There is a myth that Kentucky distillers came to Kentucky because they fled Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion. It is true that leaders of the rebellion fled Pennsylvania, but they did not stop in Kentucky where the Federal Marshals could still arrest them. They fled to Spanish territory, usually around New Orleans. Those distillers who were in no danger of being arrested had no reason to pack up their belongings and come to Kentucky to start over with their distilling business. The tax was also enforced in Kentucky and the fleeing distillers would have had to purchase land once they got to the State.
Kentucky had plenty of distilleries making whiskey at the time of the rebellion. They too refused to pay the tax for the same reasons I mentioned in the previous blog. Kentuckians were not as violent in their protest as the people in Pennsylvania, but a few tax collectors were assaulted. The big difference in Kentucky and Pennsylvania was the Federal government response to the rebellion in Kentucky.
The Federal government knew that they could not march an army into Kentucky to put down a rebellion. The Kentucky frontier was much more remote than western Pennsylvania and the federals could not supply an invasion army in the region. The army could not count on necessary local support because of sympathy for the rebellion. The government was also afraid that if they tried to do so, the people in Kentucky would turn to Spain and ask to join Spanish territory. After all, Kentuckians looked toward Spanish territory for trade and economic growth. Trade down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers with New Orleans and St. Louis was more economically feasible than wagon and mule trains over the mountains. Pushing Kentucky toward Spain for support would lead to an international crisis and maybe a long war.
Instead, the Federal government made a decision to downplay the rebellion in Kentucky and to handle the matter in the courts. The government also appointed a very sympathetic judge in the region who would have jurisdiction over the cases – Judge Harry Innes was also a distiller. Unfortunately most of the records from this era of history were destroyed in the 1937 flood of the Ohio River. However, the University of Kentucky Archives has one of Judge Innes’ case books. This book includes many of the cases he presided over dealing with the refusal to pay the whiskey tax.
There are many prominent distillers of the time in this book including Elijah Craig. Judge Innes’ method was that he tied the cases up in court for several years – decades even. When the person had the hard currency to pay the taxes, he did so without penalty or interest. The lack of hard currency was the main reason people refused to pay the tax. If they could have paid in whiskey, they would have grumbled about it, but paid the tax.
The Whiskey Rebellion in Kentucky did not cause people to flee their homes and land. Distillers continued to make their whiskey. Indeed many went on to pay their taxes and get the proper permit to distill. The Filson Historical Society has several of these permits including ones from Evan Williams and Daniel Weller, William LaRue Weller’s grandfather.
The Whiskey Rebellion was America’s first constitutional crisis. Through taxation, Alexander Hamilton had hoped to create larger, industrial-scale distilleries instead of smaller farmer-distilleries, but that failed to happen. It would take over 50 years and the improvements in technology such as steam power and column stills to create huge distilleries making large amounts of whiskey in a day. Farmer-distillers held on and there were plenty of legal farmer-distillers up until the beginning of prohibition, but it became less and less profitable for such small distilleries over those years. Most of the small distilleries were for making fruit brandy as their main cash source. The Whiskey Rebellion did show the nation that this government would enforce its laws and could raise money to pay its debts. It was a very important time in American history.
Photos from the archives of Michael Veach and courtesy of Rosemary Miller