Book Review 405: The Whiskey Rebellion

THE WHISKEY REBELLION: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, by Thomas G. Slaughter. 291 pages, Oxford

In 1794, just six years after it began, just about everyone expected the strange American political experiment to fail. President Washington, the British and the Spanish governments, most of the Federalists, at least some of the Antifederalists, and, above all, Alexander Hamilton.

About the only ones who did not share this opinion were the people widely viewed as being against the national union — the western pioneers.

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was not much of an affair and has been viewed as a sort of hiccup. I remember it was presented in schoolbooks in the ’50s as an assertion by the national government of resolve and firmness that squelched disunionist sentiment more or less forever. This despite the occurrence of the Civil War.

Thomas Slaughter sees it differently. It was big deal then, and the issues that drove it — liberty or order, localism or nationalism, big government or small — are still lively among us, even if the factional actors have switched ideological sides more than once in the past 225 years. However, the geographical locale of the dissent has stayed quite stable. The opponents of central government are still concentrated around the Ohio Valley.

In 1794, Pittsburgh was the only real urban place on the frontier, and the writ of national or state government barely ran in the West.

The westerners were full of grievances: they wanted protection from the Indians, the right to trade at New Orleans and no internal taxes.

Hamilton, the villain of the piece, had schemed to enrich himself and his friends by simultaneously flimflamming the veterans of the Continental army out of their bonuses and assuming the state debts. To pay the debts, he needed new taxes, and his preferred method was an excise, a tax on internal production.

Since this was the flashpoint of the Revolution, Hamilton’s political acumen needs to be called int oquestion, unless, of course, he had a more nefarious intention than raising a revenue.

Thomas Slaughter does not say he did, but although he disclaims any intent to take sides, he finds most of the errors that led to an army’s being marched against American citizens to have risen in the capital (then Philadelphia) and much of that advice coming from Hamilton.

My view, coming into this book, was that Hamilton was a scoundrel and a con artist. Nothing in “The Whiskey Rebellion” causes me to change my mind.

In Slaughter’s estimation, the western grievances were practical, not jus ideological. There was no cash in the West to pay taxes with and nothing to trade except whiskey, which Hamilton was emboldened to tax.

It is hard to believe Hamilton thought the tax would be received quietly. Slaughter suggests he was anxious for a demonstration of force to teach the lower orders their place.

Washington, too, had long experience of the western farmers and a low opinion of them. He also had huge financial interests. The outcome of the rebellion — really more of a tax strike — raised the value of those lands by 50% over night.

Slaughter finds many, many competing influences that led to a breakdown of public order but class divisions were at the forefront. It was the landless, impoverished, sometimes actually starving pioneers who — with nothing to lose — had most reason to rebel.

What they did not have were arms, leadership, organization, plans or prospects.

Probably a genuinely conciliatory policy in Philadelphia could have settled the west without turmoil, but that would not have suited either Hamilton or Washington, who both thought the common herd needed a sharp lesson.

The rebellion was widespread but mild — excise officers were tarred and feathered or run out of town, houses or bans were burned, collaborators were threatened. But there was no jacquerie and the amount of additonal violence on an already extremely violent frontier was barely noticeable.

Still, eventually a huge (by Revolutionary standards) militia army marched. Like the militia before and since, it was notable for drunkenness, indiscipline, robbery, violence, jealousy and deep incompetence.

Resistance collapsed at nice.

The fervid imaginations of governors of Canada and Louisiana and of a few get-rich-quick artists among the Americans proved to be just that, imaginary.

Just because the so-called rebellion ended as a damp squib does not mean it was not significant. Slaughter summarizes:

“The Rebellion and the government’s response thus exacerbated rather than cured the political conflict that rent America in the 1790s. It contributed as much as any single event to widening the breach between selfstyled friends of liberty and friends of order, and to the birth of the Republican and Federalist parties in the years following 1794. And this was only one effect of the Rebellion on the transforming political scene. It was only one of the consequences of this last violent battle over the meaning of the Revolution.”

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