Why the Whiskey Rebellion Is Worth Recalling Now
The conflict in Iraq has inspired a strange-bedfellow alliance, opposing the Bush administration's war policy with bold words about peace, liberty, and American history. Antiwar.com, a forum embracing right-wing libertarians, leftist doves and many in between -- it claims 100,000 visitors a day -- describes as "paramount" a relationship between freedom and non-intervention, which, it says, "helped forge the foundation of this nation."
That view of founding history, explicitly drawn from classic America-first isolationism, ignores strong tendencies toward militarism and authoritarianism in the founding itself -- tendencies that throw a genuinely revealing light, and possibly also a distressing one, on our current debates about war and freedom.
Nobody had a greater impact on the founding than George Washington. And it's true, as isolationists have often reminded us, that the first president proclaimed neutrality in the conflict between England and France and warned against U.S. involvement in foreign wars and diplomacy. On the domestic front, however, Washington repeatedly championed the military and high-finance elites that some then saw -- and some now see -- as bent on undermining democracy and equality.
Washingtonians, quick to justify undertakings that led to national unity, tend not to examine those undertakings too closely. Critics of high federalism, for their part, find better, truer foundings in other administrations. To confront painful current tensions, we might need to confront painful old ones.
Especially relevant for today's politics are two episodes, pivotal in the history of both Washington and the nation, often glossed over or misunderstood: the Newburgh Crisis of the 1780's, when officers of the Continental Army threatened a military takeover of the country; and the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790's, when a federal army, led by President Washington himself, punished the whole citizenry of western Pennsylvania.
The Newburgh Crisis, as many writers and readers of U.S. history are aware, began in Washington's desire to manage a danger of mutiny in the Continental Army. In late 1782, with the War of Independence effectively won, officers and men in the winter camps near Newburgh, New York, stewed furiously over lack of pay. At Washington's behest, officers put grievances in a petition, which three of them delivered personally -- that is, intimidatingly -- to the Continental Congress.
Wealthy financiers, meanwhile, had been growing fearful that peace would sap the central government's will to make regular interest payments on their lucrative war bonds. They seized on the army's plight, urging the officer class to join them as federal creditors, adding to the bondholder lobby a literally irresistible force. The financiers were nationalists: they wanted taxes, directly imposed by Congress throughout the states and earmarked for funding their investments. The states, wanting to retain sovereignty, and under pressure from a rowdy popular movement that opposed finance policies benefiting creditors, had been denying Congress power to levy such taxes. Historians usually focus that struggle on a federal duty on certain imports, but E.J. Ferguson, in his definitive study The Power of the Purse (1962), makes clear that nationalists saw that tariff as a wedge for a long slate of domestic taxes.
Now the financiers advised the army officers to refuse to lay down arms unless the states revised the Articles of Confederation and Congress imposed direct taxes throughout the states. When General Washington declined an invitation from Alexander Hamilton, then a young nationalist legislator, to lead this threat of coup, the financiers turned for help to Washington's old enemy General Horatio Gates, who began rousing officers at Newburgh against Washington himself. Thus what most historians emphasize about the Newburgh Crisis is Washington's masterfulness in quelling Gates's sedition. They also cite a letter in which Washington, reflecting on the conspiracy, warned Hamilton that an army is "a dangerous instrument to play with." The commander emerges from Newburgh the untarnished image of stern republicanism.
Few have noted the significance of Washington's timing -- though both Richard Kohn, in Eagle and Sword (1975), the essential work on the early U.S. military establishment, and Ferguson have helped clarify it. Immediately after disabling Gates, Washington told Congress that since he'd personally barely staved off mutiny, Congress had better accede to his officers' every demand. It was a suggestion that Congress fell over itself satisfying. Just as the financiers had hoped, officers of the Continental Army were indeed made federal creditors. The Society of the Cincinnati launched itself as a watchdog for officer interests, cementing the interstate finance class to what would become a hereditary military elite, rooted in fear of coup, committed to federal power. (Washington did object to making membership in the Cincinnati hereditary, and of course he took no bonds himself.)
There's another letter from Washington to Hamilton, almost never cited by historians, though hardly obscure, following up the one about playing with armies. He'd been tired, Washington said, and perhaps imprecise: nobody supported the nationalist finance program more fully than he. He'd only meant to criticize the poorly considered tactic of stirring up an army that, he had good reason to believe, might have turned against the financiers was easily as supported them.
That bluntly realpolitik calculation suggests that Washington was playing with the army in more subtle ways than young Hamilton could have imagined. It was the solitary commander, not the blundering conspirators, who joined the country's financial and military interests in a coalition that, pace antiwar.com, would soon play a key part in founding the nation. Washington got more or less what he wanted, from Congress and from history.
