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.