The Whiskey Rebellion
William Hogeland (2006)
Those attacks would develop, over the course of more than two years, into something far more frightening to eastern authorities than freakish rioting: a regional movement, centered at the headwaters of the Ohio in western Pennsylvania, dedicated to resisting federal authority west of the Alleghenies. In the fall of 1794, the rebellion would climax when President Washington raised thirteen thousand federal troopsmore than had beaten the British at Yorktownand led them over the Appalachians, where armed Americans were no longer petitioning for redress, or carrying out grotesque attacks on officers, but leading a secessionist insurgency against the United States of America. (7)
So as far as the committee was concerned, federal tax officers were to be considered not just silly lowlifes (tax collectors were assumed to be that) but also public enemies. All decent people should refuse these officers aid and cooperation and treat them with contempt. (20)
As Daniel and the gang applied hot, noxiously fuming tar to the shaved pate and nude body of Robert Johnson, the sludge's oiliness was absorbed by Johnson's skin, and a scalding crust grabbed hair, holes, and pores and clung everywhere. When Johnson was sufficiently sticky the gang applied poultry feathers, which, when shaken over a freshly tarred victim, or when he was made to lie down and roll in them, bonded with the slowly hardening blackness and could be removed only with time and effort. The triumphant gang took Johnson's horse and fled. Anguished by the scorn due all public enemies, the taxman was left alone in the dark forest. (23)
Then Congress offered to pay the 6 percent in a far more attractive medium than the paper currency it was issuing. Paper wasn't money; though often issued by various colonies, because cash was often scarce, it had value only in a generally depreciating relation to silver and gold coin from England, Spain, and Mexico. There were two tricks to keeping paper currency's value somewhat stable against metal, which the confederation Congress, when it began issuing paper, couldn't perform. One was to strictly limit the number of bills in circulation. The other was to retire them, scheduling taxes payable in the paper itself, taking back the bills and burning them. Some provincial paper currencies had maintained strong value against coin. (30)
States couldn't collect taxes and were already failing to make agreed-upon requisitions of funds to Congress; they also issued their own paper currencies and offered their own interest-paying war bonds. So Congress printed more and more of its poorly supported paperwar expenses were out of handviolating the cardinal rule of strictly limiting supply. As early as '76, everybody knew Continental paper would depreciate deeply, and by 1780 the Congress had to stop printing it. The bills soon traded at a rate of $125 in paper to $1 in coin. After passing out of circulation, they sold to long-shot gamblers at five hundred to one. (30-1)
Provinces had issued paper currency and passed legal-tender laws that required creditors to accept that paper for payments on loans. Paper depreciated; Morris and other creditors, forced by governments to accept bills whose real value was less than the interest owed, castigated paper as rotten, pulp, a curse, and legal tender as confiscatory, mobbish, and leveling, the legalized pillage of the rich. (35-6)
But his main goal was to get Congress to lay a 5 percent tax, called an impost, on all imports countrywide. And the impost was only a wedge. Once people were inured to direct federal taxation, Morris told Hamilton and other followers, cash poll taxes, cash land taxes, and cash excises would soon follow. To ensure payment to the creditors, Morris intended to open, as he put it, the purses of the people. (37)
Another part of the Morris plan, critical to enabling Hamilton's later projects, was to swell the federal debt to massive proportions. A sufficiently huge debt, Morris believed, would force the Congress to pass federal taxes, and while the best thing would have been for the central government to assume responsibility for the states' bonds and paper as well, Morris could calculate Congress's debt alone at an astronomical number. (37-8)
If Congress wouldn't raise the money through a federal tax, top bondholders wouldn't get paid. Morris rightly predicted clamor. Influential creditors came to his office; he told them his hands were tied. Talk to Congress, he advised. Get the Articles revised to allow the impost; demand federal laws prohibiting states' populist legal-tender laws, price-control regulations, antimonopoly rules. Do it high-mindedly, he coached them: invoke widows, orphans, patriotism. Bondholders followed his advice, but they started pressuring their state legislatures too for payment, and the states threatened to start paying off their own citizens' federal debts. This was a problem for Morris. Such a system, which could only be accomplished with fancy bookkeeping and yet more paper, would defeat his plan to concentrate all public finance under federal control. Alexander Hamilton went back to New York. At a bondholder meeting in Albany, with Schuyler presiding, Hamilton urged the lobby not to seek redress from states. The prime directive was to demand federal taxes. (39)
So Morris now began defining the purpose of the war as sustaining the war debt. Only extending the military conflict, he said, could hold the country together long enough for the government to grow strong and the people resigned to paying national taxes. (40)
In Congress, meanwhile, James Madison, a nationalist not included in the scheme, noted the positive effect that fear of coup was having on tax debate. Hamilton again and again addressed the body to rule out compromises. He opposed a motion to levy the impost only for paying officers: all bondholders must be included. Excitement, Madison noted, led Hamilton to expose the real agenda, depicting for Congress the glories of a United States woven together by a system of tax collectors. (45)
