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the whiskey rebellion

25 february 2010

Why can't I ever read books in order, as they come out? If I could just read three brand-new books a week, I would read the same number of books I do now, but I could dispense with all the backing and filling that comes with discovering interesting stuff that somehow went straight past me five years ago. And then I could write timely reviews, not just crabby entries in a book blog. Till I get with the program, I am doomed to sort through remainder piles and used-book stores and catalogs for gems like William Hogeland's Whiskey Rebellion.

I had always vaguely known about the Whiskey Rebellion. American history was taught in my childhood as a succession of uninteresting speeches between wars. There being little of interest between the Revolution and the War of 1812, something had to fill the vacuum of the early republican period to hold our interest, and that something was the spectacle of General Washington leading the troops on one last crossing of something or other.

Of course, the name of the episode would suggest that Washington was out this time not to lead a rebellion but to crush one. His generation was aggrieved by taxation; after they went legit, they discovered that about the only way for a government to subsist was by taxing things.

Alexander Hamilton, the character with the most sting in Hogeland's waspish narrative, decided that the obvious thing to tax was whiskey. He played up the public-health benefit of such a tax, the reduction in horse-and-buggy DUIs, that sort of thing. But the concept of a "sin tax" didn't really exist in days when tobacco harvested by human chattel slaves was the great American cash crop. Whiskey was comparatively benign, something that small farmers made in small stills in order to disinfect their drinking water. But whiskey had the advantage of shifting a tax burden onto powerless Western farmers in order to line the pockets of powerful Eastern creditors.

Hence the objections of the farmers of western Pennsylvania. The Rebellion had its beginnings in confrontations between moonshiners and revenuers, the staple of Appalachian civil disobedience ever since. But in the 1790s, such disputes threatened to break off the trans-Appalachian regions from the United States. Unless Hamilton could exert federal authority against these tax resisters, the whole project of a U.S. was fairly doomed.

So Washington and Hamilton rode out with the army – or rather, with an impressed force of militia from the middle states, including several crack New Jersey units who had taken exception to the whiskey rebels' characterization of them as a "watermelon army from the Jersey shore" (212).

By the time this majestic force reached Pittsburgh, the cradle of rebellion, the hard-core rebels had largely given up, backed down, or run away. A few people had been shot in local standoffs, but nobody felt like re-enacting Bunker Hill on the banks of the Monongahela.

The Whiskey Rebellion doesn't seem to have as much in common with the 21st-century Tea Party movement as I thought it might. If the Whiskey rebels were ideological, it was as progressives, not libertarians. They admired a millennial visionary named Herman Husband, who latched onto whiskey discontent to promote his leveling philosophy. The rebels had concrete economic grievances, and found themselves vindicated in part by the Jefferson administration, which repealed the whiskey tax and installed Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvanian sympathizer with some of the rebel aims, in Hamilton's role as Secretary of the Treasury.

Today's Tea Party folks do seem to share with the 1790s rebels a sense that they are paying too much tax and getting too little benefit in return. But in the 1790s, small distillers paid a lot of tax and got absolutely nothing in return from Washington. All today's Partiers seem to get are federally guaranteed bank accounts, Medicare, Social Security, great roads, and expensive foreign wars that they generally approve of. Yet they vaguely want to pay even less tax than they do (one of the lowest rates in the developed world) and . . . well, presumably keep getting all the good stuff anyway.

In Harrisburg several years ago, I met a distinguished elderly man wearing a nametag that said HELLO My Name Is George Leader. We chatted for a few minutes about the weather and his arthritis. Come to find that Mr. Leader had been governor of the testy state of Pennsylvania in the 1950s. As a liberal Democrat, Leader was determined to fund schools, parks, and other community services, well, liberally. He proposed a modest tax – I want to say a nickel, though in those days it was probably only a penny – on every bottle of soda pop sold in the Commonwealth.

Needless to say, the voters of Pennsylvania, with a long history behind them of resisting beverage taxes, ousted Leader. And ever since the 1950s, when progressive taxation in the U.S. receded from its high-water mark, we have expected our governments to give us more and more while taxing us less and less. It's part of an illness that seems to have affected corporations (let's cut staff and services, produce more, and make customers happier) and colleges (let's overwork teachers, cram more bodies into classrooms, "Taylorize" education, and produce both more "research" and better-trained graduates).

Yet this recent movement to do more with less is profoundly conservative, laissez-faire in its beliefs, a bit loony (the Laffer Curve), more than a bit intolerant. It bears little resemblance to the leveling, democratic, communalist ideas that circulated in disorganized form around the Whiskey events. As Hogeland points out, the rebels of the 1790s drew their inspiration from the Great Awakening, the ancient Diggers, the Quakers – not from Adam Smith. Books like Hogeland help us recover what was truly radical – if somewhat inchoate – about the American revolutionary past.

Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the frontier rebels who challenged America's newfound sovereignty. New York: Scribner, 2006.