Daily Archives: May 11, 2009

The Whiskey Rebellion

Nine cents a gallon!?  That's an outrage!

Nine cents a gallon!? That's an outrage!

It surprises me that some restaurant chain hasn’t seized on the name for marketing purposes.  Maybe it could be something like half-price drinks before noon, promoted with the slogan, “Screw your responsibilities — join the Whiskey Rebellion!”

The actual uprising by that name occurred in the 1790s.  The Puritans and Quakers who had arrived in America a couple of centuries before had brought with them an abhorrence of strong drink, but their descendants apparently didn’t share those moral qualms.  In fact, throughout the colonies, distilling whiskey had become a thriving business by the end of the 18th century.  Along the western frontier, farmers found it more convenient to get their surplus grain to market in gallon jugs than in bushel baskets.

Meanwhile, the infant U.S. government was struggling with a mountain of debt it had incurred by assuming the states’ expenses for fighting the Revolutionary War.  (Budget crises of this sort are no longer a problem; as you know, the federal government has been in robust financial health for many years.)  Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, hit upon the idea of generating income for the U.S. by taxing booze.  Hamilton persuaded Congress to pass the Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791, which, as you might imagine, was not popular with citizens who produced distilled spirits.

This was especially true on the frontier; acts of rebellion broke out almost immediately and escalated over the next couple of years.  Federal revenue collection officers were tarred-and-feathered, homes were burned, court proceedings were disrupted, mail carriers were robbed — a few people even got killed.  Tax collectors were not exactly volunteering to relocate to Western Pennsylvania, which was the focal point of the rebellion.  The rebels were, figuratively speaking, thumbing their noses at the U.S. government.  Or pretty much any kind of government, for that matter.

After attempts at negotiation failed, President George Washington invoked martial law in that region on August 7, 1794, summoning militia from several states to knock down the insurrection.  He personally commanded a force of almost 13,000 men, marching them from Harrisburg to the vicinity of Pittsburgh.  “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, also commanded troops, and not wanting to miss out on the action, so did Alexander Hamilton.  Troop maneuvers went on until mid-November, but almost no resistance from the whiskey-tax rebels was encountered.  A few were rounded up and charged with treason; only two were convicted, and they were eventually pardoned.  That particular tax on whiskey was quietly repealed in 1802.

The historical significance of the Whiskey Rebellion was that it was, in effect, an early test case that established federal authority within states.  It also helps explain why Alexander Hamilton’s picture is found on U.S. money, but not on whiskey labels.