The role of the Newburgh Crisis in creating conditions that climaxed in the Whiskey Rebellion has been largely overlooked, though Terry Bouton suggests such a link in his powerful dissertation "Tying Up the Revolution" (1996), and Ferguson, on whom Bouton in part relies, helps confirm it. The rebellion was sparked in 1791 when Hamilton, now President Washington's Treasury Secretary, persuaded the first U.S. Congress to levy, at long last, the first federal domestic tax, earmarked for securing reliable interest payments to those same bondholders.
The federal debt was big now, thanks in part to the Newburgh deal, in part to having embraced all the states' war debts, an outcome Hamilton and the financiers had been stymied in pursuing (as Ferguson shows) back in the 1780's; the larger the debt, they had reasoned, the more overwhelming the need for direct federal taxes with which to fund it. While the first federal domestic tax is usually seen as the last detail in Hamilton's famous plan to fund the federal debt and assume state debts in it, Hamilton himself had long seen it the other way round: assumption as a tactic in the prime directive of imposing taxes earmarked for creditors.
It was thus the old nationalist finance plan that came to fruition when, having persuaded Congress to assume state debts, Hamilton reported an unsurprising deficit, which he said could only be repaired by a federal tax beyond existing tariffs. The tax was on distilled liquor. It neatly leveraged whiskey's special role in rural economies, funneling cash from the mass of ordinary people to the small finance class, which remained largely untaxed. As Dorothy Fennell has exhaustively shown, in her dissertation "From Rebelliousness to Insurrection" (1981), the whiskey tax was structured to serve critical functions in Hamilton's vision of commercial empire. Empowered by the nature of distilling, it had effects far beyond distilling, crippling rural economies, enriching industrialists and mercantilists, driving small operators off farms and out of artisan shops and into the factories of their creditors. Counterintuitively for Hamilton's opponents in Congress -- but not for those whom it punished -- the tax on whiskey at once concentrated wealth and connected it to federal power.
And the great thing, Hamilton exhorted Congress, was that the means to ensure collection -- executive force -- was inherent in the Constitution. Recent popular Hamilton biographies to the contrary, there's no question about Hamilton's looking forward to bringing federal troops against a recalcitrant citizenry -- and seeing it that way requires no resort to lockstep Jeffersonianism, as Kohn again helps clarify. As early as fall of 1792, when resistance to the tax's perfect regressiveness amounted only to noncompliance and a few violent incidents, Hamilton was pressing Washington to define such acts not as crimes committed by individuals but as acts of war carried out by the whole people of a region.
The whiskey rebels were not, as Hamilton also depicted them, illiterate hillbillies driven mad by limitations on consumption of a favorite beverage. They were those same radical populists who, in the 1780's, had pressured state governments for debt relief and equal access to government and opportunity. In a series of cogent, published resolutions, they opposed the whiskey tax's tendency to concentrate wealth. They too were businessmen of a kind, and finance theorists, and in their own way idealists and militarists; they believed the revolution had been betrayed and it was their job to save it. The Whiskey Rebellion did become a threat to U.S. sovereignty, offering Hamilton and Washington ideal justification for crushing it.
In the fall of 1794, an overwhelming army of 13,000 federalized troops, marching against farmers and laborers in the remote, hard-hit western counties of Pennsylvania, embodied the worst nightmares of today's anti-war activists. Passion for a military solution led our founding executive to subsume judiciary function, slip around the legislature, intimidate the press and trash individual liberties. In that process, the nation's founding became not a statement but a fact.
Washington led the army most of the way, then turned back, again emerging nearly blameless, having consigned operations on the ground to the eager Hamilton. Because most of the rebels had fled, hundreds of ordinary citizens were rousted from beds by pumped-up dragoons, marched through the snow to holding pens, detained indefinitely on no charge, harshly interrogated, physically and mentally abused, and made to open their homes to search and their property to seizure -- all without warrants, and on the basis of no evidence. Then, after signing loyalty oaths, the people of the region were subjected to long-term military occupation and policing.
In what is often presented as a last-minute victory for the jury system, the United States could convict only two of the men it force-marched, many barely clothed and shod -- and many still unindicted -- eastward across the mountains in winter and then paraded through shouting crowds in the capital. What gets ignored in that reading is the irrelevance of legal prosecution to the executive's plan. With national unity at stake, legality had never been the point. Victory was.
By resort to sheer force, the first president stabilized federal credit and established national sovereignty at the expense of a militant form of economic populism. It was a founding moment -- one we should wrestle with, if we hope to invoke fundamental American principles in critiquing policies of this or any other executive.
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Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/25/2006
"skepticism of politicians are marring the fact that most public officials from the time of our founding to today try to make America better than they found it. Yes, there are some who use their power for self gain, but the majority don't. Though their ideas may be faulty, the public needs to give them a benefit of the doubt."
