Libertarians, Socialists, and the Whiskey Rebellion

Email Print

In the summer
and fall of 1794, President George Washington, Secretary of the
Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and General Henry Lee began making
mass arrests of American citizens. Authorized neither by warrants
nor by any resolution of Congress, federal troops rousted from beds,
rounded up, and detained on no charge hundreds of people against
whom the executive branch knew it had no evidence. Officers administered
warrantless searches and seizures of property and subjected detainees
to harsh conditions and terrorizing interrogation. Some victims
were told they’d be hanged unless they gave false testimony against
the elected officials who had vainly opposed this and other executive-branch
policies and operations.

After spending
various lengths of time in privation and fear, most of the detainees
were released. Detachments of troops meanwhile arrived at every
home, in a region defined solely for the purposes of this operation,
and required every male over the age of eighteen to sign an oath
of loyalty to the government. Not surprisingly, most people complied.

Then, in the
winter, the few remaining detainees were marched almost 400 miles
to the capital, poorly shod and clothed, under the authority of
an officer well-known by his superiors for the pleasure he took
in denigrating prisoners. On arrival, the suspects were paraded
in the streets as victory trophies, then imprisoned under conditions
that were even more extreme than normal. Some still hadn't been
charged with a crime. Others had been charged only because the presiding
federal judge — whom President Washington’s orders explicitly subordinated
to an ad hoc military authority — himself felt intimidated
by the federal troops and allowed indictments on what he later said
he considered insufficient evidence.

In the end,
therefore, juries indicted few and convicted almost none of the
prisoners, many of whom had been left in jail for many months. Failure
to prosecute didn't inhibit the president from stationing federal
troops indefinitely in the region where he’d rounded up those and
so many others. The military occupied the area, directing and assisting
the civil judiciary. In that process, the sovereignty of the United
States was at last established.

Although a
disturbingly large number of otherwise well-informed history readers
are not aware of those activities of the first executive branch
of U.S. government, a good many libertarian students of American
history do know about the 1794 suppression, know too that it came
in response to a series of protests, petitions, acts of violence
against federal officers, skirmishes with soldiers of the U.S. Army,
and threats of outright insurrection and regional secession, which
Secretary Hamilton — adding insult to injury — trivialized for all
time as “the whiskey rebellion.”

Focused on
the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, also involving
people in western Virginia and Maryland, as well as in Kentucky,
the rebellion has routinely been consigned by mainstream history
to a sidebar about a dustup, the details of its awful suppression
consigned almost to oblivion — despite the paramount place that
both the rebellion and the techniques for its suppression had in
the minds of Hamilton, Washington, and others in Washington’s second-term

So Hamilton’s
insult was well calculated. It achieved the obliteration from history
of the seriousness of his rural opponents’ criticisms of federal
economic policy.

The rebellion
did involve whiskey. Distilled liquor played an important part in
the economic and financial lives of people living west of the Appalachians,
especially at the Ohio headwaters. The complexities of that relationship,
in fact, had made placing a federal tax specifically on whiskey
far more important to Hamilton’s famous plan of national and federal
finance — and to his visions of commercial empire, powerful government,
and military might — than most historians seem to want to acknowledge.

Still, the
rebellion and its suppression were not ultimately about booze. They
were about the nature and purpose of federal taxation, about government
involvement in finance and monetary policy, and about the relationship
between democratic republicanism and markets. (Hence their longstanding
interest for libertarians.) The “whiskey rebels” had a nuanced grasp
of such issues. So did Alexander Hamilton. Modern historians of
the founding and federal eras, however, as well as many biographers
of Hamilton and Washington, tend not to. In large part they’ve treated
the rebellion as a chaotic overreaction, by rural enthusiasts of
drinking and abominators of domestic taxation, to a duty that placed
new costs on the consumption of a beloved beverage.

