America’s Long Journey: The Whiskey Rebellion

America’s Long Journey: The Whiskey Rebellion

I know that “The Whiskey Rebellion” seems to promise an account of a drunken brawl, but it involved a serious conflict of principles and it had lasting consequences.

The rebellion stemmed from a tax conceived by Alexander Hamilton. As Washington pointed out in his farewell address, expenditures require taxes, and taxes are never popular. But some are more unpopular than others, and this was one of those.

Hamilton was largely responsible for the decision by the First Congress to assume not only the outgoing government’s debt of $54 million, but also the state debts of $25 million. This cleaned up the nation’s credit and (as Hamilton calculated) gave the moneyed classes a vested interest in the continuance of the new government, because they bought the interest-bearing bonds that funded the debt. But then there came a need for new sources of income, to pay the interest on the bonds.

The government’s primary source of revenue in those days was the tariff – duties on imports. But they were already as high as Hamilton thought feasible, so he proposed an excise tax on domestically produced distilled spirits. The bill passed in March, 1791. It was the first direct tax by the new government on a domestic product.

Hamilton seems to have thought he was imposing a sort of luxury tax. But for farmers living west of the mountains, distilling corn into whiskey was the only practical way to turn a bulky perishable item into a compact, easily transported, non-perishable item. Besides, on the frontier whiskey was often used as a substitute for cash, which meant that an tax on whiskey was, in effect, an income tax. And, for reasons we won’t go into, the law favored larger-scale distillers at the expense of smaller ones. (Big surprise, right?) and besides all that, the farmers maintained that the whiskey tax was taxation without representation. So from the first moment that federal marshals began coming around to collect the new tax, they met resistance.

Opponents of the tax met in Pittsburgh and sent a petition for redress of grievances to the state and federal governments, and the following year the tax was reduced. But the law remained, although violence inflicted on tax collectors and other officials rendered it largely uncollectable. In August, 1792, a second Pittsburgh convention, consciously harking back to Revolutionary War precedents, raised liberty poles, formed committees of correspondence, and to some degree paralyzed the court system. Those cooperating with federal tax officials often had their stills destroyed or their barns burned. In late November 1793, a wealthy tax collector was forced at gunpoint to surrender his commission. President Washington offered a reward for the arrest of the assailants, but got no takers.

In 1794, matters came to a boil. In May, the federal district attorney issued subpoenas to more than 60 distillers who had not paid the tax, and sent a U.S. marshal to serve them. In the resulting confrontation, a “rebel” was fatally shot, a miniature siege of the tax collector’s fortified house ensued, and yet another “rebel” was shot, this time while under a white flag. The spirit of rebellion grew. People talked of declaring independence from the United States.

President Washington asked his cabinet’s opinion on how to deal with the crisis. Secretary of State Randolph urged reconciliation. The rest of the cabinet recommended using force. Washington sent peace commissioners to negotiate with the rebels, and asked the governors of four states for militia. In October, he himself rode out from Philadelphia at the head of a sizeable force of 13,000 men, and the insurrection collapsed. By the time the army arrived, the farmers had gone home. No one was hurt, only 20 were arrested, and all of these were acquitted or pardoned.

So how much of this came about because of the general collision of forces (coincidence) and how much because Hamilton pushed it that way (conspiracy)? Those arguing coincidence say that any other interpretation overstates Hamilton’s control over events. Those arguing conspiracy say that Hamilton intentionally provoked the uprising to give the new federal government an excuse to use military force, to show the people that the government was in charge. Despite the wisdom of the saying that “one should never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity,” the circumstantial evidence points more to intent than to mere coincidence. But if Hamilton got what he wanted in the short run, it backfired badly in the slightly longer run.

The public apparently approved the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion. A major reason why the Constitution had been approved had been that people were tired of government too weak to enforce its laws. But the resentment behind the Whiskey Rebellion was not confined to Pennsylvania. The tax was resisted in western counties of every state along the mountains, from Maryland to Georgia, and in Kentucky, the only state wholly west of the mountains, the tax couldn’t be collected anywhere. Once Westerners gave up the idea of military resistance, they turned to political resistance. The emerging Republican Party spread among them like wildfire. They couldn’t quite turn out the Federalists in 1796, but they succeeded four years later, and forever. (When the Republicans came to power, they repealed the tax. As we have seen, Gallatin funded the government by strict economy, instead.)

So, if the rebellion showed that the new government was strong enough to enforce its edicts, it also strengthened distrust between east and west, and between rich and poor, and helped contribute to the formation of the First Party System. Consequences, mostly unintended. And isn’t that a repeated theme throughout this long glance backward? Where we stand today is the result of many consequences built on circumstances that were themselves consequences.

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