Friday, April 09, 2010

The Whiskey Rebellion

(News-Herald, April 8) Can you identify the correct decade for each of the following pieces of American political items:
Regional tension so great that many people expect the country to split in two. Politicians accused of violating the Constitution. Critics asserting that the government’s fiscal irresponsibility will bankrupt the country. Big city politicians dismiss the dumb hicks in the sticks, while rural folks say that the politicians just don’t get it. Debate so polarized that moderate voices duck for political cover. Activists in warpaint to show their sympathy with the Boston Tea Party and the patriots of the revolutionary war. Politicians charged with being tools of big financial interests. War profiteering. Oh, and throw in State’s Rights, too.
Of course, I’m talking about the 1790s, specifically 1790 through 1794 and the events known (but not all that well) as the Whiskey Rebellion. The following quick refresher/introduction courtesy of Thomas P. Slaughter’s excellent book, The Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1790, the American frontier is here. US citizens have pushed as far west as the Ohio valley, and their top concerns included Not Being Killed Horribly by Native Americans. The feds help back a militia raised in Kentucky and Pennsylvania; in October of 1790 that militia faces natives in “pitched battle” for the first time. The militia forces were completely defeated.
In that same year, the feds are looking to pay off the war debt that they have taken from the states. Alexander Hamilton pushes an internal tax, an excise tax on whiskey. It is a hard sell, and before the end its supporters have argued, among other things, that drinking whiskey is a vulgar habit for low-lifes and if a tax made them buy less of the noxious liquid, all much the better.
The tax passes in 1791, the same year as another military debacle and defeat at the hands of native forces. This time it appears that well-paid east-coast suppliers had provided shoddy and useless supplies and weaponry.
Fighting for their lives, feeling federally ignored, and facing a nuisance tax that they found insulting, illegal and unethical, many folks in western PA and Kentucky consider becoming an independent state. It was never a viable option, but it shows just how mad they were.
The next best thing is to fight the tax. Frontier citizens refuse to pay it, and threaten the men charged with collecting it. They hold meetings, dress up as Tea Party Indians, declare themselves the true heirs of the revolution and rail against the “elites” back East who are destroying the country. Many moderate politicians in the West face an angry mob and have little choice but to say, “Oh, I’m with you guys” and hope that a chance to soften the movement might appear.
Faced with open and loud challenges to the federal government’s right to do, well, anything, the feds strike back. First they use law, requiring distillers to face charges in Philadelphia—no small trip for westerners at the time.
The squawking grows louder. The whole frontier is flouting the law, but Western PA is special for two reasons. One is John Neville, one of Pittsburgh’s first wealthy successes; he was charged with collecting the tax, and unlike other men with his job, he was not about to back down. The other is George Washington; the President had recent history with the region, as he had quietly become one of the region’s major landowners. He is both familiar and fed up with the frontier attitude.
The Feds are standing up “for law and order.” The rebels are standing up “for freedom.” Rebel moderates tried to negotiate a solution that the radicals may never have accepted, but it didn’t matter because Washington and Hamilton had already decided to bypass negotiations and use force.
Were there battles? The rebels considered conquering Pittsburgh, which they called “Sodom.” The US army, dubbed “the watermelon army,” could barely hold itself together. What are sometimes called battles might as easily be called riots. The deaths are tragedy and farce; one of the first is caused by a man so unhandy with his weapon that in trying to uncock it, he fires and kills a man instead.
The army captured a ragged assortment of unimportant men who were too slow to escape. The angriest rebels headed west, and many moderates who had tried to soften the rebellion found themselves charged as radical ringleaders. Americans, typically tone-deaf to history, quickly forgot this episode though it featured threads that would be part of our political life for the next 200+ years.

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