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Historic Analysis of the Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 helped bring about the demise of the aristocratic Federalist Government in favour of the democratic Republican Government, concerned with the needs of all of its citizens.

The new country of the United States of America suffered many growing pains in trying to balance its commitment to liberty with the need for order. How much control is enough and what will be too much? After the Revolutionary War, the country purposely did not have a strong central government (that’s what we fought against with the British).

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The states did as they pleased because the Articles of Confederation in 1781 gave them every power, jurisdiction and right not expressly delegated to the Continental Congress. Congress had no power to tax, regulate commerce, draft troops, or enforce foreign treaties. It was mainly a friendly overseer: thus the expression “the Do-Nothing Congress.” Each state considered itself sovereign, free and independent, and easterners and westerners were separated by geography as well as their own concerns.

To make matters worse, Spain and Britain were wreaking havoc along our borders. British troops, violating the Treaty of Paris, refused to vacate their garrisons along the Great Lakes; Spain, who held New Orleans, closed the Mississippi River to American shipping below Nachez and actively encouraged American settlers to break away from the Union and establish relations with them; Westerners in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania were subjected to attacks by marauding Indians (often instigated by the Spanish and British).

Congress did not have the power to send troops for defence or protection, and the easterners in these states were too busy with politics to worry about their western frontiersmen. Consequently, the westerners did as they pleased with no regard to the laws the easterners made.

States had the power to levy taxes. Massachusetts imposed hefty taxes to help pay off its war debts. With the postwar depression, many farmers had trouble paying their mortgages. The banks foreclosed on their property and debtors were put in jail. In 1786-1787, Captain Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolution, led a ragtag army of rebels to protest these unfair taxes.

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The rebels closed down courthouses that handled foreclosures and prevented sheriffs from selling confiscated property. The rebels lost their military battle after only six months, but they succeeded in gaining some tax relief and postponement of paying debts. Their insurrection also alerted state leaders to the need for a stronger central government. Something had to be done to preserve order and unity.

In the hot, humid summer of 1787 state delegates met for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and drafted a new frame of government for the United States: the United States Constitution. A new federal system of government was set forth which distributed powers between the state and federal government and created three branches of government as checks and balances for each other. The new Constitution also gave the new government the power to both tax and regulate commerce.

Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of Treasury, proposed a plan that the federal government pay both the foreign and domestic debt acquired by the former central government and take over the states’ war debts as well. Hamilton was a leader of the Federalists, those who envisioned a strong national government with centralized authority, a complex commercial economy and a proud standing in world affairs. He believed that a financially reliable and responsible government would improve business and commerce. Hamilton was very aristocratic in personal taste and political philosophy. He believed that a stable and effective government required an elite, well-bred ruling class. He sought the support of the wealthy and powerful. He planned to sell wealthy people interest-bearing bonds, which would give them a reason to want the government to survive.

In order to pass his assumption bill to pay the states’ debts, Hamilton and the Federalists needed the support of the southern states. The northern states supported his bill because they had large debts. The House of Representatives, led by James Madison, opposed the bill. At a dinner arranged by Thomas Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton reached an agreement. Madison, a Virginian, agreed to support the bill if Hamilton, from New York, agreed to move the national capital from New York to a new city in Virginia, closer to the southern states. This new city on the Potomac River, became Washington, District of Columbia.

Funding and assumption of states’ debts required new revenue for the federal government. Aside from issuing bonds, Hamilton recommended two kinds of taxes, which the federal government now had the power to impose. One was a tariff on imports, which Hamilton saw as a way to raise money as well as to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Later, in 1791, in order to collect more money, Hamilton proposed an excise tax on whiskey, which would be most burdensome to the whiskey distillers of western Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina.

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The more sophisticated easterners favoured wine to the hard stuff and did not drink as great quantity as the farmers in the backcountry. The tariff on imports was beneficial to the urban industrialists, whom aristocratic Hamilton considered more important, but the excise tax on whiskey was a severe burden to the “lowly” western farmers

The whiskey tax was just one of the many slaps in the face to the western farmers. In western Pennsylvania and western Virginia, wealthy easterners were buying land in the west that was already occupied and farmed. The settlers then had to either move or buy their land from the easterners, who never even left their own homes in the east. The state of Pennsylvania allowed this practice as a means of acquiring funds.

The whiskey tax was collected at the source instead of the point of sale. If the whiskey was sold in the west, it was taxed 28%, but if it was sold in the east, it was taxed 14%. Collecting tax on the output of the still meant the farmers had to pay tax on whiskey they consumed themselves, which was not sold. Stills had to be registered, but not every county had a tax office, so most westerners ignored the law. Trials of excise tax cases were not permitted in local courts, so offenders had to travel to federal court in Philadelphia. The time to travel to Philadelphia, the cost of the travel, lawyers and witnesses made the westerners feel they were being deliberately picked on. In July of 1792, the farmers began their resistance by tarring and feathering an excise officer who tried to open a tax office in their county. Bloodshed between the rebels and local militia followed over the next two years.

This time, the federal government did not leave the settlement of this issue up to the authorities of Pennsylvania as Congress had left the fighting of Shays’s Rebellion to the authorities of Massachusetts in 1787. By August 1794, Hamilton had urged George Washington to intervene. Washington called out the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey and assembled an army of 15,000. He personally accompanied the troops into Pennsylvania, with Hamilton at his side. At the approach of the militia, the rebellion quickly collapsed. The federal government won the allegiance of the rebels through intimidation, but the incident gained support for the Republicans as the Federalists began to lose their power.

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The unwillingness of these independent people west of the mountains to submit to Federalist principles, as the unwillingness of the farmers of the Shays Rebellion, helped publicize some of the problems the settlers were having and allowed citizens to voice their disapproval of their government without being considered treasonous. Two of the rebels in the Whiskey Rebellion were tried for treason, convicted, and then pardoned by President Washington. Thomas Jefferson condemned the use of military force and Hamilton’s misuse of federal power. Hamilton’s vision of an aristocracy for the federal government was fortunately put to rest as the Republican-Democrat Party replaced it and evolved into the government that we have today.

Works Cited

1. Brinkley, Alan. “The Unfinished Nation.” McGraw-Hill, New York. 2000. 150-170.

2. Kauffman, Bruce. “Viewpoint The Whiskey Rebellion: Taxing “Sin” Then and Now.”
The Early American Review. Fall 1996.

3. Maddox, Robert James. “American History Volume I.” Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, New York. 1999. 72-81.

4. Specht, Elmer E. “The Whiskey Rebellion of 1974.

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