Historian GORDON LUCY remembers the words of poet Robert Burns and takes a look back at the Whiskey Rebellion of the USA in the years 1791 to 1794 after a tax on whiskey found little favour amongst the Ulster-Scots inhabitants of the Appalachian frontier
Robert Burns’ most celebrated political dictum is ‘Freedom and Whisky gang Thegither’ which may be found in his poem, ‘The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer’, a satire on the government’s taxation of whiskey.
It was a sentiment with which Ulster-Scots readily subscribed, not least their transatlantic cousins who had gravitated towards the Appalachian frontier and who took up arms against the newly established US federal government’s excise duty on distilled spirits in what was the most serious challenge to the federal government between the Revolution and the Civil War.
The aptly named ‘Whiskey Rebellion’ was by no means confined to western Pennsylvania but it was here that the federal government sought to make an example of the rebels, not least because of the area’s comparative proximity to Philadelphia, the then federal capital.
In 1791 Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton had introduced a tax on whiskey at the still as part of his programme to reduce the $54 million national debt.
The tax was particularly loathed in the cash-poor back country of Appalachia (including parts of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) because large distillers were taxed at a lower rate, forcing small and seasonal distillers either to absorb the added cost or charge their customers, many of whom were small farmers or rural labourers, more.
Furthermore barter was the chief means of exchange in the back country and whiskey was virtually an informal currency.
From a present-day perspective the tax was not overly oppressive because the average distiller was required to pay only a few dollars each year. But even an annual tax of $5 would have consumed a significant percentage of the disposable income earned by farmers in the barter-based economy of western Pennsylvania and the Appalachian frontier.
In October 1791 a group of farmers from the environs of Pittsburgh abducted a federal tax collector and took him to a blacksmith’s shop where they stripped him of his clothes, and burned him with a poker.
Over the next three years dozens of tax collectors were beaten, shot at, tarred and feathered, and otherwise intimidated and humiliated.
On one occasion, as many as 15,000 men and women marched on Pittsburgh in armed opposition to the tax.
By 1794 the tax lay largely uncollected in western Pennsylvania (and elsewhere) and respect for federal authority was greatly diminished, if not non-existent.
According to Alexander Hamilton, events came to a head when shots were fired at John Neville, a US marshal, as he was escorting some farmers to court for non-payment of the tax.
On July 16 1794 a group of 50 men visited Neville’s home and demanded to see the marshal. There was a confrontation and Neville shot one of his ‘visitors’.
The following night John Neville’s home and plantation at Bower Hill were burned to the ground by 500 armed men, at least one of whom was killed in the course of the incident.
In August and September of that year President George Washington called up 13,000 militia men and placed them under the command of Major-General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, the governor of Virginia and ironically the father of Robert E Lee, and despatched them to western Pennsylvania to quell the whiskey rebellion.
There was no armed confrontation between the rebels and the militia. As many as 2,000 rebels fled into the mountains and beyond the reach of the militia.
However, the federal court in Philadelphia issued 48 indictments against alleged participants in the campaign of non-payment, including 31 for treason. About 20 men were actually arrested.
The captured participants and the federal militia arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day.
Some artillery was fired and church bells were rung as ‘a huge throng lined Broad Street to cheer the troops and mock the rebels’.
Even Presley Neville, the son of John Neville, said he ‘could not help feeling sorry for them’ as he observed the captured rebels being paraded down Broad Street, ‘humiliated, bedraggled and half-starved’.
Two men – John Mitchell and Phillip Vigol – were found guilty of treason (for levying war against the United States) and sentenced to hang.
Seventeen defendants were convicted of lesser crimes, and sentenced to prison terms of various lengths.
On the pretext that none of the convicted rebels were principally responsible for instigating the armed resistance, Washington pardoned each of them.
The conventional wisdom, as set out in American histories, is that the federal government had marshalled impressive power to uphold its authority and to enforce the law against rebellious or defiant citizens.
The truth is somewhat rather more complex. The federal government’s show of strength was confined to western Pennsylvania. It could not enforce its writ in, for example, Kentucky or Georgia.
The tax was never effectively collected and was repealed in 1802.
Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.
The Whiskey Rebellion prompts at least two questions. Was the rebellion justified? Was the federal government correct in resorting to overwhelming force in suppressing the rebellion rather than repealing the tax?
The answers to these questions point to two contrasting visions of America’s future and thereby contributed to the development of the American party system. Thomas Jefferson and the members of the fledgling Republican Party favoured comparatively weak federal government, states’ rights and individual liberties.
They were appalled by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton’s resort to overwhelming force, fearing that it was the first step to absolutism.
On the other hand, for Alexander Hamilton and the federalists, who favoured strong central government, the most important outcome of the Whiskey Rebellion was that federal authority had triumphed over its first rebellious adversary and had secured the support of state governments in enforcing federal law within the states.
Is it too fanciful to imagine men and women the length of Appalachia tonight raising their glasses to toast the Bard and the proposition that ‘Freedom and Whisky Gang Thegither?