Some writers,
who do give reasons for what they nevertheless imply was the rebels’
mistaken belief that the federal government deliberately created
the conditions of their ruin, see the government too as overreacting
— as if the awful effects of the tax and the excesses of its enforcement
came mainly from insensitivity, not design. Even the few historians
who do acknowledge the rebels’ embodiment of a long and serious
(if often distressingly violent) tradition of dissent from finance
policies that Hamilton was perfecting and enforcing fail to draw
from the decisions that Hamilton made in suppressing the rebellion
any conclusions about the degree to which his finance project explicitly
contemplated just such a military triumph over the citizenry — had
indeed been constructed partly to achieve such a result.

And all of
this seeming confusion flies in the face of Hamilton’s very clear
statements throughout his letters and reports and the well-known
ideas he cogently articulated throughout his career. History has
somehow managed to read the Whiskey Rebellion exactly as Hamilton
hoped it would.

by contrast, have read the whiskey rebels as heroic
property holders, victims of overly strong government
, and the
rebellion’s suppression as a dystopian parable, with the distressing
quality of having not only actually happened but happened at, and
because of, the birth of the United States. It remains a stunning
fact that Alexander Hamilton explicitly connected (with a blatancy,
even a joyousness, impossible for politicians today) his vision
of a federally encouraged and managed national economy — fed by
massive federal borrowing; supported by a slate of taxes carefully
calculated to achieve social ends; based on the consolidation of
industry and finance and the absorption of small enterprises into
corporate structures with the closest possible ties to the executive
branch of government — with his concomitant vision of a large, privileged
military establishment; national unity imposed by brute force of
arms; day-to-day policing of the citizenry by the military, when
deemed necessary by the executive; and the systematic violation,
when deemed necessary, of virtually every one of the individual
liberties that had been set out, so reverently and recently, in
the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Hamilton, in
other words, was a liberal. An activist of executive power, already
running the most bloated executive department, he famously believed
in powerful government as older brother to the market, and he was
willing — at times eager — to subordinate individual rights to managing
the economy for what he perceived as national good. The fact that
American liberalism has, since Hamilton’s day, redefined “national
good” — yes, Hamilton would be shocked by today’s welfare state
(though not as shocked as Jefferson would be) — is less telling
in this context than the similarities between post-War American
liberalism and the relationships that Hamilton endorsed among federal
power, taxation, national ends, and big credit and capital.

Indeed, throughout
the twentieth century, a certain kind of libertarian has tried to
point out to a certain kind of liberal some impossibilities of separating
big-government’s regulatory activism — however apparently laudable
its social aims — from the militarism, cronyism, and routine abrogation
of individual liberties which Hamilton embraced and in which Hamiltonian
finance was born. Can the rise of the welfare state, say, be only
coincidentally related to the simultaneous rise of rogue operations
of the CIA? By what sleight-of-mind do liberals separate FDR’s court-packing,
illegitimate wartime internment of American citizens, and possible
goading-to-war of Japan from his social programs in the New Deal?
(Also see LBJ.) Liberals who deride and despise the current executive
for overreaching seem to forget how greatly the social programs
they mourn have depended on just such executive activism, often
carried well beyond the pale.

A telling example
of apparent liberal naïveté (or worse) can be found
in the recent bewilderment of many self-described liberals on finding
that it was Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist, liberals’ perennial
enemies on the Supreme Court, as well as swing-voter O’Connor, who
dissented from letting states interpret the doctrine of eminent
domain as permitting a government to take property from an owner
and assign it to a new owner who will purportedly use it to increase
the revenues of the very government that has appropriated the property.
The liberal majority — in a move that could only surprise certain
contemporary liberals — blithely endorsed legislative social planning’s
priority over individual rights of ownership. The failure of many
on the anti-developer left to make anything even of their own bewilderment
over this issue is a benchmark of a larger failure of intellectual
clarity, and perhaps intellectual honesty, in some of today’s left
and liberal circles.

