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Causes of the Whiskey Rebellion

Info: 2577 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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The Whiskey Tax, passed in 1791, was a federal law that would cause an uprising in four counties of Fayette, Westmoreland, Allegheny, and Washington, all in Western Pennsylvania. “The insurrection represented the largest organized resistance against federal authority between the American Revolution and the Civil War.[1]” The tax led to a negative reaction from state legislators and farmers in rural areas. One of the most memorable incidents a tax collector was tarred and feathered. There were many reasons for such strong opposition, for instance, the tax was not on the retailer but the producer. Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, pushed hard in Congress to pass the tax, did not anticipate the large outcry.  The tax was much more difficult and inconvenient for farmers in the west and farther away from larger cities. The strain the tax put on the western farmers fueled the fire of the west versus east tension.  The distrust between eastern and western United States, as well as political and social unrest played more of a factor than the actual taxes levied.

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  The people that lived in the four counties saw the easterners with disdain. They lived in a culture with the fear of Indian attack and felt that not enough was being done to protect them. The people in the four counties also had a distrust of government and the easterners that ran the government.   Tax collectors regularly faced resistance when attempting to collect and the evaders were not prosecuted by local courts.  The four counties had little access to coin and used whiskey to barter with neighbors. During the height of the rebellion they would nickname Pittsburgh “second Sodom” and even threaten to burn down the city.

The whiskey tax would face opposition from its inception.  Five state legislatures from Pennsylvania southward denounced the proposed tax, knowing it would fall principally on farmers who distilled whiskey from the corn they raised. Pennsylvania was the center of the whiskey culture. “In fact, western Pennsylvania, who regarded liquor as beloved refreshment, had the highest per-capita concentrations of still in America.[2]” It is no wonder then that the strongest opposition came from western Pennsylvania. Their congressional delegations fought the tax, fearful that it would trigger farmers’ uprisings akin to Shays’ Rebellion.[3]”  The congressman knew about the Shays Rebellion since it occurred in 1786.

   The eastern farmers had ways to lessen the effect of the whiskey tax. In the east the farmers were able to use a co-op system that helped share the costs of the tax.  “The eastern neighbors went in together on a distiller because a good one, a hundred gallon still, cost as much as a two hundred acre farm.[4]”  The eastern stills were also closer to the markets which meant that the farmers would be paid faster; the western farmers would ship the whiskey to the east and got paid after it was sold. There was a strong incentive to ship whiskey instead of grain. The whiskey would not spoil and was much easier to ship. “The tax thus imposed a federal tax on western farmers while leaving farmers in more convenient and prosperous places untaxed.[5]” Not only was the tax burdensome, the western farmers felt it favored the easterners.  

This tax was on the producer and not on the retailer which added to burden on the western farmers. One of the problems with the tax was the poor access to cash and, in fact, “the farmers commonly used whiskey to barter for goods instead of money because they did not have the access to coin money as the Easterners did.[6]” The western farmers also could lose their still and face additional fines if they did not pay the tax. “Not registering a still was punishable by a cash fine, set first at $150, soon at $250; either number was higher than the cash equivalent of most people’s annual income. Assets— the whiskey and the still itself— could be seized as well.[7]” This high of fine seems unrealistic and vindictive to a people with little income. The amount of fines and taking stills away from the people had the effect of galvanizing the rebellion.

In the 1790s tax collecting system was not without its problems for instance, it was terribly inefficient in collecting taxes. The federal government was attempting to enforce the tax laws on the western counties.

Beginning of the whiskey tax in 1791, there was open and violent opposition to tax collectors. There were roads blocked and those that did pay the tax could have their stills destroyed. Due to not prosecuting whiskey tax evaders, the federal government would eventually close local court in the four counties of western Pennsylvania. The tax collector Paul Johnson was involved in one of the most dramatic incidents of the rebellion in September 1791. While travelling alone he was captured by the rebels and received a tar and feather treatment that nearly killed him. The rebels were not secretive about the threats against tax collectors. “Only two weeks earlier, a meeting in the nearby town of Washington had adopted a resolution spelling out what ought to be done with people like Johnson, and the resolution had been published in the Pittsburgh Gazette.[8]

The majority of the rebellion occurred in four western counties in Western Pennsylvania. “The insurrection represented the largest organized resistance against federal authority between the American Revolution and the Civil War.[9]”  Although there was limited violence in other parts of the country, the most common issue was the failure to collect taxes. Hamilton even claimed that there were no whiskey taxes being collected in North Carolina, although Hamilton was prone to exaggeration as he was trying to persuade President Washington to crush the rebellion with troops.

The impact Alexander Hamilton had on national finance can never be overstated. Policies that were put in place through his backing are still in use. One of the most colorful descriptions of Hamilton is found in the the book Discovering America: Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, by William Hoagland. The book contains a somewhat humorous chapter title: Its Hamilton’s America… We Just Live in it.  The title really captures the enormous effect Hamilton’s policy had on national finance, which is still felt even today.  “In the first seventeen months that Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury, the credit of the United States rose from essentially non-existent to roughly equal to that of the most stable and long established countries in the world.[10]

 The criticism of Hamilton during the creation and implementation of the whiskey tax is well deserved. Why would he create a tax that was so similar to the British taxes levied during the beginning of the revolutionary war?  There were more than adequate warnings about the tax. He personally heard the warnings of Jefferson and Congressman that the new tax could cause violence. This seems to be a case where his ego gets into the way of good judgement. 

