The Whiskey Rebellion: First Major Constitutional Violation

One of the first major violations of our Constitution by the federal government came not long after it was signed. The Whiskey Rebellion saw farmers stand up to an unfair tax handed down by the federal government, and the government responded with the force of a monarchy. It may have all sprung from Alexander Hamilton’s desire for glory, or Hamilton, the first Secretary of Treasury, may have had other motives for setting a precedent of force by the government which still lives on today.

It all started after the Revolution, in 1791, when the federal government was in debt, and had no official money. The notes they paid to soldiers were worth fractions of what was promised, but many had no choice but to accept the funds and go home in order to try to survive. But the soldiers were not the only ones who needed to be paid after the war. There were a number of rich investors and bankers who had provided the capital needed to win the Revolution, and were awaiting repayment. Alexander Hamilton had a better relationship with these financiers than with the soldiers; Hamilton was one of the leading banking figures of the time. He proposed a tax which would have two purposes. The tax would raise revenue necessary to pay back the wealthy financiers of the Revolution, and the tax would bring under the jurisdiction of the federal government a group of pioneers living in rural western Pennsylvania. The tax was to be levied on the production of whiskey, and not just at a commercial level. Everyone who made whiskey owed the tax. This would be the first federal tax on domestic goods.

This was a problem for the people of western Pennsylvania. Most people in this area used whiskey as a currency. Whatever surplus grain a family had would be converted into whiskey in order to preserve it. Whiskey would still have the calories of grain, making it a supplement to these people’s diets, was drank by almost everyone, and had other uses. Since whiskey does not spoil, it was a good currency because everyone accepted it, seeing as nearly everyone used it. No need for banks, no need for paper money the worth of which can be manipulated; these people had tangible goods which held value absent of government structure or societal acceptance alone. But Alexander Hamilton and the federal government insisted that the tax on whiskey be paid in coin.

Not only would a portion of what these western Pennsylvanians produce go to the government (essentially the first income tax), but now they had to find a way to convert their whiskey into coin, requiring more time and effort. A choice was also given to the producers of whiskey: they could pay a flat tax–far too expensive for any individual–or pay a per gallon price. For commercial whiskey brewers the flat rate was cheaper than the per gallon rate, but for individuals the per gallon rate was cheaper. This was a political reward that Hamilton gave to commercial whiskey brewers in the area who would now have the cheapest whiskey available, since it was not being taxed per gallon. Hamilton did this to gain a foot hold of support in the area (his enforcer was a large scale distiller), and to convert the economy of western Pennsylvania away from whiskey based currency. The sooner everyone was brought under the jurisdiction of the federal government, the sooner the government could raise money to pay for spending.

The people of this area, many of whom moved out west to avoid the intricacies of society and government, would not accept this tax. They were outraged that this tax would be levied against them while the Northwest Indian War was going badly for the U.S. making the area unsafe. Seeing the tax as an advantage to grain growers (who owed no tax) and big distillers in the east (who owed a flat rate) also fueled western Pennsylvanians anti-federal sentiment. They decided that if this was the way the new country was to treat its people, they wanted no part in it. They refused to pay the tax and served vigilante justice to tax collectors and other sympathizers of the federal government. By 1794 the climax of the situation unfolded as a U.S. Marshall was sent to the area and a showdown ensued. Some rebels were shot in a skirmish and their leader, a veteran of the Revolution, was killed. The tax collector and U.S. Marshall were captured only to later escape, and the fury of western Pennsylvanians peaked.

There was talk among the rebels that they should secede from the United States and form their own country. The plan that emerged was a watered down version of protest in which the rebels would march through Pittsburgh nonviolently, meant to send a message that they would not back down against what they saw as Hamilton’s attempts to pay back the wealthy by taxing the ordinary citizen. President George Washington decided it was time to send in the army when a commission he sent to western Pennsylvania returned and recommended using the military to enforce the tax laws–and other such laws since the rebels had violently suppressed support of the tax.

By October 1794 Washington was seeing troops off, and heading back east, much to the disdain of some moderate locals including Congressman William Findley, who saw Washington as a fair president who just wanted to do what was right. Alexander Hamilton was the real force behind the army heading west, according to Findley, who was included on Hamilton’s list of possible rebels to be arrested. Hamilton went with the army of nearly 20,000 as a civilian adviser. He was instructed by Washington to maintain the utmost discipline among the troops as they advanced toward their target in western Pennsylvania, and prevent any breach of law by the troops, such as pillaging the countryside. Officers harshly punished any soldier caught stealing, but the soldiers were doing so because of the lack of rations and clothing. Hamilton decided to solve this by making the theft of these goods “legal”. According to William Hogeland in his book “The Whiskey Rebellion”:

The quartermaster corps, [Hamilton] announced, would impress civilian property along the way. Now families watched helplessly as bayonet-wielding soldiers–no longer freelancing thieves but officials, authorized by the president–commandeered hard-won winter supplies of grain, meat, firewood, and blankets on behalf of the government of the United States. A steady, freezing rain meant the arrival of winter. Families whose sustenance was carted away faced grim months ahead (218).