In the early
1790’s, at the federal government’s birth, Alexander Hamilton constructed
a tax, carefully predicated on the special role played by whiskey
in rural economies, to shift economic opportunity away from small-scale,
generalist operators, who had long sought fair access to economic
opportunity and growth, and had contributed their efforts to the
Revolution in order to achieve it. The whiskey tax, linchpin of
the whole national finance plan, offered overwhelming advantage
to large, government-connected, specialized operators; it pounded
the people of the always restless, defiant, independence-minded
west; it drove small farmers, independent artisans, and landless
laborers alike into the factories of their creditors.

And Hamilton
had no scruples about associating that plan with the overwhelming
physical force of the newly empowered federal executive. For libertarians
the association is a natural.

But there is
another group of readers and scholars, equally critical of Hamilton’s
policies and “consensus” readings of American history, who have
taken the Whiskey Rebellion seriously too. These are neo-progressive
historians, influenced by and developing the Marxist critiques of
the 1920’s and ’30’s, with backgrounds and sympathies that make
them highly skeptical of capitalism, whether the free-market variety
aspired to by libertarians or the state-and-corporate-managed forms
— which some libertarians don’t dignify with the name of capitalism
— squabbled over by today’s mainstream liberals and conservatives.

In the neo-progressive
reading, the Rebellion was the expression of a surprisingly advanced
populist program of legislated social justice. After decades of
pressuring state governments to provide tax relief and easy credit;
after a decade when, in Pennsylvania, the Revolutionary state constitution
allowed the legislature to break up monopolies, pass legal tender
laws, issue paper money, and dictate other forms of advancement
of the less propertied; after a breakpoint in the relationship with
the mother country, where now not only liberty but also social equality
seemed possible at last, the ordinary people of the rural west suddenly
saw their ideals of the Revolution betrayed. The U.S. Constitution,
returning the rich and propertied to power, was epitomized by a
whiskey tax designed to take money from ordinary people in order
to pay tax-free interest to a small class of fabulously wealthy
investors. The Whiskey Rebellion was thus a class and labor action,
intended to overturn the ruling elite and bring greater social equality
to America, as promised by the Revolution.

What’s not
at issue in these competing visions are the Whiskey Rebellion’s
central importance, wide extent, and impressive success in obstructing
federal policy; the denial by mainstream historians of all of those
qualities; and the outrage to supposedly fundamental American values
of the rebellion’s suppression. What’s at issue: Who the whiskey
rebels were; how they viewed the relationships among government,
economics, democracy, and liberty; and what they wanted.

So who gets
the Whiskey Rebellion right: socialists or libertarians? (We know
the mainstream hasn’t.) More accurately: Who goes astray, and where,
in yoking the Rebellion to a social and economic critique?

the author must abruptly intrude. For my new book The
Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the
Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty

(Scribner) — a narrative history of the Rebellion for general readers,
in which I do not shirk from confronting founding finance — I studied
the primary record exhaustively; read the standard sources on colonial
and founding finance, on Hamilton, on Washington, and the federalist
era in general; read all published material on the Rebellion itself;
and delved into everything scholarly I could find on that and all
related subjects. The benchmark work on the Rebellion of Thomas
Slaughter — emphasizing radical-Whig, country-party ancestry to
the Rebellion, grounding resistance to the tax in ancient, liberty-fueled
hatreds of all internal taxes — I tempered, to say the least, with
close, critical reading especially of the neo-progressives Dorothy
Fennell (whom Slaughter also cites) and Terry Bouton, who benefited,
in profiling the rebels, from a closer reading than Slaughter’s
of class statistics and finance history. And I drew my own conclusions.

Because I present
the American populist movement that exploded in the Whiskey Rebellion
as rising in part from utopian-socialist-communalist ideas that
reach back to England, as well as from the Great Awakening’s little-understood
urge toward the redemption of all of American society; because I
am unsparing (uniquely so, I think) not only of Hamilton but also
of Washington, regarding the incitement and suppression of the rebels
and the west; and because there are a multitude of rather loud resonances
in this story for the Bush administration’s decisions at home and
abroad (and because left-liberals don’t seem to know about any right
critiques of those decisions), I understand how my book may be interpreted
as left-wing revisionist history. And because I have no personal
interest in such branding, I won’t disavow the description.

