George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

Updated on October 13, 2017
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New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Washington Strenghtens the Central Government

A modern day cartoon of President Washington flexing his muscle
A modern day cartoon of President Washington flexing his muscle

The Rum Trade In Decline

Before the Revolution, rum was a very popular beverage in the United States, even though the main ingredient, molasses, had to be imported from the Caribbean. Once the fighting had ceased and America had become an independent nation, American farmers started looking for ways that they could make a viable alcoholic product from crops that could be grown along the Eastern Seaboard.

They found their answer in the manufacture of whiskey, a popular liquor that was created by distilling wheat and/or rye and barley. Not long after the British surrender at Yorktown, ingenious American distillers began testing new ways to make a strong liquor from homegrown grains and to no one's .surprise the results of these experiments were very popular.

Setting the Stage

Once Cornwall surrendered at Yorktown and the war was over, a new reality set in. The United States was in debt to the tune of 77 million dollars. To complicate matters, part of the debt was held by the federal government, located in Philadelphia at the time, while the remainder was in the hands of the individual states. Furthermore, the amount of debt among the states differed widely with Massachusetts holding the most I.O.U.s and Virginia being the most thrifty.

When the Constitutional was ratified in 1788 creating a new, central government. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, proposed that all debt be consolidated into one national pot. After some major arm twisting, this was agreed upon, but still, no one in the newly-created federal government had any idea how to pay the new consolidated debt. Then Alexander Hamilton Hamilton came up with the not-so-brilliant idea that a tax on whiskey might eliminate all the I.O.U.s. And that's when the whiskey rebellion started.

Farmers at Arms

During the Whiskey Rebellion several tax collectors were tarred and feathered
During the Whiskey Rebellion several tax collectors were tarred and feathered

It Started With a Simple Tax

In 1791, the American government needed money to pay off the war debt.To take care of this financial obligation, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had a simple solution. He would levy a tax on all whiskey made within the United States. George Washington approved and so did Congress,

Though this financial provision sounded like a simple matter, it caused major dissent in the western portions of Virginia and Pennsylvania. (readers should note that at this time West Virginia had not succeeded from Virginia).

Flag of the Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion even had its own flag
The Whiskey Rebellion even had its own flag

The Reality on the Gound

With the arrival of the new tax, things in western Pennsylvania and surrounding araeas got pretty heated. The whiskey makers were incensed at being taxed to pay off the government debt, after all hadn't the new nation just fought a bloody war over exactly the same issue. The dissenters held town meetings, set up liberty poles and even had their own flag, all of which, were meant to signal the government officials that they had no intention of paying this tax that seemed to signal them out from the rest of the citizens.

Things got so out of hand that a few of the tax collectors sent to the western regions were tarred and feathered, while another man, leading the insurrection was killed. Newly elected president, George Washington, took one look at the deteriorating situation and decided that there was only course of action available.

Washington Rides Again

In response to the Whiskey Rebellion, General Washington organized a volunteer militia to put down the uprising
In response to the Whiskey Rebellion, General Washington organized a volunteer militia to put down the uprising

Washington as Commander-in-Chief

Washington took full notice of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and decided that only a strong show of force.would alleviate the problem. By means of volunteering and conscription, Washington organized a 13,000 man Army and then personally lead them across Pennsylvania to put down the insurrection.

The show of force worked remarkably well in that the armed resistance was negligible. A few leaders were brought to trial and convicted. A few of these men were imprisoned, while others were pardoned. And so the rebellion was over.

The Aftermath

The central government may have squashed the military resistance, but they never collected much revenue from the Whiskey tax, which was eventually repealed. Not only were the farmers and whiskey makers lackadaisical about paying their taxes, but many relocated westwards to American territories that were outside the jurisdiction of the original thirteen colonies. These places would eventually become the states of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, haven of the modern day moonshiners, who had their their roots in those irascible farmers who moved westward to avoid government regulation.

My Take

The Whiskey Rebellion occurred about the same time that the Bill of Rights was passed. Within the list of new amendments was one particular item that is still big news today. That is the notorious second amendment, which gives citizens the right to bear arms. Looking back from the 21st century, it is quite possible that this little phrase has created more confusion, conflict and anger than any other part of the Constitution.

By taking a close look at the Whiskey Rebellion, we can see what the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights. In particular, this small band of savvy lawmakers were extremely wary of a government-funded military. They were very nervous about coups, especially one that might put them out of a job.

So if the need should arise for military action, the call would go out and the volunteers would show up bearing their muskets and rifles. This is exactly what happened during the Whiskey Rebellion, when President Washington showed up in western Pennsylvania with 13,000 armed men. The rebellion ended quickly and the whiskey makers went back to their business or left the states for the wild frontier, which was no further away than Kentucky and Ohio. Oh yes, and as for the concept of an unpaid military, Tecumseh ended that dream just ten years later.

The Whiskey Rebellion Illustrated

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