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Conversations with America: Whiskey Rebellion

Updated on May 5, 2011

Copper Kettles and Federalists

Binaries of thesis-antithesis appeal through their simplicity, and thus, even though they falsify facts, they endure: black-white, good-evil, active-passive. One of the enduring, disturbing binaries of American life is that of 'real' Americans and all the rest of the nation's citizens. This division of the populace began early, playing a role in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

The Whiskey Rebellion arose as a protest of taxation in the new Constitutional nation. The tax in question was imposed on whiskey by the Washington administration in 1791, at the especial urging of Alexander Hamilton, in order to help repay the national debt. In many frontier areas whiskey was a mainstay of the local economy. Transporting bulky wheat was more expensive than transporting whiskey, and whiskey was more profitable. Whiskey also formed a ready item of exchange in local economies, acting as a form of currency. Residents of such communities, especially in four western Pennsylvania counties, opposed the tax as an unjust imposition in which the national burden was placed on their shoulders, threatening their ability to keep their homes and support their families. By the terms of the excise legislation, farmers were to pay the tax before sale of their product, risking the slim margin of profit they obtained at market.

Alexander Hamilton's "Report on the Western Country" of August 1794 established the tone of the Federalist view of the insurrection. The progression of western Pennsylvanians protests from peaceful appeals for redress and non-compliance, to violence and arson, was ignored in favor of stressing the fact of opposition itself as traitorous in intent and consequence. The specific grievances of the Pennsylvanians were ignored, and the violent actions of 1794, to which Washington and Hamilton responded with 15,000 troops, directly linked to the peaceful protests and discussions of 1791. When the grievances of the Pennsylvanians were disposed of as unreasonable, unjust means of justifying rebellion, as Hamilton presented them, an alternative cause for the rebellion had to be found, and this was provided for by French agents and their anti-Federalist friends, even though the opposition to the excise tax in Pennsylvania did not divide easily into anti-Federalist rebels against Federalist loyalists.

The Constitution was new, as was the Washington administration and the powers of the executive allowed under the Constitution's terms. This was the period during which actions by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the new government would serve to define future expectations of appropriate and permissible behaviors. What was an American President to be? George Washington would provide the model. How would legislators behave at the national level and serve their constituents? How much power would the individual states retain? What was the breadth of the Supreme Court's discretion? All of these questions would be answered in time by the actions of legislators, members of the executive, and the court. A new government, according to the Federalists, was threatened in its entirety by the non-compliance of farmers protesting the whiskey tax, for to fail to comply was to deny the right of the government to impose the tax and the authority of administration officers to collect it.

The Federalists do appear to have been correct in this: western Pennsylvanians objected to the whiskey excise in part through activities consciously modeled on colonial protests against the Stamp Act and other taxes imposed by the British government against the interests of the colonists. There was a revolutionary tenor to their appeals, as much as there had been a revolutionary tenor to colonial objections to British actions before the Revolutionary War. However, many of those opposing the tax rejected violence, concentrating instead on appeals to the public, the state legislature and Congress. It was the failure of these appeals, more than the existence of the tax itself, combined with a collective sense of grievance that fueled the rebellion. In addition, tax officials targeted Democratic-Republican clubs, or at least were perceived to do so, giving the excise tax officers and policy a partisan cast.

The actual violence of the insurrection was minimal. Excise officers were attacked and diverted from their goals. The home of a district tax man was burned to the ground. Considering the size of the crowds involved, it is more surprising that so few incidents of violence occurred than that such incidents did occur. The tax protestors were not acting in secret; they published their meetings and decisions in thePittsburgh Gazette. They did not form a secret cabal, but publicly voiced serious objections to an active government policy. They had wide local support. The insurrection itself may have been avoided by authorities more willing to engage this frontier population and their specific grievances, rather than the new federal authorities whose interests were tied to establishing the authority of national law and national officers.

The Federalists knew who the 'real' Americans were--law-abiding citizens who willingly paid the whiskey tax and complied with officials in recognition of the authority of the new federal government. Today, many people to also 'know' who the 'real' Americans are and that the nation is threatened by 'false' Americans, usually Americans too intellectual, too admiring of foreign governments and figures, or not vociferous enough in their public declarations of national greatness. Today, we object to taxes spread unequally, apparently unjust, and worry over a national debt the elimination of which will cause a great amount of pain in many localities. The nation avoided a civil war over such issues in 1794, but only through the deployment of 15,000 militia men against its own citizens. This is an experience I do not want us to go through again.


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