But I do understand,
where some of my liberal readers, for whom I’m of course deeply
grateful, seem not to, that Hamilton was a liberal, indeed that
he is more realistically associated with Clinton than with Bush.
(A new venture of the Brookings Institution, helmed by Roger Altman
and Robert Rubin among others, is not wrongly called The Hamilton
Project.) As I try to drag the Whiskey Rebellion kicking and screaming
into the fat middle of the founding story, where I think it has
always belonged, I want the idea of Hamilton-as-liberal to give
certain liberal readers pause.

The Whiskey
Rebellion does not offer perfect support for anyone’s current agenda;
it shakes up much of what is widely assumed across the political
spectrum about the founding period. When the dust settles, it offers
new clarity. Though libertarians and socialists have long been virtually
the only keepers of the Whiskey Rebellion flame, I now believe that
living through the Rebellion will challenge not only consensus mainstream
historians but also both left and libertarian students of American

get the Rebellion wrong if they think the rebels were anti-tax,
interested in states rights, or opposed to government regulation
of the economy. On taxes, including internal taxes, the rebels varied,
of course, in their views, and they were at times happy, in a sense
by default, to take up the old language of radical Whigism: they
did hoist signs saying “Death to Excise.” But just as often their
signs said something new: “Equal Taxation.” Again and again they
described their opposition to the whiskey tax in progressive terms
— literally, when they complained that the tax did “not operate
in proportion to property.” That argument (and pace Hamilton,
they did have one) was against regressive taxation.

They later
proposed a land-tax solution to the regressiveness of the whiskey
tax. Not surprisingly, that proposal underwhelmed the liberty-minded
landowners who followed Madison and Jefferson in their own attacks
on Hamiltonian liberalism. Some of the whiskey rebels, most notably
their spiritual inspiration, the frontier preacher and visionary
Herman Husband, wanted actual progressive taxation. Certain historians
would consider that last statement wildly anachronistic. Herman
Husband and the whiskey rebels were indeed wildly anachronistic,
and for that they paid a heavy price.

States rights,
by which many critics of federal overreaching have been so fatally
attracted, meant nothing to the whiskey rebels. Their pre-Revolutionary
struggles had been not against British interests but specifically
against their state legislatures, which used government power to
deny ordinary people equal access to economic opportunity. They
hated the Pennsylvania whiskey tax no less than the federal tax:
both were earmarked for taking scarce cash from a mass of ordinary
people and giving it to a small number of investors in the public
debt. What the rebels had hoped for in fighting the Revolution —
they were, of course, its footsoldiers, unpaid, in the end, by war
profiteers in both federal and state governments — was an end to
the cronyism and inside baseball that had made their lives so hard
for many generations. Husband (always the most extreme example)
was in fact a rank nationalist, a true anti-Hamilton. Manifestly
presaging the New Deal and the Great Society, he believed that only
an organized national government could check natural human tendencies
toward corruption in states and locales.

Husband and
the rebels did bitterly resent the top-down nature of the federal
government as constructed by the U.S. Constitution, which they felt
perfectly embodied Edmund Randolph’s opening remarks at the Convention,
which Randolph said must repair “insufficient checks on the democracy.”
As hands-on experts in public finance — to a degree Madison, say,
never was — rural people understood that prohibiting the states
from issuing money and credit and outlawing legal-tender paper robbed
them of the only relief they’d occasionally pressured their state
legislatures into providing. (By the way, if libertarians want to
make the rebels gold-standard advocates, that’s barking up another
wrong tree.) The whiskey rebels fought for “the western country,”
not for Pennsylvania. The Virginia-legislature tidewater elites,
ancestors of the Confederacy, held no charm for them. Had the federal
government broken up cartels, passed anti-monopoly laws, and taxed
progressively, the rebels would have welcomed its accession with
huzzahs of joy.

