History

Rebellious times

Ian Buxton looks at turbulent times during whiskey's history
By Ian Buxton
So begins William Findley’s classic account of the Whiskey Rebellion, his History of the Insurrection, published in Philadelphia in 1796.You have to admire his understatement.“Interesting scenes” indeed. This of a country that had less than 15 years previously been fighting a war of independence against the (then) greatest power in the world; where settlers at the new country’s western edge were subject to violent attacks by the native population (Findley refers to them as “savage tribes” and relations between them and the settlers were often brutal enough) and where it was far from certain that the constituent states of the new republic were ever going to live in harmony anyway.As so often, the dispute centred around taxation which, after all, was a sore point in the mind of the America frontiersman. He lived a life not so very far removed from Hobbes’ description some 150 years previously, in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Having fought so hard to escape the yoke of the British crown, under the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’ the westernmost settlers were more than sensitive to the demands of their new government.Life in Western Pennsylvania was very far removed and very different from life on the settled and prosperous eastern seaboard, where the new central government was to be found.Indeed, many in the western states sought self government, preferring the authority of their local state to that of a distant central authority. The constitutional debate going on at that time determined the eventual character of the United States and hence lies the importance of the Whiskey Rebellion.There had been a long history of an independent attitude and point of view in the western states. The American Revolutionary War had been ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 but native Indians, often led or assisted by the British, still harassed the areas west of the Appalachians.Moreover, the Spanish (then in control of New Orleans), levied heavy duties on goods passing down the Mississippi, thus making it difficult for the settlers to get their goods to the eastern markets.To add insult to injury, rich easterners were able to buy land in Pennsylvania and Virginia even though it was already cleared and farmed, forcing the settlers to buy their own homes and land from speculators who may never have seen the property concerned.What is more, many of these increasingly embittered settlers came from Scottish or Irish stock and were not noted for their respect for central authority.So when, in 1791 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton set a new excise tax on whiskey, confrontation was almost inevitable.Whiskey, then distilled by many of the settlers on their tiny farms, was almost a local currency. It allowed them to turn their bulky grain into a valuable and more portable commodity; it could be used in barter and it sustained many through the long and arduous winters.The new tax was supposed to raise some $21 million, to be used to pay for military action against the Indians and their British allies who had defeated smaller American expeditionary forces in 1790 and 1791.Hamilton set the tax at seven cents per gallon, but based the tariff on still capacity rather than what was actually produced or the sales price. A tax determined at source rather than at point of sale differentiated against whiskey produced for the distiller’s own consumption or barter, and against whiskey sold locally. For example, the price of whiskey west of the mountains was about 25 cents per gallon, giving a tax rate of 28 per cent but east of the mountains it fetched double that, reducing the effective tax rate.To compound the problem, Hamilton required that the stills be registered once annually in June at the county tax office. In some counties (e.g. Washington) there was no tax office meaning that anyone who wanted to register (and few did) had to make a lengthy and tedious journey on horseback in order to pay a deeply-resented tax.Anyone detected distilling illegally was tried in the Federal Court in Philadelphia, another perceived discrimination against the increasingly paranoid settlers.Feelings ran high. In 1791 and 1792 federal tax collectors were tarred and feathered and attempts to open a county tax office in Washington were actively resisted.Alexander Hamilton, who some historians maintain was seeking to provoke an open rebellion, insisted on dragging western farmers to Philadelphia for trial.In fact, Hamilton’s motives are unclear. It may be that he was motivated by concern for the new Republic and aimed to provoke the insurrection in order to decisively crush the move to western autonomy, thus imposing a central authority, or it may be that, in his zeal to raise funds to protect the frontier, he simply misunderstood conditions in Pennsylvania and Virginia and underestimated the strength of local feeling.Either way, when in May 1794 he decided to crack down on the troublesome distillers and summoned 75 of them to Philadelphia for trial on charges of tax evasion he was rapidly awakened to the real state of affairs.A confrontation took place between General John Neville, excise inspector for the western region, and about 40 locals. Shots were fired. Next day, more than 100 men surrounded Bower Hill, the General’s luxurious mansion which was burnt down the following day.The rebels gathered strength and an armed group of 500 marched through Pittsburgh.There they were persuaded to disperse, but contrived to burn down more property belonging to the officer in charge of the militia that had attempted to defend Bower Hill.And that, it seems, would have been that but for some posturing by Hamilton.Alarmed by the threat to central authority he persuaded an aging President George Washington that an example must be made of the rebels.Troops were mobilised – nearly 13,000 of them, under the command of General Henry Lee a hero of the War of Independence.Alexander Hamilton could not be kept away and even President Washington saddled up in support – one of only two occasions in which the President has personally led his troops in the field.Around 150 rebels were arrested but, though they were prosecuted at length, sympathetic judges moderated the penalties.Two men were convicted of treason and sentenced to death but pardoned by Washington on the basis that one was a “simpleton” and the other “insane.” Two critical points emerged.The strength of the insurrection was strong enough to halt the trend towards a more aristocratic style of government favoured by Hamilton and others, but not strong enough to destroy the fragile unity of the new Republic.A crisis had been averted, in the nick of time, and America’s system of democratic government was accordingly strengthened.No less important (at least for whiskey’s history) is the epilogue to the story.To save the government from a potentially embarrassing political situation and to avoid further troubles with the very tough and stubborn Scotch-Irish settlers, they were offered a settlement: 60 acres of land in Kentucky if they would build a permanent structure and raise “native corn.” No family could eat 60 acres worth of corn a year and it was too perishable and bulky to transport for sale; if it were turned into whiskey, both problems evaporated.From distilling rye, the settlers turned to making corn-based spirit, which would become “bourbon.” And that’s another story.