The Whiskey Rebellion

Armed revolutions come at a cost, and as will hopefully be demonstrated in this piece, that cost can be ideological as well as economical. The Thirteen Colonies fought a bloody war for liberty between 1775-1783 against their British rulers. During this process, however, the Continental Congress accrued large sums of debt in order to fund the war effort, aside from the massive inflation that occurred from the excessive printing of government continentals. In order to pay back this debt, the newly formed American Federal Government would have to enforce new taxes on American consumers.

It is important to understand why the American Revolution was waged in the first place. From the initial foundation of the American colonies, the British Crown had set out to regulate and restrict the amount of trade the colonies could conduct with other nations. The justification for these policies was based on the economic tradition of Mercantilism. Mercantilists thought that trade was a zero-sum game, with some countries benefiting at the expense of others. Furthermore, it was considered impossible for all the nations of the world to develop economically at the same time. These beliefs led to a very restrictive trade system that would hold back economic development of the European countries that engaged in these policies, as well as the other countries and colonies forced to play along.

With such a restricted trade policy for the colonies, the further justification for the infringement of more liberties was not too difficult to attain. And so, with the end of the French and Indian War in 1764, in order to manage the debts that the Crown had accrued, a vast series of different taxes were placed on the colonies to raise revenues. The colonists, however, did not have any representation in Parliament, and from this, cries of unfair treatment ensued on their part.

The battle between the colonists and the British government would continue to grow in intensity, with many colonists rallying under the slogan “No taxation without representation!” Hence, it is argued that the fight for freedom in the colonies was centered around the lack of representation that many colonists felt they suffered from. However, it might be unwise to completely discount the effect that liberty as an ideology played in driving the average man into the fight to free the colonies.
Right before open hostilities between the British and colonists began, there had been a general repeal from Parliament on almost all of the taxes imposed upon the colonists. This did little to quell the Patriots, however. The intrusions of the British Crown on American life was growing more and more intolerable, and this spirit of anti-interventionism would play a big role in driving out British rule.

After the victory of the Patriots and the foundation of a new nation, the first drafted constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation, severely limited the authority and powers of enforcement the federal government could exert. Some of the best legislation ever passed in American history occurred under the Articles, namely the Land Ordinance Act of 1785. However, with these limitations on the federal government came the near impossibility of the raising of revenues through taxation.

Many Federalists began calling for a revision of the constitution in order to grant more power to the federal government so as to exert itself across all the states. By 1790, the new Constitution of the United States had been ratified by all the states and the powers of the federal government were not only greater than before but left open to future expansion.

With the new constitution came the “Whiskey tax”, which was a federal tax on all domestically produced spirits, with whiskey being the most produced in the United States. Farmers across western Pennsylvania would find these taxes proving to be very burdensome, as a farmer’s life is difficult as is, without the added expense of taxation. In response to the new taxes, the local farmers began to rise up in revolt, demanding exemption from the taxes so as to return to the operation of their businesses and farms free from the pressure of government.

The crisis would prove to be a defining moment for the new federal government. If it were to stand down, the victory of the farmers would continue the tradition of a limited federal government established by the Articles of Confederation. If the government crushed the rebellion, it could set a precedent of supreme authority over the nation, but risk more open rebellion and hostility from the states and citizens.

George Washington was president during this time, and he decided to side with the Federalists. Washington raised an army of 13,000 men (the largest army he had commanded up to that point) and marched to Pennsylvania personally leading this army to quell the rebellion of his countrymen. This decisive show of force on behalf of the federal government put to rest any last notions of supreme individual sovereignty for American citizens and set the stage for the creation of an almost unchallengeable federal government. The payment of debts raised in order to win the American Revolution would prove to cost the new nation it’s revolutionary spirit of liberty, which when lost, is all the more difficult to restore.

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