Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Whiskey Rebellion

(News-Herald, June 2004) It is unfortunate that we Americans are not big on history. It contains many good stories, and provides an enormous amount of insight into who we are as a people. But there are many chapters that we have simply lost. If you want an example close to home, take the Whiskey Rebellion.

Our country is rooted in a great deal of schizoid behavior. Colonists wanted to establish religious freedom, but executed and banished people who worshipped differently. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men were created equal, but was rewritten so that it wouldn’t criticize slavery.

Since day one, we have tried to balance opposing impulses and contradictory principles. Some days it can seem discouraging that Americans disagree so much about what is right and what we should do, but the fact is, most of our history is about such arguments.

The Whiskey Rebellion came out of another one of our old arguments—how strong should the federal government be. The Founding Fathers couldn’t even agree on this one.

We have a tendency to view the framers of the Constitution as a unified group, a pack of wise men who divined the best and brightest way to form a government and captured it in a perfect document.

But the Constitution was a work of massive compromise. It was not obvious that a democracy was the best choice (said one of the framers, “The people should have as little to do as may be possible about government”). Balancing the states was contentious; some states favored one vote per state, while others favored votes weighted by population. It’s not hard to guess which was which.

But the biggest issue was states rights vs. federalism. Would the state or federal government be sovereign?

The Constitution was a patchwork quilt of compromises, and I think it’s valuable to remember that this document did not come about because the framers all shared a common view of one bright and shining Truth. It was, in fact, a document that many, if not most, of the founding fathers considered flawed by the compromise of important principles.

Once the Constitution was adopted, the founding fathers wasted no time in trying to steer the US government in one direction or another to “correct” the compromises that created it. In 1790, Quaker delegations from New York and Pennsylvania presented petitions to the House demanding an end to slave trade. And in that same year, Alexander Hamilton proposed the federal assumption of all war debt from the Revolution. The feds, not the states, would take charge of USA IOUs.

Many resisted what they took as an attempt to give the feds financial power and primacy over the states. But a deal was struck that appeared to trade assumption for a new capital located by the Potomac River.

Once the federal government assumed the debts, they had to raise money to pay them. Hamilton placed a 25% tax on liquor sold in the US. Farmers in states south of New York protested this oppressive move by the federal government.

In western Pennsylvania, this protest took the form of tarring and feathering tax collectors. In 1794, officials ordered the arrest of the rabble; a militia commander was shot and killed by federal troops who were protecting a tax official. The anti-tax settlers went berserk, and President Washington raised a military force from the tri-state area. When negotiations failed, George put on his war uniform and personally led the troops into Western Pennsylvania (now there’s a commander-in-chief for you).

The rebellion was put down. Two rebels were convicted of treason, but pardoned by the President. Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and formed the Democratic-Republican Party, which supported states’ rights against the Federalists. When he was elected President, some Federalists began plotting for New England to secede. Aaron Burr, who ran as Jefferson’s VP and almost won the Presidency, waged a political war against Federalist Hamilton so bitter that he ended up killing Hamilton in a duel.

America’s political life has always been cantankerous. And our greatest documents represent solutions to thorny conflicts of principle, not the triumph of one single point of view. The different views weren’t merge, one side didn’t win, and one side did not give up. The American Way is not, historically, that the people who are Right win; the American Way is that everybody gives up a piece of what they want and believe in for the greater good.

A violin string lying on a table makes no music. It’s only when you grab the two ends and pull it in opposite directions that you can make it sing.

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