By Harold Moskowitz
The American Revolution had been successful but the new nation was deeply in debt. Loans from France, Spain, and the Netherlands had to be repaid. During the war, national and state bonds had been issued. According to the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service, the nation owed 43 million dollars in 1783, and the nation owed 77.1 million dollars by 1791.
Alexander Hamilton was President Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury. One part of his plan for placing the nation on a sound financial footing was repayment of both the national and state war debts. The federal government would redeem all of the bonds in order to establish a good national credit rating.
To raise money for bond redemption, Hamilton proposed an excise tax on whiskey. The law required national registration of all whiskey stills. The owner of the still had to pay the tax. Farmers living on the western frontier converted their grain to whiskey because it was less expensive to ship than the grain. The whiskey was also more valuable than the grain and allowed for a profit after deducting shipping expenses. Kegs of whiskey were used locally as money. Cash was very scarce in frontier areas. The barter system was used extensively.
The small-scale western farm distillers paid a tax of nine cents per gallon. Large-scale eastern distilleries paid six cents per gallon with further tax breaks for correspondingly larger amounts produced. The requirement of paying the tax in cash was a huge burden for the frontier farmers, not for the large commercial distilleries in the East.
Protests immediately broke out in North Carolina, Kentucky, and especially in western Pennsylvania. Many war veterans among the protesters saw the tax as a continuation of the anti-excise tax problem the colonists had faced under British rule. It was viewed as taxation without representation. As isolated frontiersmen, they felt unrepresented by Congress. Cash payment of the tax was a requirement that seemed to open the door to government intrusion into their domestic lives. Furthermore, the tax was considered an abuse of federal authority. They rejected it for wrongly targeting a group of people who, due to their location and circumstances, relied on distilling grain for generating a profit. This perception was accurate.
This is exactly what Hamilton had planned. He represented the interests of the wealthy business community. Business owners needed assurance that the national government would not only pay its debts but that it also could use military force when needed to enforce its tax laws. Hamilton’s plan was to raise revenue while provoking an armed rebellion by the fiercely independent frontier farmers. When that occurred, military force could be used to end it and to punish the leaders. The authority of the government would be established.
The first resistance in western Pennsylvania was in September, 1791. Sixteen men assaulted a tax collector. They cut his hair, tarred and feathered him, and left him in the woods. Protests against the tax were held. There were mass meetings to draft petitions to Congress to repeal the tax. In the fall of 1792, several men ransacked the office of the regional supervisor for tax collection. President Washington issued a proclamation condemning the tax resistors. In September, 1792, a U.S. Marshall arrived with federal court summonses for more than sixty distillers. This resulted in a twenty-five minute gun battle in which one resistor was killed.
That incident led to five hundred resistors facing off against ten soldiers from Fort Pitt. At one point, a large group of armed men came close to deciding to attack the city of Pittsburgh. In 1794, President Washington asked state governors to raise a militia for suppressing the revolt.
An army of slightly less than 13,000 men was mobilized. Washington personally led the militia which was larger than any army he had led during the Revolution. He was accompanied by Hamilton. They captured twenty suspects. Ten were eventually tried for treason. Two were convicted because the definition of treason was expanded specifically for the trials. The altered definition now contained “combining to defeat or resist a federal law is the equivalent of levying war on the United States.” President Washington pardoned both convicted men in 1795. The excise tax on whiskey distilling was repealed in 1802 under President Jefferson.
The “Whiskey Rebellion” was provoked for the purpose of establishing the authority of the new nation’s government. The independent-minded frontier farmers were pawns in Hamilton’s scheme. Perhaps firearm owners should be alert to the possibility that at some point a “revolt” might be instigated by the government for the purpose of mass gun confiscation.