Once the army and Hamilton finally arrived at the target county in western Pennsylvania, they did not care much to follow the due process laid out in the new Constitution, despite Hamilton’s assurances to the President. Many residents had signed oaths of support for the government, risking local vigilante justice, with the promise that they would be pardoned as punishment was served to the region for failing to pay the new tax, and leading an insurrection against officials of the federal government. These oaths were ignored and many who had signed them were arrested by Hamilton and the army anyway. A month earlier the first arrests of a few rebels had been made, prompting the most guilty among the rebels to flee. Anyone left in western Pennsylvania had minimal roles in the insurrection, and had certainly not led it. The most violent rebels, who had committed the worst acts against government officials, had already fled.

In the middle of the night on November 13, what would be referred to as the Dreadful Night began. Hamilton had created 3 lists of people, those who were not to be arrested, those who were to be arrested, and those who were to be brought in as witnesses for questioning. The first list was not provided to the generals, and Hamilton gave them the authority to arrest anyone they suspected of having participated in the rebellion, aided the rebels, raised liberty poles, robbed the mail, or local officials who failed to suppress the insurrection. The officers and soldiers who were passed these orders were delighted to finally have some excitement and authority on this trip west.

One particularly unstable officer named White was put in control of  the 40 prisoners which Hamilton thought would give the most valuable intelligence on the whole situation. These prisoners “were brought to a dark log structure” where they were tied up and seated on the muddy floor, and guarded by soldiers instructed to keep the prisoners away from the warmth of the fire. The tavern keeper was told he would be killed if any prisoners received food, and thus for more than 2 days the unstable officer in charge:

…starved and dehydrated his shivering, exhausted captives, steadily cursing and castigating them, glorying in their helplessness and describing their imminent hanging. Even White’s troops became concerned about the captives who seemed barely alive (222).

The prisoners were then marched 12 miles in bad weather to be held in another jail, still without being charged, and following interrogation most of them were eventually released without any criminal proceedings; this was unsurprising since most of those arrested were indeed innocent. These arrests and brutality went on for several days throughout western Pennsylvania, which served as a reminder to all residents not to speak out against the federal government. Hamilton made it clear to the presiding judge that regardless of innocence, a good number of detainees would need to be marched back to Philadelphia in order to give the impression that the federal government had accomplished its goal, and put down a violent, unjustified rebellion. The judge held a number of rebels for trial even with what he considered lack of evidence, fearing that the army would revolt if too many prisoners were let loose.

The prisoners that remained in custody were marched back to Philadelphia with great show in order to create the illusion of glory. It was essentially a photo op for Hamilton and Washington, who could now say, see, look what we did, look at the problems we solved. The prisoners were paraded on Christmas day 1794 before 20,000 Philadelphians–it was a disappointment to the spectators who knowing that thousands of rebels had marched against the government, were surprised to see only 20 prisoners. 12 cases went to trial, and 2 rebels were convicted. It took the rest up until 1796 to be released, when they could then find their way home, if they could afford it. The whiskey tax remained hard to collect until it was repealed in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson.

From the beginning of this country the federal government has not been very good at abiding by the Constitution. Clearly the fourth amendment due process rights of most of the “rebels” arrested were violated, as well as the people whose food and property was confiscated along the way in order to supply the army. Cruel and unusual punishment was also used on the prisoners, and prior to even being charged. In the 18th century it was hard for the residents of western Pennsylvania to get their voices heard, and grievances addressed, but in modern times with knowledge at our fingertips and the internet available to disseminate information, it should be easy to address federal abuses of power and violations of the Bill of Rights. The internet is our tool which we must use as vigilant citizens to make sure the Alexander Hamilton’s of the world do not oppress one group to enrich another. With Hamilton’s broad presence in the foundation of the country’s banking and finances, is it any wonder that his vision has led us today to a government on a fiscal cliff, but powerful enough to take our rights? We must not allow the government to come after the little guy by taxing production, in order to funnel money to the friends of the government in bed with the politicians.

I would recommend reading “The Whiskey Rebellion” by William Hogeland. He gives immense background to the situation, and examines motives of those involved. His analysis of each side is balanced and insightful; it is a very interesting read.

5 thoughts on “The Whiskey Rebellion: First Major Constitutional Violation

  1. Pingback: Trusting the Government Does Not End Well | Joe Jarvis

  2. Wow, great blog you have here. And this is the first page I’ve seen where the real facts of the Whiskey Rebellion are laid out in detail. Most talk about war debts owed to soldiers (as if those were the only ones of relevance) and ignore the lion’s share of the debts owed to bankers. Or, they ignore the part about the bankers and their manipulation, or Hamilton’s shady connections — not the last time a Treasury Secretary is found to be in cahoots with bankers. Good job.

    • Thank you! Yes, the more i learned about Hamilton the more it seemed he set this country up for failure. I was appalled by Washington’s actions, and what the US did to those rebelling–quite hypocritical on the heels of the American Revolution.

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