Digital History
Whiskey Rebellion
Digital History ID 273

Author:   William Paterson


John Barnet was among several Whiskey rebels arrested by federal authorities and tried for treason. His acquittal had profound consequences for the future. As a result of this case, the country adopted a very narrow definition of treason, which was limited to "levying war" against the United States. In the future, treason prosecutions would not be used to silence dissent.

The following selection is drawn from the notes that William Paterson (1745-1806), an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, kept during the trial. Before President Washington named Paterson to the high court, he had served a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and as New Jersey's governor. At the Constitutional Convention, Paterson had introduced the New Jersey Plan, which proposed a federal government consisting of three branches: an executive, a judiciary, and a one-house legislature in which all states would be represented equally.

At the time that Paterson took these notes, he was sitting as a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Until 1869, Supreme Court justices also sat as judges on the federal appeals court.


This brings us to consider the particular case of the p[risone]r at the bar; and to examine how far he was traitorously concerned. The traitorous purpose is a necessary ingredient. The mind of the prisoner must be manifested by some overt act, and it is your province, gen[tleme]n, to collect or infer the intention from the testimony laid before you. A person may be present from curiosity or from accident, but if he does not by his conduct indicate a traitorous spirit or intention, he is not to be criminated. If on the other hand it appears, and you are of opinion, that the pris[one]r knew of the object, that it was, to compel the revenue officer by intimidation or force, to resign, to suppress the office of excise, to resist and present the execution of the law, or to procure its repeal by intimidation, by violence, by numbers, by an armed force, and if he willingly embarked and aided in the insurrection, then his guilt rises into treason.

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