of a liberty pole at the tavern indicates that it hosted county residents who opposed the Whiskey tax.

The claim has been made that William Hartley's wife Susanna entertained President Washington with games of backgammon when he was on his return trip after leading Federal troops to Bedford County to suppress the rebellion of western Pennsylvania whiskey distillers in 1794. Washington wrote a letter to Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, with the dateline: Hartley's, Tuesday Evening, which would therefore lend credence to the claims made about Mrs. Hartley entertaining the President.

One final thing needs to be mentioned. At this time and place we look at President Washington arriving at Bedford with a Federal army as being something grand. The idea evokes images of adoring townsfolk lining the streets and cheering for the uniformed visitors. But that image dissipates when you think about the fact that there were whiskey distillers in Bedford County who were being affected by the excise tax. The townsfolk might have lined the streets, but they more than likely jeered at and taunted the President and his army.