A very interesting and excellent point to which I'll agree, to an extent with regards to the efforts of our Founders but, as for today's politicos there is a reality gap here that seems to be widening by the day. Excluding local/grass root legislators who, pray tell, did you have in mind that is actually making an attempt to leave our country better off than when they entered office?
Remember, we're not talking about priests here and although I personally respect someone like a Ron Paul he is still a fringe player, as are some others, who attempt to make a difference/initiate positive and effective change.
The Bush Administration, while many of us are sleeping, is destroying the United States as we know it...
While certain members of the Administration are betting against the United States in order to build their personal bank account/portfolio...
As for the rebellious whiskey distillers, they just picked up and moved farther west into the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee where, the US spirits industry thrives to this very day. The USG targeted the wrong people, based on unlawful justification, for prosecution. Same as it ever was.
Thomas Bockhorn - 7/10/2006
Oh I agree that there are politicians today that are looking for gifts and profit rather than the public's interest. Dick Cheney is an excellent example. Unfortunately, the public keeps on voting for people such as Tom Delay, which points to a part of the blame for a corrupt government. However, I think the majority in congress do truly want to serve for the public good. What has allowed this corruption to occur at such magnitude is the lack of leadership. President Grant lack of leadership in this front allowed scandals is a good example of this. The public needs to elect powerful and dynamic leaders that will put public interest above private interest. No one could ever eliminate corruption, but can certainly lessen its effects.
Harold Robert Hunter Jr - 7/9/2006
Learned alot from reading this article. I'll have to tune back in to read some of the insightful comments.
Harold Hunter Jr, Esq.
Hunter Law Office, PLLC
464 Eastway Drive
Charlotte, NC 28205
Thomas Bockhorn - 7/7/2006
I wish that people such as William Hogeland would stop ranting anti-capitalist notions. Historians need to look at all evidence in an impartial way rather than using some sort of agenda then tie up evidence to support it. Yes, capitalists such as John Jacob Aster stood to benefit from a strong government who stopped rebellion against taxes. Yet, ultimately the country was at stake. If George Washington just let the rebellion continue, it could have lead to the ultimate destruction of the U.S. Britain and France would have licked their chops if the rebellion would have spread to an uncontrollable state.
The Founding Fathers, though flawed in many ways, truly and deeply felt that their answers to social problems plaguing the U.S. was for the common good. George Washington could have proclaimed himself king. His army would have backed him up. He did not. Rather he choose to return to private life after the Revolution. King George III and other leaders were astounded at this. He is just one example.
I think our skepticism of politicians are marring the fact that most public officials from the time of our founding to today try to make America better than they found it. Yes, there are some who use their power for self gain, but the majority don't. Though their ideas may be faulty, the public needs to give them a benefit of the doubt. That same consideration should also be applied to the founding fathers.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/6/2006
I'm a little rusty on the Whiskey Rebellion, but it seems to me it's importance was to show that the new federal government had the power to collect taxes, and would enforce it. Also, I believe Washington pardoned all the ringleaders when they were brought back out of the woods, which doesn't get mentioned here. Of course, I cannot get riled up about the big bad "bondholders," either... The assumption of state debts and backing of depreciated currency was a sine qua non for successful launching of the Republic. Furthermore, both Hamilton and Washington adopted these policies out of their dedication to the common good for all, not for personal gain. They believed the country would work best this way--and at this distance we know they were right. The fledgling nation did not need anarchy at that stage, and we are fortunate our president did not tolerate any. It amazes me how anybody can fault the magnificent work of Washington and Hamilton in launching the United States of America, perhaps the most glorious political event in the history of the world.
Thomas Bockhorn - 7/5/2006
I agree with you on the fact that if Hamilton got his way, we would have had an army protecting the small financial elite over the vast citizenry. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson saw that in him. For Hamilton, the foundation of the newly formed United States were not the average citizen but those small elite you were constantly refering to.
I totally disagree with you that George Washington was somehow tied into this "conspiracy." Washington was a realist. He agreed with many of Hamilton's programs because he understood in practical terms economics. Before the Revolution, he realized that his plantation needed to diversify inorder to obtain maximum profit while other planters like Thomas Jefferson continued to run at a loss. He agreed with Assumption as well as bringing order in western Pennsylvania because practically they helped the fledgling United States. Now if that helped creditors, then so be it. But I doubt he was looking at the creditor's self interest. He simply wanted the U.S. to get off the ground which he paid dearly for. He could have lead an army to congress and demand they get paid. He didn't. He feared an army roaming around causing havoc and allowing the British a way to recolonize the 13 states.
Tim R. Furnish - 7/4/2006
This is a transparent attempt to link Bush to Washington's heavy-handedness. I'm sure it will get reposted on moveon.org, but for the rest of us it's not persuasive.
By the way: what is a "pumped-up dragoon?" I didn't think they had steroids back then.
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