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The Whiskey Rebellion and the Tensions of the West
After my posts last month on emancipation and the Civil War, my mind wandered from the Civil War to other rebellions in the United States, and specifically to the Whiskey Rebellion. It wasn't the first or most prominent rebellion after the American Revolution, nor very organized at all, but it does showcase several trends in early American history.
The rebellion started from tax resistance along the Western frontier - specifically, in western Pennsylvania, which was the frontier at the time. In 1791, as part of Treasury Secretary Hamilton's new financial plan, the brand-new United States federal government put a tax on distilled alcohol. For several reasons (as I'll explain later), it hit the frontier harder, and they (reasonably) felt their interests ignored.
After their protest meetings and nonpayments were ignored except for slightly sterner attempts at collecting the tax, they started lacing their meetings with revolutionary rhetoric. Finally in 1794, after nonpayers from western Pennsylvania started being indicted before the US District Court all the way east in Philadelphia, the protesters in western Pennsylvania finally opened fire on a tax inspector. After that shock, the protesters gathered an army together and debated whether to destroy the city of Pittsburgh and declare independence.
President Washington treated this as a rebellion - which, by that time, was rather reasonable. He called out the nearby states' militia and personally led them part of the way west. By the time they got there, the rebellion had dissolved, with most rebels going back home or fleeing into the wilderness. There was no fighting; all the militia had to do was arrest a few of the leaders who'd stuck around and bring them back east for trial.
In the immediate circumstances of the Whiskey Rebellion, the westerners' objections to the whiskey tax were largely correct. Their interests had, indeed, been ignored. The tax did, in fact, hit them harder, and unfairly so. The whiskey tax was billed as a luxury tax, because in the East, whiskey was a luxury. But on the western frontier, whiskey was much more commonplace and integrated into their culture. They did drink more, but that wasn't all of it. Whiskey was how they transported most of their grain to market, because distilling grain into whiskey made it much less bulky and kept it from spoiling. Whiskey was so ubiquitous that, sometimes, wages were even paid in it.
In addition to this, the tax was imposed in such a way as to hit the West worse: one could pay either per gallon or per year. The yearly charge was set at a level where it was a better deal for larger commercial Eastern distilleries, but smaller stills (like in the West) were forced to pay per gallon.
Some historians have accused Hamilton of consciously plotting this. His known support for large finance and large manufacturing makes it at least possible, but there's no evidence he did it deliberately. Regardless, when the western rebels called the tax tyrannical, I can totally understand where they were coming from. At least one modern historian1 even dislikes the name "Whiskey Rebellion" for unfairly trivializing their protests.
But to really understand the Whiskey Rebellion, we can't trivialize it to a single tax. It grew out of longstanding tensions between the West and East, between the frontier (at the time, it still was the frontier) and the more-developed regions. The Whiskey Rebellion wasn't the first time these tensions had come up, or even the first time they'd given rise to actual violence.
The first time was in Vermont, which was effectively the western frontier to New England. There, conflicting claims from New Hampshire and New York meant that settlers who'd bought their land from New Hampshire didn't have their claims recognized by New York authorities. So, in 1770, before the Revolution, they rose up to violently resist New York. The "Green Mountain Boys" kept up their periodic war against New York state authorities through the Revolution, and won by outlasting New York's interest in asserting control. In 1777, they proclaimed Vermont was an independent republic. Nobody ever recognized the Vermont Republic, and they themselves kept trying to join the United States, so the tensions were resolved in 1790 when the Vermont government paid New York to drop its claims and its opposition to admission to the Union.
A somewhat similar dispute in what's now eastern Tennessee was less fruitful. In 1784, North Carolina considered ceding its western territory (now Tennessee) to the United States as a federal territory, like many other states had done or would shortly do. In the meantime, the settlers there considered North Carolina to be ignoring their interests (such as not adequately defending them against the local Indians, and not offering adequate courts). So, they organized their own "State of Franklin" and petitioned the United States government (still under the Articles of Confederation) to recognize them.
However, North Carolina and Congress both refused to recognize Franklin. After a several-year standoff, with both Franklin and North Carolinian courts sometimes operating in neighboring towns and each trying to enforce their respective authority, North Carolina sent state militia to enforce its authority. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Convention had just finished writing the Constitution of 1789, which explicitly disallowed splitting a state without its government's consent - so Franklin wouldn't be recognized without North Carolina's approval. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Franklin government decided to dissolve and surrender to North Carolinian authority.
These tensions shouldn't be surprising. By 1770 (let alone 1794), the East and West already had different cultures. In the East, farms were nearby each other, schools were commonplace, and villages dotted the countryside. The West was still the frontier. To most of us today, the prototypical "frontier" is the "wild west": the Plains and Mountains of the late 1800's. But in the late 1700's, the frontier was, essentially, everything west of the Appalachian Mountains. That was all "the West", even though the term would gradually move west over time to follow the frontier. But at the time, even Vermont, even Franklin in eastern Tennessee, and even the area of the Whiskey Rebellion near Pittsburgh were all firmly frontier.
