The Whiskey Rebellion

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This
article appeared in The
Free Market
, September 1994.

In
recent years, Americans have been subjected to a concerted assault
upon their national symbols, holidays, and anniversaries. Washington’s
Birthday has been forgotten, and Christopher Columbus has been
denigrated as an evil Euro-White male, while new and obscure
anniversary celebrations have been foisted upon us. New heroes
have been manufactured to represent “oppressed groups” and paraded
before us for our titillation.

There is nothing wrong, however, with the process of uncovering
important and buried facts about our past. In particular, there
is one widespread group of the oppressed that are still and
increasingly denigrated and scorned: the hapless American taxpayer.

This
year is the bicentenary of an important American event: the
rising up of American taxpayers to refuse payment of a hated
tax: in this case, an excise tax on whiskey. The Whiskey Rebellion
has long been known to historians, but recent studies have shown
that its true nature and importance have been distorted by friend
and foe alike.

The
Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion is that four counties
of western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on whiskey
that had been levied by proposal of the Secretary of Treasury
Alexander Hamilton in the Spring of 1791, as part of his excise
tax proposal for federal assumption of the public debts of the
several states.

Western
Pennsylvanians failed to pay the tax, this view says, until protests,
demonstrations, and some roughing up of tax collectors in western
Pennsylvania caused President Washington to call up a 13,000-man
army in the summer and fall of 1794 to suppress the insurrection.
A localized but dramatic challenge to federal tax-levying authority
had been met and defeated. The forces of federal law and order were
safe.

This
Official View turns out to be dead wrong. In the first place,
we must realize the depth of hatred of Americans for what was
called “internal taxation” (in contrast to an “external tax”
such as a tariff). Internal taxes meant that the hated tax man
would be in your face and on your property, searching, examining
your records and your life, and looting and destroying.

The
most hated tax imposed by the British had been the Stamp Tax
of 1765, on all internal documents and transactions; if the
British had kept this detested tax, the American Revolution
would have occurred a decade earlier, and enjoyed far greater
support than it eventually received.

Americans,
furthermore, had inherited hatred of the excise tax from the
British opposition; for two centuries, excise taxes in Britain,
in particular the hated tax on cider, had provoked riots and
demonstrations upholding the slogan, “liberty, property, and
no excise!” To the average American, the federal government’s
assumption of the power to impose excise taxes did not look
very different from the levies of the British crown.

The
main distortion of the Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion was
its alleged confinement to four counties of western Pennsylvania.
From recent research, we now know that no one paid the tax
on whiskey throughout the American “back-country”: that is, the
frontier areas of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina,
Georgia, and the entire state of Kentucky.

President
Washington and Secretary Hamilton chose to make a fuss about
Western Pennsylvania precisely because in that region there
was a cadre of wealthy officials who were willing to collect
taxes. Such a cadre did not even exist in the other areas of
the American frontier; there was no fuss or violence against
tax collectors in Kentucky and the rest of the back-country
because there was no one willing to be a tax collector.

The
whiskey tax was particularly hated in the back-country because
whisky production and distilling were widespread; whiskey was
not only a home product for most farmers, it was often used
as a money, as a medium of exchange for transactions. Furthermore,
in keeping with Hamilton’s program, the tax bore more heavily
on the smaller distilleries. As a result, many large distilleries
supported the tax as a means of crippling their smaller and
more numerous competitors.

Western
Pennsylvania, then, was only the tip of the iceberg. The point
is that, in all the other back-country areas, the whiskey tax
was never paid. Opposition to the federal excise tax program
was one of the causes of the emerging Democrat-Republican Party,
and of the Jeffersonian “Revolution” of 1800. Indeed, one of
the accomplishments of the first Jefferson term as president
was to repeal the entire Federalist excise tax program. In Kentucky,
whiskey tax delinquents only paid up when it was clear that
the tax itself was going to be repealed.

Rather
than the whiskey tax rebellion being localized and swiftly put down,
the true story turns out to be very different. The entire American
back-country was gripped by a non-violent, civil disobedient refusal
to pay the hated tax on whiskey. No local juries could be found
to convict tax delinquents. The Whiskey Rebellion was actually widespread
and successful, for it eventually forced the federal government
to repeal the excise tax.

Except
during the War of 1812, the federal government never again dared
to impose an internal excise tax, until the North transformed
the American Constitution by centralizing the nation during
the War Between the States. One of the evil fruits of this war
was the permanent federal “sin” tax on liquor and tobacco, to
say nothing of the federal income tax, an abomination and a
tyranny even more oppressive than an excise.

Why
didn’t previous historians know about this widespread non-violent
rebellion? Because both sides engaged in an “open conspiracy”
to cover up the facts. Obviously, the rebels didn’t want to
call a lot of attention to their being in a state of illegality.

Washington,
Hamilton, and the Cabinet covered up the extent of the revolution
because they didn’t want to advertise the extent of their failure.
They knew very well that if they tried to enforce, or send an
army into, the rest of the back-country, they would have failed.
Kentucky and perhaps the other areas would have seceded from
the Union then and there. Both contemporary sides were happy
to cover up the truth, and historians fell for the deception.

The
Whiskey Rebellion, then, considered properly, was a victory
for liberty and property rather than for federal taxation. Perhaps
this lesson will inspire a later generation of American taxpayers
who are so harried and downtrodden as to make the whiskey or
stamp taxes of old seem like Paradise.

Note:
Those interested in the Whiskey Rebellion should consult Thomas
P. Slaughter, The
Whiskey Rebellion
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1986);
and Steven R. Boyd, ed., The
Whiskey Rebellion
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985).
Professor Slaughter notes that some of the opponents of the Hamilton
excise in Congress charged that the tax would “let loose a swarm
of harpies who, under the denominations of revenue offices, will
range through the country, prying into every man’s house and affairs,
and like Macedonia phalanx bear down all before them.” Soon, the
opposition predicted, “the time will come when a shirt will not
be washed without an excise.”

Murray
N. Rothbard

(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern
libertarianism, and chief academic officer of the Mises
Institute
. He was also editor – with Lew Rockwell –
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
,
and appointed Lew as his executor. See
Murray’s books.

Copyright
2013 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

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Best of Murray Rothbard

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