November 15, 2008
George Washington was acutely aware that his presidency would set the course for all that followed. No where is that clearer than the way that Washington handled the “Whiskey Rebellion” that began August 1, 1794 near the end of his first term.
The Whiskey Tax was the original “sin tax” conceived by Alexander Hamilton as a way to pay off the Federal Government’s assumption of the country’s Revolutionary War debt.
Adversely affected by the new sin tax were some Pennsylvania farmers who were thought to be a few over consuming (whiskey) “bumpkins” by the government “elites.” These bumpkins resorted to their old playbook and began screaming the Revolutionary War chant of “No Taxation without Representation!”
The outrage quickly spread throughout Western Pennsylvania. Hamilton had thought the more numerous “refined” citizens of the eastern part of the new states would not object to the tax since they drank less whiskey and would not be so adversely affected.
The “Whiskey Rebellion” gave Washington a chance to don his old uniform and raise an army of over 12,000 men. Washington (with Hamilton at his side) and his army traveled to Western Pennsylvania to inform the bumpkins that they in fact did have representation due the recently won revolution and subsequent formation of a government.
The bulk of the rebels could never be found; but the militia expended considerable effort rounding up 20 prisoners, clearly demonstrating federal authority. The men were imprisoned, where one died. Two other prisoners, including Philip Vigol, were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Washington, however, pardoned them on the grounds that one was a “simpleton,” and the other “insane.”
The Whiskey Rebellion marked the second time under the United States Constitution that the federal government used military force to exert authority over its citizens. It was also one of only two times in American history that a sitting President personally commanded the military in the field. (Madison was the other, during the War of 1812.)
An earlier “tax” insurrection in 1786 known as Shays Rebellion had exposed the weaknesses of the original Articles of Confederation. Thus providing strong impetus for the Constitutional Convention in May of 1787.
The military suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion set a precedent that U.S. citizens who wished to change the law had to do so peacefully through constitutional means. Otherwise, the government would meet any threats to disturb the Union with force, as the South would learn three generations later.
The suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion also had the unintended consequence of encouraging small whiskey producers in Kentucky and Tennessee, then the American frontier, to stay outside the sphere of Federal control for many years. In these frontier areas, whiskey producers also found good corn-growing conditions as well as limestone-filtered water and therefore began making whiskey from corn. Corn whiskey is now more commonly known as Bourbon.
The whiskey tax was repealed in 1803, never having been successfully collected.
What is truly remarkable about this entire episode is that George Washington was the largest distiller of whiskey in the United States in 1799, producing 11,000 gallons of rye and corn whiskey. In the 1790s federal excise tax was collected from distilleries based upon the capacity of the still and the number of months it distilled. In 1798, Washington paid a tax of $332 on stills producing 616 gallons and operating for 12 months.
George Washington was willing to enforce an unpopular tax against his self interest.
We have just elected another person to the office that George Washington originated. Our President-elect claims to be “his brother’s keeper;” yet he can not dig into own pockets to help his half-brother who lives on $12.00 per year or an Aunt who lives in squalor in Boston.
Somehow, I just don’t think the new guy measures up.
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