When the Revolutionary War ended, the brand new USA was not in great financial shape. Both the states and the fledgling central government had taken out loans from wealthy businesses and sympathetic foreign nations to fight the war, and now those bills were coming due. Hamilton and Washington raised tariffs as high as they thought they could, but it wasn’t enough; more money had to be found. So it was that in 1790, only a year after Washington began his first term as our first President, a nation that had just fought a war over taxes had to consider what domestic good to tax. Hamilton (a teetotaler and moralist in addition to being a brilliant champion of a strong American government) set his sights on liquor. The logic (one that is regularly employed to this day) was that booze is a luxury item, one people can, and maybe should, cut back on. With the clear benefit of paying off foreign debts, who could argue with such a tax?
The problem was, for a number of people in the Appalachian frontier, whiskey didn’t feel like a luxury. Carting grain over long distances was tremendously difficult and not particularly profitable; by distilling that grain into something that kept (and that people quite liked) poverty stricken farmers in western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky could hope to improve their often-dire circumstances. Not only that, but without much currency around, whiskey was sometimes used as a medium of exchange. The tax threatened a real piece of the Appalachian economy.
To add to the displeasure, the details of the tax made it seem like the Feds were out to get those rural farmers in particular. It was a regressive tax, with a flat fee per gallon produced. Whiskey sold for less in the poor west than in the wealthier east, so a higher percentage of the sale went out the door. The tax also included a clause that allowed a distiller to pay a single fee instead of the per-gallon rate, but to do that you had a to have a good deal of cash on hand at one time, something small-time rural distillers could never do. Those details convinced larger distillers to support the tax, helping it pass, but they raised the ire of the small-timers out west.
The tax was also just the latest in a long line of grievances for the poor and rural, many of whom were former soldiers who had never received the pay they were promised and felt abandoned by the government. Post-Revolution America was a stratified place of rural poverty and politicians who overwhelmingly came from the urban merchant class. Shays’ Rebellion, a few years earlier, had already revealed the extent of the displeasure in the nation’s rural outskirts. Whenever the new country faced a problem, leadership seemed to send the proverbial manure rolling downhill, away from the coast and straight towards people like these small Appalachian distillers.
And so, in 1791, they rebelled. It wasn’t a big, loud kind of rebellion, but a slow and unsteady burn that grew over the course of three years. The action was centered in southwestern Pennsylvania, around Pittsburgh, but drew in figures from as far away as North Carolina. From the beginning, though, the leaders of this oppressed group could not agree on how to go about things. Some supported an armed revolt, and even broached the idea of trying to split from the country. Others were in favor of continued attempts to convince Washington and Hamilton that the tax needed to be amended or abandoned. For three full years, the “Rebellion,” such as it was, consisted of the more radical faction attacking tax collectors and otherwise haranguing anyone who supported the tax, along with spirited meetings and warnings from the government that if they kept it up, there’d be hell to pay.
Finally, in 1794, things came to a head. The regional tax inspector and a federal marshal were given a few dozen subpoenas to hand out to distillers who hadn’t paid the tax. They were shot at and forced to abandon the job. That night, armed protesters surrounded the inspector’s house. More shots were fired, and a protester killed. The confrontation continued the next day, this time with hundreds of rebels. After one of their leaders was shot from the house, the enraged mob set fire to it and took its occupants prisoner (though the inspector had already fled). The event further radicalized the area, and while cooler heads kept the group from following through on its bolder ideas (like torching Pittsburgh), it seemed like things could blow up at any moment.
So reluctantly, Washington responded. There was no standing army at this point, so he called on several states to provide militia. 13,000 men marched to Pittsburgh, and in a blink, the rebellion was over. The rebels melted away and their leaders fled west without a fight. Having shown that the new federal government could defend its policies with force if needed, Washington pardoned the few who were caught and convicted.
This would not be the last time Americans got extrajudicial over tax concerns. Heck, it wouldn’t even be the last time that decade. But the Whiskey Rebellion—and its quick, nonviolent suppression—would help push disgruntled citizens away from the gun and towards the ballot box. It took a few years (and a harsher second president, John Adams), but rural, anti-tax voters would get their man elected in 1800. Thomas Jefferson, who was wary of a strong central government and idolized an agrarian lifestyle, quickly did away with the liquor tax. Of course, it would return twelve years later, when a pressing need for money arose with the War of 1812. By the end of the century, liquor taxes would be the largest source of federal revenue, with nary a rebellion in sight.
The main sources for this article are the three canonical books on the subject: William Hogeland’s “The Whiskey Rebellion” (2010), Thomas Slaughter’s “The Whiskey Rebellion” (1988), and Leland Baldwin’s “Whiskey Rebels” (1968).