Ye Olde Tax Revolt


The Whiskey Rebellion, by Thomas Slaughter, New York: Oxford University Press, 291 pages, $19.95

Few remember, in the celebration over the Constitution's bicentennial, that the first years of that document's existence were a time of heated conflict between liberty's friends and enemies, with liberty's friends losing. Faced with a huge national debt resulting from the Revolutionary War, Congress sought the power of taxation and won that authority in the Constitution.

At first, it was agreed that revenue would be collected solely through tariffs. But soon an "internal tax," the Whiskey Excise, was applied. In 1794 the tax met with open resistance, but by the end of the year the federal government had forcefully suppressed all protest. With the passing of the rebellion, Thomas Jefferson reflected bitterly: "The first error was to admit [the excise law] by the Constitution; the second, to act on that admission."

In The Whiskey Rebellion, Thomas Slaughter preserves the memory of this early trial of American freedom. His treatment is the first book-length scholarly analysis of this western Pennsylvania rebellion in over 40 years. It is a dispassionate study of the various economic, environmental, and ideological factors at work in the conflict, with close attention to the particular actors involved.

The rebellion in 1794 stemmed from the abiding faith of settlers in Revolutionary ideals and from the desperate circumstances of frontier life. Though the conflict centered in western Pennsylvania, Slaughter takes pains to show that the issues involved affected the entire western region, from portions of New York to Kentucky, West Virginia, and Georgia. For years prior to 1776, farmers there had petitioned their colonial governments for increased defense of the frontier and the right to navigate the Mississippi delta region. But eastern legislators were too engrossed in their own affairs to take western demands seriously.

With the onset of the War for Independence, frontiersmen hoped they might yet gain the legislators' attention. Some regions, such as the "state" of Franklin in western North Carolina, petitioned the new state governments for political autonomy, hoping to raise their own armies as separate states. Their requests were denied.

Many entertained thoughts of actual secession from the United States. The majority contented themselves with continued petitioning in hopes of obtaining better defense or political autonomy "legally." With the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, however, an additional burden was placed on western settlers that pushed them beyond the bounds of legality into open resistance.

Requiring increased revenue because of the war debt, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had pushed for an excise on whiskey as a necessary measure to instill confidence in the government's outstanding obligations. Tariffs were considered insufficient. Opponents of the excise tax insisted that the product of their stills was necessary for trade and payment of laborers during harvest time. A shortage of currency, they pointed out, made whiskey a vital medium of exchange. In addition, opponents of the tax voiced an older fear of internal taxes as opposed to taxes on imports.

Western protests were to no avail, and in 1791 the excise tax on whiskey was passed. Petitions from informal assemblies asked for the law's repeal, and no taxes were collected in the western counties until 1794. Some frontiersmen were known to have gone to the British in Canada to discuss secession, and Hamilton argued for a show of force. Eventually, stories of western intrigue and Hamilton's persistence convinced President Washington that coercive measures had to be taken. The incident that furnished the final excuse for attack occurred in July 1794.

When rumors spread that an overly exuberant tax collector in western Pennsylvania was actually arresting noncompliant distillers and dragging them back east to stand trial, his house and outbuildings were torched. Seven thousand angry farmers and frontiersmen occupied the town of Pittsburgh, banishing seven persons suspected of collaborating with the federal government. By the time government troops reached the town in October, participants in the "rebellion" had broken up and gone home. Few seem to have been serious about engaging in an all-out war.

Unable to finger any one group of perpetrators, government officials began arresting anyone in any way attached to the opposition to the excise. On November 13, "mounted troops struck in the dead of night," driving about 150 half-naked frontiersmen "before a troop of horses at a trot through muddy roads seven miles from Pittsburgh." The prisoners were eventually narrowed to about 20 scapegoats who were paraded through the city of Philadelphia for public humiliation. All but two were acquitted after spending some six months in jail. The two that were found guilty were pardoned by the president in a show of "magnanimity"!

Slaughter has interpreted the Whiskey Rebellion as a conflict between those most concerned about government oppression and those most fearful of social chaos. In this way he hopes to reach a compromise between historians who argue that early American political ideology reflected a liberal individualism and those who argue that Americans were more concerned with community than with individual liberty.

The sides in the struggle, he maintains, correspond roughly to the old "Country" and "Court" party distinctions of Britain—the Country party, those English Whigs in the 17th and early 18th century most deeply suspicious of the central government; and the Court party, the party of the King, the party of central authority. Although Slaughter acknowledges that America's Court and Country parties differed from their English counterparts in their degree of dedication to liberty and order, his use of "Court" and "Country" terminology is unfortunate.

The Court party in British politics was the party of power and corruption. The British Country party defended a balanced constitutional order and civic virtue. While the latter actually describes the friends of order in America, the Hamiltonians, Slaughter argues that Hamiltonians were Court party men. The Country party in Britain, he notes, favored militias over standing armies, extinction of public debt, frequent elections, and more-localized government. But this was also grounded in a belief in the need to balance, constitutionally, the natural social orders of king, aristocracy, and people. American political factions might actually best be described as separate off-shoots of Country party ideology, but not as descendants of the Court and Country dichotomy.

The friends of liberty in America were modern and liberal precisely because they believed in individual rights and liberty to a greater degree than their British Country party predecessors. This is an important aspect of Slaughter's interpretation, but he only serves to complicate this point by applying terms pertaining to a different historical context.

In every other respect, the book is an excellent account of that clash between the friends and foes of America's liberal-individualist revolutionary ideals and sets a superb backdrop to the rest of American political history. Modern political debates reflect the early divisions of centuries past. Jefferson lamented that the power to levy an excise was ever included in the Constitution. One of the greatest friends of liberty in America's history thus recognized the Constitution as an imperfect document written by imperfect men.

Who gets to interpret the Constitution in the years to come merits the close attention of liberty's friends today. Not only is it the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution, but once again Congress is faced with a tremendous debt, and yet again it searches for revenue.

Hans Eicholz is a graduate student in American history at the University of California, Los Angeles.