The Whiskey Rebellion

Here at the Whiskey Affair, we appreciate that whiskey can stir the emotions amongst aficionados. However, whilst the worst we’ve seen at our events amounts to a little subtle manoeuvring with shoulders to get at the ever popular bourbon bar (we’re British, after all!), in the U.S. they’ve been known to do things a little differently.

In 1791, the US government found themselves mired in debt incurred during the revolutionary war to throw off their tyrannical British oppressors (steady! – ed.). New Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers and a signatory of the Constitution, (as well as being the founder of the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York Post – they got things done back then…) was tasked with raising funds to bring the national books back to black.

Having decided that import duties – the government’s primary source of revenue – were as high as could be, Hamilton proposed an excise tax on any home grown spirits. To the letter of the law, this applied to all domestically produced spirits, but Whiskey was by far the most popular distilled beverage in 18th-century America, and the new law become widely known as the ‘Whiskey Tax’.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, it wasn’t received well. Many farmers in the western frontier regions were long accustomed to distilling their excess grain and corn into whiskey, and it was so popular in these areas that it was often a form of currency! They were also war veterans, who not long before had been fighting for the principles of the American Revolution, particularly in this case against taxation without representation.

After various petitions and appeals to non-violent resistance had failed to redress the grievance, the battle turned ugly. Perhaps inspired by their compatriots in Boston throwing their own ‘Tea Party’ some twenty years before, direct action seemed inevitable (If they can get that upset over tea, imagine what they’ll do when you take the ‘water of life’ out of their hands!)

The tensions built through small fracas until the resistance came to a climax in 1794, when a U.S. Marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to more than 60 distillers who had not paid the excise tax. The alarm was raised and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville.

Faced with the first hints of armed insurrection, U.S. President George Washington responded surprisingly reasonably, sending peace commissioners to negotiate with the rebels, whilst at the same time calling on various governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. With 13,000 militiamen provided by the governors of Virginia Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Washington himself rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency! Faced with impossible odds, the rebels dispersed into the night before the arrival of the army, and the insurrection was over.

In the end, around 20 men were arrested but all were later acquitted. The government continued to attempt to enforce the ‘Whiskey Tax’ but most distillers were still near impossible to enforce.

The Whiskey Rebellion was a crucial point in U.S. history coming as it did so soon after the end of revolution, as it demonstrated that the new national government had the will and ability to suppress any form of violent resistance to it’s laws. The controversy surrounding it also contributed to the formation of political parties in the U.S., a process that was already underway – in fact the Whiskey tax was formally repealed after Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party came to power in 1801. So, the Republican’s – on one hand, treating whiskey fairly. On the other hand, everything else. You decide.