Indeed, what
the rebels engaged in, when they began tar-and-feathering tax collectors,
had long been known as “regulation” and had to do, for all its roughness
toward people, with pushing the economy around. The rebels took
regulation as far as Hamilton did — farther, really. When the rebels
established their rule in the western country, they did so specifically
to manage the regional economy for populist ends, forcing the rich
to swear loyalty to the western cause and physically banishing,
via the verdicts of kangaroo courts and congresses, those they defined
as too rich and greedy. Libertarians should be cautious about romanticizing
the actions of men who, when they did briefly seize power, give
some early rumblings of Mao and Stalin — or at the very least of
some of the excesses of organized labor — but certainly not of free

romanticizing the rebels too, go wrong, I think, if they imagine
the Whiskey Rebellion as a rearguard action against industrialization,
economic growth, and the rise of the profit motive in American rural
life. (Bouton is good on this: he openly criticizes fellow progressives
for just such sentimentality.) What libertarians seem to understand
about the whiskey rebels, and some progressives insist on denying,
is that primitivist, countercultural ideas about barter economies,
ecological harmony, and consensus decision-making held no appeal
for the whiskey rebels. Westerners had been reduced to barter,
by the overweening policies of eastern financiers. Barter kept rural
economies from growing and developing. Crushing debt cycles were
the result. Rural people knew, in a way their supposed champion
Jefferson didn’t, that it was in growth, development, and industrialization
that their only hopes lay. They wanted access to credit (without
the crushing terms that drove them into peonage), and they wanted
access to markets for their few cash crops. They wanted small profits,
then bigger profits. Profit would let them build up their farms
and artisan shops, cut down more trees, burn more coal and wood,
industrialize, speculate, reap the fruits of development.

Even Herman
Husband, with his intimations of a large welfare state, managed
to force the wealthy to contribute to helping uplift the poor, wanted
development. For all their cooperativeness in resisting federal
authority, if the whiskey rebels had gained equal access to the
economic bonanzas sewn up by absentee elites and government cronies,
each person liberated by that success would have followed his own
self-interest, more or less enlightened, toward the material rewards
available to a free people. Some would have eschewed industrial
success. I think most libertarians will agree that the majority
would have pursued it.

What libertarians
and leftists share is suspicion of war. It’s interesting, therefore,
that libertarians and progressives have also shared an eagerness
to ignore the whiskey rebels’ reliance on force. It is a critical
fact that the rebels imposed their will on the people of the western
country by physical intimidation. Husband, a lifelong pacifist,
became filled in his seventies with frustration over government
recalcitrance; he abandoned principles and urged a violent solution
to oppression, urging the people of the west to root out hirelings
of the decadent east. The rebels, taking over the courts, intimidating
judges and petitioners, showed no greater commitment to the independence
of the judiciary than Hamilton showed when he arrived to scourge
the western people. (Far scarier, of course, in Hamilton’s case.
The rebels tried to supplant the legitimate government. Hamilton
was the legitimate government.) Progressives like Bouton
and Wythe Holt seem to view rebel violence and intimidation as the
best of grass-roots democracy in action. Libertarians view it as
armed defense of free markets and property ownership. I see the
rebels’ violence as a concomitant of Hamilton’s. Each side justified
— thus permitted, endorsed — the other’s resort to what can only
be described as militarism.

The story is
thus ironic, in the real and old sense of the term, hence at once
tragic and comic. The goal for both sides was unity — if the univocal
politics that is the kiss of death for freedom can be dignified
with such a name. Socialists and libertarians, in polar opposition,
yet ironically allied in caring about the Whiskey Rebellion, might
want to give new consideration to that hard lesson of history.

8, 2006

Hogeland [send him mail]
is the author of The
Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the
Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty

(just published by Scribner), which he insists on describing, despite
underlying issues explored here, as a ripsnorting, swashbuckling
action-adventure. A journalist and critic, he has published in The
New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Salon, and elsewhere.
On June 28th, Hogeland will discuss the Whiskey Rebellion on a panel
at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, part of a July 4th weekend
series on the legacy of Thomas Paine. For other events and information,
(live but under construction ).

Email Print