Like most of what was then the West, they had a few scattered farms carved out of the forest, few roads, little commerce and few places closer than New Orleans to buy or sell goods at any scale, and settlers feeling (with decent cause) threatened by nearby Indians. Aside from the sheer distance separating the East and West, and the scant communications due to the US Post Office not yet being organized, Eastern and Western cultural and economic interests were very different.
So, the Whiskey Rebellion wasn't the first east-west schism. It was merely the first under the new Constitution, and the first to focus its opposition on a federal law.
Immediately, the Whiskey Rebellion failed.
Federal authority triumphed, both in the field and in the popular mindset. Twenty-four rebels were indicted for treason in federal court, plus more indictments for lesser crimes in Pennsylvania state courts. New York was never really able to exert its authority against Vermont, and North Carolina took years to do so against Franklin and then promptly freed everyone as soon as they swore allegiance to the state. But here, the new Federal government was able to exert its authority much faster and more effectively and completely.
This was, quite intentionally, one of the things the federal government had been designed to do: to "ensure domestic tranquility," in the words of the preamble to the Constitution. More specifically, as Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, it was "to maintain the just authority of the laws against those violent invasions of them which amount to insurrections and rebellions." Hamilton framed that as a significant and good thing, both at the time he wrote the Federalist Papers and at the time it was put in practice against the Whiskey Rebellion. The rebels might have cloaked themselves in rhetoric from the Revolution, calling the central government tyrannical and demanding local popular control. But, said Hamilton and Washington and the Federalists, that rhetoric was no longer legitimate now that the government was a republic in the hands of the people.
But the federal government was lenient in its victory. Fourteen of the treason indictments were dropped, only two were convicted, and President Washington pardoned both. As he explained to Congress afterwards, he was happy to extend "every degree of moderation and tenderness which the national justice, dignity, and safety may permit".
The whiskey tax continued to be widely evaded in the West, but the federal government periodically did try to enforce it. Finally, after the tax-averse Republican Party came to power in the election of 1800, they repealed the whiskey tax. Albert Gallatin, who'd been a moderate associate of the rebels, even took up Hamilton's old job as Secretary of the Treasury.
More broadly, while East-West tensions continued, they decreased and never again went violent.
The Whiskey Rebellion was probably2 the last notable Western rebellion in the United States. You could say that the force of the new federal government prevented future rebellions, and you wouldn't be wrong. After all, that was what caused the Whiskey Rebellion to dissolve without a battle, and that was what'd previously dissolved the State of Franklin. The Federalists had said the Constitution would prevent this, and they were correct. Even when the Civil War eventually erupted, it came from a completely different tension (between the North and South, rather than between the developed East and the frontier West) and was a different sort of rebellion led by existing state governments.
But more significant, I think, was the coming political power of the West. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had promised that the West would soon get new states and a voice in the federal government. Only eight years after the State of Franklin had dissolved, Tennessee was its own state with John Sevier, once Governor of the State of Franklin, as its first Governor. At first, the West was a small minority - only eleven electoral votes3 out of 138 total in the Election of 1800 - but their numbers would quickly rise. A decade later, the western "War Hawks" were a strong Congressional voice in favor of the War of 1812, largely on behalf of Western interests such as opposing British relations with American Indians. They weren't yet a majority - they would be - but that wasn't even needed to steer national policy.
Along with this political shift, the culture also shifted. On the one hand, with increased settlement and development, Western culture changed. The memoirs of circuit-riding preacher John M. Peck, while coming somewhat after this time period (he started riding in 1817), provide a telling picture of this change as it continued to move west, bringing towns and commerce and even better-kept farms. But on the other hand, American culture as a whole changed to be closer to that of the West. In the old Eastern culture, Paul Revere had hoped to rise above being a simple artisan to join in what John Adams had famously called the "natural aristocracy." There was still an organized ladder of social standing, less strict than it had been in Europe but still very much present. But with the rise of first Jeffersonian Republicanism (circa 1800) and then Jacksonian Democracy (circa 1828), this climate was demolished to instead elevate the "common man." When President Jackson was inviting every frontiersman who cared to visit the White House to join in celebrating his inauguration, American culture had changed.
Several voices in the Constitutional Convention had feared that, over time, the West would drown out the "Atlantic interests." That was arguably why the Constitution was vague about new states' admission and left it totally up to Congress. Their fears did in fact come to pass: the old Eastern interests and culture were drowned out. But by that time, the meaning of "American" had been redefined by a culture shift and a population shift. The West had won.
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I distinctly remember reading this somewhere, but I can't remember where - it was before I started keeping notes on what I read. Perhaps it's from William Hogeland's The Whiskey Rebellion, which I believe I read years ago?
I say "probably" because, in 1806, Vice-President Burr, who had been gathering a private army in the West for unclear purposes, was accused of planning to use it for a rebellion. However, the army dissolved before it did anything, and along with most modern historians I believe he wasn't actually planning that.
From Tennessee, Kentucky, and Vermont. I don't count other partly-western states such as Pennsylvania, because there the western parts were outvoted by the East.