The Whiskey Rebellion

The current insurrection has put me in mind of that all but forgotten yet pivotal chapter in American history, so for the last several days I’ve been digging around and edumacatin’ myself about it. It’s a complex, deep, and endlessly fascinating story—almost impossibly rich in Americana, illustrative of so much that went into making America the great nation it once was. The parallels with current events are obvious; the names scattered throughout cannot help but resonate in the heart of any true patriot; the twists and turns of the story, compelling as the whole saga is, are almost too intricate to keep up with.

Alas, it also serves to remind of us just how very far America has fallen, how depressingly unlike our forefathers the succeeding generations grew to be. If the Whiskey Rebellion and other tales from our Founding era were still properly taught in schools, our sad degeneration and decline, both as a nation and as people, would almost certainly never have happened.

The Whiskey Rebellion (also known as the Whiskey Insurrection) was a tax protest in the United States beginning in 1791 and ending in 1794 during the presidency of George Washington, ultimately under the command of American Revolutionary war veteran Major James McFarlane. The so-called “whiskey tax” was the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government. Beer was difficult to transport and spoiled more easily than rum and whiskey. Rum distillation in the United States had been disrupted during the American War of Independence, and, for factors described below, whiskey distribution and consumption increased after the Revolutionary War (aggregate production had not surpassed rum by 1791). The “whiskey tax” became law in 1791, and was intended to generate revenue for the war debt incurred during the Revolutionary War. The tax applied to all distilled spirits, but consumption of American whiskey was rapidly expanding in the late 18th century, so the excise became widely known as a “whiskey tax”. Farmers of the western frontier were accustomed to distilling their surplus rye, barley, wheat, corn, or fermented grain mixtures to make whiskey. These farmers resisted the tax. In these regions, whiskey often served as a medium of exchange. Many of the resisters were war veterans who believed that they were fighting for the principles of the American Revolution, in particular against taxation without local representation, while the federal government maintained that the taxes were the legal expression of Congressional taxation powers.

Throughout Western Pennsylvania counties, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Resistance came to a climax in July 1794, when a U.S. marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. The alarm was raised, and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville. Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency, with 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation. About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned. Most distillers in nearby Kentucky were found to be all but impossible to tax—in the next six years, over 175 distillers from Kentucky were convicted of violating the tax law. Numerous examples of resistance are recorded in court documents and newspaper accounts.

The Whiskey Rebellion demonstrated that the new national government had the will and ability to suppress violent resistance to its laws, though the whiskey excise remained difficult to collect. The events contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States, a process already under way. The whiskey tax was repealed in the early 1800s during the Jefferson administration. Historian Carol Berkin argues that the episode in the long run strengthened American nationalism because the people appreciated how well Washington handled the rebels without resorting to tyranny.

I’ll limit my excerpting to the Wikipedia entry—by no means the only source out there, but a good encapsulation that’s very much worth a look.

When Washington left Philadelphia, then the US capitol, to review the mix-and-match militia force assembled to put down the rebellion once and for all, it was the one and only time a sitting US President actually led troops in the field. The overall commander of the force was one General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, father of another brilliant warrior who went on to play a pivotal role in American history himself.

24 of the Whiskey rebels wound up indicted for high treason, of which only ten were apprehended and tried. After a trial process lasting six months (!), just two of them were convicted. The sentence: death by hanging. A conciliatory and foresighted Washington, wishing to close the books on the matter for the good of the fledgling nation, pardoned both. He made a last-minute addition to his seventh Inaugural Address explaining his reasoning:

“The misled have abandoned their errors,” he stated. “For though I shall always think it a sacred duty to exercise with firmness and energy the constitutional powers with which I am vested, yet it appears to me no less consistent with the public good than it is with my personal feelings to mingle in the operations of Government every degree of moderation and tenderness which the national justice, dignity, and safety may permit.”

There’s much, much more to this story; as I said, it is incredibly rich and compelling, continuing to leave its mark on American history long into the future. To wit:

W. C. Fields recorded a comedy track in Les Paul’s studio in 1946, shortly before his death, entitled “The Temperance Lecture” for the album W. C. Fields … His Only Recording Plus 8 Songs by Mae West. The bit discussed Washington and his role in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, and Fields wondered aloud whether “George put down a little of the vile stuff too.”

WC Fields, Mae West, and Les Paul—along with Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Washington, and all the rest; homebrew whiskey, hangings, riots, tar and featherings, vigilante justice, liberty poles, militias, a citizen uprising inflamed by the eternal tension between individual liberty and government power. If that ain’t enough to pique your interest and stir your soul, you ain’t anything close to what I’d call an American.

9 thoughts on “The Whiskey Rebellion

  1. As a kid I read our history because it was action packed excitement.

    Still is. Freedom among men is never settled. One must constantly fight for it. The state will always try to take it.

  2. I remember learning about that in school in the late 1970’s. I went to a public school that still had standards then, and so, while my education probably lacks a lot of what people got in the 50’s and 60’s, we still did European and US History thoroughly. We still studied at least one Shakespeare play a year, at least one English classic from the likes of Dickens and the lot, an American Classic like Gatsby and a modern author or SciFi like Verne and Orwell and Heller and Heinlein and Asimov. Throw in a Tolstoy and others as well.
    It’s a nice refresher Mike. At some point I think I need to read one of the biographies of George Washington over again.

    1. My public high school kinda half-assedly covered one Shakespeare play. No science fiction except Ray Bradbury. I reviewed Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in tenth grade and what the teacher got out of it was that he was pushing for a military dictatorship. A couple of the English teachers had read Stranger in a Strange Land and that was all they knew of Heinlein or any other (relatively) hard science fiction writer.

      There’s a reason I dropped out of high school.

      1. I had an exceptional elementary school, a miserable junior high school, and a middle of the road high school. From the 7th grade until college almost all learning was done on my own, with a few exceptional teachers along the way (damn few).

        1. I was fortunate (due to my parents’ foresight in moving out of one of the big ‘consolidated’ urban school districts when I was one) and attended very good schools from elementary through high school. Award winning, among the best in the state, regularly sent graduates to big name universities including the Ivies, etc. But I know that the education I got was substantially worse than my father’s. I have a bunch of his school books from the 30s and 40s, from a nice but not wealthy school district in the midwest. What was considered an appropriate level of material for middle and high school back then is just so much more advanced than what I got, which is far better than what is being taught today. The difference in expectations for what the student should know and be able to do is just stark. History, literature, philosophy, math, ability to write both prose and poetry — it is all at a much higher level than anything demanded of today’s school kids.

      2. Stranger in a Strange Land was a big hit with hippies, they all wanted to be Valentine Michael Smith. Too bad they couldn’t speak Martian.

        The 5th grade teacher in my school was a friend of the family, and a hippie. When I was in 4th grade he gave me Stranger, probably hoping I’d become a hippie.
        Unfortunately for him, I wanted to be Jubal Harshaw so I became a conservative.

        I was wondering if potheads in CA would do some sort of marijuana-rebellion over super-high taxes. They went the bootlegger route instead.

  3. One of the libertarian novelists, I think L Neil Smith, wrote an alternate history in which Washington was hauled out and hanged for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion.

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