 A review of Anglo-American history would have also enlightened Hamilton on excise tax rebellions. There was concern by the British Parliament about the violent reaction to excise taxes. The fear of violence was warranted because “opposition was immediate, violent, and persisted in some regions for over a century thereafter. Riots and “tumults”  in different parts of the kingdom during 1647 forced Parliament to exempt beer consumed by the poor and to  repeal taxes on beef and salt.”[11]

There was even sympathy for the rebellions cause in other states as well. “When Maryland summoned up its militia to enforce the tax, soldiers turned on their officers and set up a liberty pole in the courthouse square.[12]” Other state militias were being called up due the Pennsylvania militia taking sides with the rebellion. This is another illustration of Hamilton lack of cultural understanding of the people in the four counties and other states as well.  Other states had sympathy because it was seen as a tax on the powerless farmers to give to the rich easterners.

At the first glance there seems to be good intentions with Hamilton and creation of the tax. Paying down the debt and ensuring the Revolutionary War soldier received back pay are both very honorable reasons and would seem to help the country. A careful look at the words and actions of Hamilton demonstrate an ego and a self-serving attitude. With the tax “he wanted to lay hold of so valuable a resource of revenue before it was generally preoccupied by the state governments[13]   

The attack on John Neville’s property in July 1794 led ultimately to the deployment of troops.  It was such a dramatic event that there was no opposition in Washington’s cabinet on the decision to use force. A mob of rebels attacked the Neville estate and set fire to the estate. Adding to the drama rebels near Pittsburgh and were threatening to burn down the city. The rebels had given the nicknamed the town the “second Sodom.” 

President Washington would take a bit more of a diplomatic approach with the use of 12,000 troops as a threat during negotiations with the rebels however; he was mortified by the threat of violence around Pittsburgh. In support of the deployment of troops Washington said “the most spirited and firm measures were necessary.”  Hamilton had been itching for a fight since 1792. He supplied stories of the rebellion to the President in hopes of a quick end to the rebellion by use of force.  He demonstrated his eagerness by volunteering to organize the expedition while Knox, the secretary of war, was out of town. Speculation is that Hamilton asked him to leave so he could be in charge.

President Washington held back the exuberance of Hamilton and the use of force. The rebels capitulated under the threat of troops.  Washington ensured the rebellion would end with only limited violence by waiting for the last of the rebels to take an oath of allegiance.  The Presidents patience in this crisis certainly saved lives by avoiding a direct confrontation with the rebels.  President Washington also showed compassion by pardoning the only two instigators of the rebellion.

Another factor in ending the rebellion by force was the French Revolution. “Americans learned that Louis XVI, who had befriended them during the War of Independence, had died on the guillotine.[14]” One of Hamilton’s aides at the time made comparisons to the French Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion. It seems a bit of an exaggeration to compare the two events however the fear of revolution must have created anxiety. The thought of county leaders being executed in the streets must have galvanized Washington and all of the Federal government.

The Whiskey tax would mean a transformation in state power. The Articles of Confederation premise was a loose confederation that gave power to the states. The thirteen states that were in this confederation could negotiate with foreign countries; have their own currency and military.

Bibliography

  • Chernow, Ron, Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Group Inc. 2004
  • Ferling, John (2013-10-01). Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Kindle Locations 4749 4751). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  • Hogeland, William (2015-09-15). The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton,
  • Murray, Joseph A.. Alexander Hamilton : America’s Forgotten Founder. New York, US: Algora Publishing, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 September 2016. Copyright © 2007. Algora Publishing. All rights reserved.
  • Slaughter, Thomas P. Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Cary, GB: Oxford University Press, USA, 1986. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 September 2016.
  • Whiskey Rebellion.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 1, 2016).
  • Yacovelli, Leigh-Anne. 2015. Who got stuck with the bill?

[1] Whiskey Rebellion.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 1, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3437704697.html

[2] Chernow, Ron, Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Group Inc. 2004

[3]Ferling, John (2013-10-01). Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Kindle Locations 4749 4751). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[4] Yacovelli, Leigh-Anne. 2015. Who got stuck with the bill? .

[5] Hogeland, William (2015-09-15). The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Fro (Simon & Schuster America Collection) (p. 10). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

[6] Yacovelli, Leigh-Anne. 2015. Who got stuck with the bill? .

[7] Hogeland, William (2015-09-15). The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Fro (Simon & Schuster America Collection) (p. 68). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition     

8 Ibid,, (p. 20).

[9] Whiskey Rebellion.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (August 1, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3437704697.html

[10] Murray, Joseph A.. Alexander Hamilton : America’s Forgotten Founder. New York, US: Algora Publishing, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 September 2016. Copyright © 2007. Algora Publishing. All rights reserved.

[11] Slaughter, Thomas P.. Whiskey Rebellion : Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution. Cary, GB: Oxford University Press, USA, 1986. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 24 September 2016.

[12] Chernow, Ron, Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Group Inc. 2004 pg. 473.

[13] Idid., pg. 343

[14] Ferling, John. Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation. Bloomsbury Pres, 2013.

 

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