Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty, by William Hogeland (author), Simon Vance (narrator)

Tantor Media, ISBN 9781400102471, June 2006

This is a detailed look at an often-overlooked episode in the early history of the American republic, the Whiskey Rebellion.

We now take for granted the success of the new United States of America after the American War for Independence,  but it was far from a foregone conclusion. Under the initial Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781 when formal ratification by all thirteen original states was completed. The Articles contained a fatal flaw: the Congress had no power to tax and could only request funding from the states. This meant, effectively, that it could make all the decisions it wanted, but it had no power to implement them. The Congress could not manage or prevent conflicts between states, could not take effective action without unanimous support of the states, and was generally unable to provide any of the benefits of a national government. Because of this, the early USA was in danger of coming apart, with some states even making overtures to Britain.

The Constitutional Convention was convened to revise the Articles to correct these problems. In fact, the delegates, or important leaders among them, including James Madison and George Washington, recognized that the Articles were essentially unfixable. Creating a functional government required abandoning them and starting from scratch. The result was the US Constitution as we now know it (minus all the amendments, of course), which after ratification took effect in 1789, with George Washington elected as the first President essentially unopposed. (In fact, the Constitution would not have been ratified if Washington, truly the most respected and trusted man in the country, had not agreed to serve in that capacity.)

But that makes everything sound too simple, clean, and easy. In fact there was a significant body of political opposition to a strong central government. The Federalist Papers were written to address that opposition and get the Constitution ratified, but in the longer run, the fundamental disagreement about how the United States of America should be governed, and even how it should be understood, remained.

One of the critical powers gained under the Constitution was the power of direct taxation, so that the federal government was no longer dependent on the voluntary financial contributions of the states. Initially, that power was exercised only in tariffs on imported goods. This wasn't sufficient to deal with the debt incurred, both nationally and by the individual states, during the Revolution, however, and in 1791, at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, Congress passed an excise tax on domestically distilled whiskey.

This was far more politically explosive than we would expect today. It became a major expression of the conflict between the Federalists (Hamilton and his political allies) and the Anti-Federalists, America's first opposition political party, of which Thomas Jefferson emerged as a major leader.

It also became a major expression of the conflict between the relatively urban, developed, and prosperous coastal populations, and the rural, much less prosperous western fringes of the new country. Particularly in western Pennsylvania, where whiskey production was a source of critical extra income, the excise tax on whiskey was deeply unpopular, and provoked violent resistance. This in turn provoked, eventually, military action, led by President George Washington, to suppress the rebellion and enforce the tax.

This extremely well-written and well-researched book is, essentially, the Anti-Federalist viewpoint on that conflict. Hogeland has a very negative view of Alexander Hamilton, and does not concede or even mention the critical ways in which the assumption of the states' debt and the commitment to paying the entire debt at face value benefited the fledgling United States and continues to do so.

That said, precisely because of that viewpoint, Hogeland gives us a detailed, thoroughly researched, look at a part of early America that's often overlooked, the lives of the ordinary people outside the major population centers of the new country. It's sometimes frustrating, but a useful and interesting contribution.


I borrowed this book from the library.