The Whiskey Rebellion

Today's Trivia Question:

Who was the only sitting U.S. president to personally lead an army into battle?

If you answered "George Washington," then you earned yourself a shot! I'll wait while you go drink it. In fact, even if you guessed "Benjamin Franklin" (who was never president and never lead an army into anything except a tavern), you can still have a shot. What the heck, it's not like I'm buying.

You back now? Good. (And you thought learning about history was going to be boring.)

The Whiskey Rebellion was one of the more interesting episodes in U.S. history because it occurred at the intersection of two great American pastimes: making liquor and bitching about taxes.

Back in the early days of the Republic there was no income tax. The government didn't spend a lot of money (nobody had thought up Social Security or aircraft carriers yet), so they didn't need a lot of revenue. Most of what they required was gotten through tariffs on imports. Nobody liked paying taxes (remember, that was one of the things the colonists hated about the British), but an import tariff was indirect enough that nobody complained too much.

Well, as is so often the case, the government found themselves a little short when it came time to pay its bills. The Revolutionary War had cost a pretty penny and back then the Treasury couldn't just sell bonds to the Chinese; they actually had to come up with some real money. So in 1791, they slapped a tax on whiskey.

Although this move was no doubt highly offensive to the drunkards of the day, the people it really pissed off were the farmers. The highest cost a farmer on the American frontier (we're talking Western Pennsylvania or Ohio) faced was transportation. They were growing a lot of corn and wheat and other grains, and hauling all that stuff to market was expensive. So someone hit upon the genius idea of turning a lot of that grain into alcohol, thus concentrating its value in a much smaller volume of merchandise.

Since these farmers were essentially in the whiskey business — they even used sometimes booze for currency — the government's new tax hit them particularly hard. And as the colonists' experience with the Brits had so recently shown, when people were pissed off about taxes, a little rebellion could be a very effective tool. Anger and resentment starting brewing, and eventually reached a boil in 1794.

The farmers began to organize, pledging not to pay the tax, and harassing the tax agents when they tried to collect it. (You think it's hard being an IRS agent today? Back then they used to get tarred and feathered — literally!)

Eventually things escalated to the point where 500 armed men marched on the estate of General John Neville, the local tax inspector. Shots were exchanged, the general's house was burned down, and at least two men were killed.

Emboldened by this action, the farmers next gathered a militia of 6000 men who massed in Braddock's Field, a few miles outside of Pittsburgh. They paraded around, flexed their muscles, contemplated sacking Pittsburgh, and even threatened to secede from the Union.

Enough was enough. In the face of such a serious challenge to the authority of the new federal government (keep in mind this was only 7 years after the adoption of the Constitution), President George Washington pledged to take action. He got his old uniform out of mothballs and, with Alexander Hamilton by his side, led an army of 13,000 men towards Western Pennsylvania. This was a larger army than Washington generally led during the Revolutionary War — the man meant business.

By the time Washington and his troops arrived in Pennsylvania, the rebellious farmers had dispersed. They may have been stubborn, but they weren't stupid. A couple of the ringleaders were captured and tried, but were later pardoned. The army went home and Washington went back to Philadelphia (the capital at that time). The anger gradually faded away.

In the end, protesting the tax was as much a pretext for standing up to the government as a legitimate beef. And the farmers had seen what standing up to the Feds can get you. Besides, a tax on whiskey really just meant the consumer paid a little more for his jug — it wasn't worth getting killed over.

As a result of the events of the Whiskey Rebellion, it became abundantly clear that the new federal government was firmly in charge of the United States and its peoples, not just in the settled cities of the East, but in all the states and territories. There was a role for the state and local authorities, but the ultimate power lay in the hands of the Feds — and they were willing to use force to back that up.

We've been paying taxes on our whiskey ever since.

Note: In preparation for writing this essay, I pulled several volumes off the shelf to consult. The primary book I used was The Age of Federalism by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick (Oxford University Press, 1993). It's a well-regarded and learned treatise on early-American history. Just don't drop it on your foot.

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