The Whiskey Rebellion played an important role in America’s history. It was the first Constitutional Crisis, it was the first Government Cover-up. It also helped create the centralized government we have today. This book is the best book on the subject I have ever read.
The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty, By William Hogland. Scribner, New York, 2006. Contents, Maps, Notes Bibliography, Index, pp. 302.
The Whiskey Rebellion is a crisis that faced a very young American nation. Hogeland does a very good job explaining just how big a crisis the rebellion was and how it helped shape the future America for the next two centuries.
The Whiskey Rebellion was about taxes and Hogeland points out both sides of the tax issue. The new nation needed income to pay taxes and even more importantly the new Federal Government needed to establish the right to collect taxes in its own name and not simply depend upon the generosity of the individual state governments for income. The excise tax on spirits was a test to prove that the government could collect taxes, not only from foreign companies bringing goods into the United States, but also from the citizens of the United States. The other side of the story is that the whiskey tax was considered unfair to the people living on the frontiers of this new nation. The tax was to be paid in specie or bonds issued by the Federal government. Both of these items were scarce to the people living in the west.
The unfairness of this tax also made other problems of the western people seem that much worse. These people were living with threats from Native American tribes, Spanish control of the Mississippi River and English troops in forts that were to be vacated after the treaty ending the American Revolution as outside threats. The problems from within included a lack of money leading to a barter economy, poor transportation and absentee landowners who collected rent from the people actually improving the land who might then sell that same land to someone else and evict the people who put their blood, sweat and tears into the land.
Hogeland sets the stage for this rebellion very skillfully. He starts with Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts and a revolt by western settlers in North Carolina. Both of these events involved many of the same issues that were later part of the Whiskey Rebellion. He details Hamilton’s plans to build a financial policy for the United States that favored the bond holders over the debtors. Policies that would inflame the people of the west because they were mostly part of the later class of people. He then points out that the spirit of revolution was still fresh in the memories of the people and since many of the people living in the west were veterans of the revolutionary armies, they were not the type to roll over without a fight. They saw the tax and other issues as attacks upon their freedoms.
The book is very entertaining and informative. It is not footnoted but Hogeland discusses his sources, chapter by chapter, in his notes at the end of the story. He discusses his source and places them into the different schools of American History writers. The book is well researched and Hogeland does seem to understand the limitations when reading history from different schools of thought. His own school seems to be a bit of a progressive/economic historical school of thought.
This is a very good book to add to a bourbon library. The reader will not gain understanding as to how whiskey is made or what it tastes like, but at the same time the reader will better understand the nature of the industry today. After all, as Hogeland points out, Hamilton’s plan to eliminate the small distiller in favor of big business distillers worked, even if it took about 150 years to do so. It took til the 21st century for small distilleries to make an economical comeback.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller