In my recent release, TheCumberland Bride, I reference some unrest taking place in the Ohio Valley at the same time, related to a tax that had been levied on the sale of whiskey.
Farmers in the westernmost states had discovered that due to the high cost of shipping things back east (there were no wagon roads west of the Appalachian Mountains, yet, so they had to use pack horses or mules), they could make more money selling whiskey (distilled from grain grown west of the mountains) than from shipping the grain itself east. Alexander Hamilton, looking for ways to fund the newly formed American government and to defray the lingering cost of the war for independence from Britain, decided to levy a tax on the whiskey.
The farmers didn’t appreciate this new tax and felt they’d just fought for independence from that kind of heavyhandedness, that government was ultimately up to the people and if the people didn’t approve of the tax, well then, they shouldn’t have to pay it. Violence broke out all along the Ohio Valley, from northeastern Kentucky up into western Pennsylvania. Protesters threatened to burn Pittsburg to the ground.
President Washington felt the supremacy of the United States government, and the Constitution itself, was at stake, and so in the face of some vigorous protests, rode out to western Pennsylvania himself with a strong show of force. General Daniel Morgan, the tough, hard-bitten hero of the Battle of Cowpens almost 14 years before (during the Southern Campaign of the Revolution), was chosen to lead one wing of that army, and the Whiskey Rebellion subsided without a shot being fired. (Interestingly, one member of his force, which stayed in western Pennsylvania through 1795, was Meriwether Lewis.)
Several of those who had led the violence were arrested, but only two men were tried and sentenced to hangings. Washington eventually pardoned even those two. He was apparently satisfied that he’d upheld the Constitution, but many farmers still felt the government had looked out more for its own interests than those of its citizens.
The excise tax remained difficult to collect, and many just plain refused to pay it. Hamilton was disappointed that his plan to help fund the new government had failed. Many feel that the events surrounding the Whiskey Rebellion directly led to the formation of two political parties, the Federalists who believed more power should lie with the government to protect and serve, and the Republicans who believed more power should lie with the people. A few years later, when Jefferson was elected president, he repealed the Whiskey Tax, despite the popular view of the day that Washington’s actions against the Whiskey Rebellion were necessary and successful.
Has anything really changed since then? It’s an interesting commentary on the history of our country’s politics, to be sure.