The year was 1794 and the French Revolution, now five years old, was in its bloodiest phase–the Reign of Terror. It began with the execution of Marie Antoinette and a string of thousands of others followed. Anyone critical to the ruling faction was beheaded with the recently invented guillotine. The leader of ruling party, Maximilien Robespierre claimed, “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.” However, his advocation of the Reign of Terror led to his demise in July 1794. Members of the National Convention turned against him, fearful they too would become victims, and he met the guillotine on 28 July 1794.
Besides fighting among themselves, the French were also doing battle with much of Europe in what are known as the French Revolutionary Wars. Alliances against France made the previous year led to battles with Spain, Britain, Austria, and Prussia in 1794.
Across the Atlantic, Americans were also fighting amongst themselves. In 1791, the newly formed American government had imposed an excise tax on whiskey and other spirits. The tax was very unpopular in far western areas because it hit the smaller stills particularly hard. This, and dissatisfaction with representation in the government, led to the Whiskey Rebellion.Â In these rural areas, excise tax collectors were threatened and in some cases, tarred and feathered, or worse. President George Washington called in federal troops to put down the violence in western Pennsylvania and twenty participants were arrested and brought to trial, but none were found guilty.
Residents in these rural areas were also fighting with Native Americans and a confederation of tribes had formed under Chief Little Turtle. President Washington sent General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to the area to confront this confederation and in June of 1794 his troops dealt a devastating defeat to the native forces. This defeat paved the way to the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which opened lands in areas like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois (including the future site of Chicago).
1794 was also the year that Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. His invention had a huge impact on the economy of the growing United States by increasing the amount of raw cotton that could be produced for use in the U.S. and then exported.
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