Six years later, authoring the whiskey tax as President Washington's treasury secretary, Hamilton had matured in the practice of law and politics, and the United States of America had become, thanks in part to Hamilton's efforts, a government with direct powers over citizens throughout the states. Opening the purses of the people, in Robert Morris's expression, was possible at last, and Hamilton was in full command of his excitement, impatient with anyone whose imagination lacked the scope of his own. He had a relentess commitmentit was uncanny, given the fertility of his imaginationto the minutiae involved in administering whatever his ambitions demanded. There was no argument he couldn't make impregnable, no argument he couldn't eviscerate. (51)
He was developing a far-reaching plan of finance for the United States. It would realize the old plan of funding the domestic debt, liberating the nation's commercial energy while placing all significant public investment in federal hands, not through the long slate of taxes that Morris had wantedoverkill with a blunt instrumentbut by adding to the import duties a single tax, exhaustively calculated to serve precise purposes: the federal excise, soon to be known as the whiskey tax. This time Hamilton meant to give the debtor class no further chance for resistance, no choice but to pay. (52)
So when Alexander Hamilton sat in his Broadway office at the end of 1790, working up his finance plan, he had exciting new powers to work with. The U.S. Constitution, Article One, section eight, clause one, gave the federal government a right to collect every kind of tax from the whole people of the United States. Even before creating the office of secretary of the treasury, the U.S. Congress had exercised that power, imposing the long-stymied country-wide duty on foreign goods, with specific taxes on dozens of items; in a separate act, Congress created and deployed a cadre of federal officers to collect the impost, and the officers' powers, which included search and seizure, were unhampered by state lines or state laws. Just as Hamilton had predicted to the confederation Congress in 1782, the nation was being unified by tax officers. Furthermore, sections fifteen and sixteen empowered the federal government to call out the state militias to enforce federal laws, to organize and control those militias when so engaged, and to prescribe militias' training at all times. (58-9)
The power that the people had been given in 1776 was taken away.
Hamilton wanted more. (59)
But what Hamilton especially wanted the congressmen to appreciate drew him back to his dreams of the confederation period. This law would be a good thing for the country, he told Congress, because it made collection of public revenue dependent not on the goodwill of the taxed, as state revenue laws always had, but on the vigilance of federal officers. The people's movement had always made itself arbiter of whether taxes could be collected. States hadn't been lazy, Hamilton said, or weak; they'd been scared. Federal officers, he promised, wouldn't be. This tax would be collected everywhere. The means to do it existed. He evinced no reluctance to use force. (63)
Exactly how an excise on whiskey would open the purses of the people wasn't something Hamilton described to the congressmen. Nor did they ask. The people on whom the tax operated would get little help from Hamilton's opponents in Congress, the representatives of the landed. The law's operation was in fact somewhat obscure; understanding it took a grasp of finance that few in the congressional opposition wanted to have.
Many in the western country did have that grasp. You wouldn't have to be a distiller, or even a drinker (though most in both country and the city were that), to feel the tax on whiskey singling you out for punishment. The tax redistributed wealth by working itself deeply into rural people's peculiar economic relationship with whiskey. Many of Hamilton's congressional opponents wouldn't have understood that relationship. Hamilton did.
Nothing like whiskey occurs naturally. Its origins are alchemical, as implied by the term used in the whiskey-tax law: "spirits." The word "whiskey" anglicizes and abbreviates the Gaelic “uisce beatha," or "water of life"; romance languages used "aqua vitae" and "eau de vie." All refer to a beverage that comes in many styles and whose production is simple if counterintuitive. Beer and wine would exist (or something like them would) without human intervention. Wet grain will become rank beer; wet flour, sourdough; old juice, bad wine. When controlled and treated right, good things come from what would otherwise be rot.
Nature produces alcoholbut also limits it. Yeast dies, ending the process. Increasing the potency of a fermented beverage, unlike concentrating flavors, can't be accomplished by boiling it down. Alcohol boils before water and dissipates instantly as steam.
Hence distilling, in which the steam rising from a boiling fermentation is made to cool into a dew. The boiled wine or beer, robbed of its spirit, can be thrown away as dross or served to animals. What remains, proportionally small by volume, is huge in kick and heat. Do it again, boiling the distillate, condensing its steam, and you'll have even less of something even more astoundingly strong, at once liquid and fume, the power of wine and beer magnified and trapped for all time. Fermentation makes a virtue of spoilage, but whiskey won't spoil. (64-5)
With a value nearing the absolute-it might vary by region but given countrywide appetites couldn't depreciate-whiskey became currency in places where coin wasn't seen. Barter paralyzed local economies, but whiskey was a true medium, always exchangeable for cash somewhere down the line, thus maintaining value against metal. A liquid commodity both literally and figuratively, the drink democratized local economies, offering even tenants and sharecropping laborers a benefit. Tenants often wanted to pay rent, and laborers often got paid, in a portion of the grain they harvested. Community stills transformed, for a cut, such cumbersome forms of payment into something fungible. And while landlords often refused in-kind crops, or demanded them in extravagant quantities, they'd take whiskey for rent. The product connected popular finance theories with the small-scale commercial development that, though marginal, had potential, to free rural people of debt and dependency.
So a federal tax on whiskey was hardly, to the small distillers who made up the majority that would pay it, the mere luxury-tax-with-concomitant-health-benefit that Hamilton had described to a Congress eager to be swayed. The poorest people, hired hands paid in kind, experienced the whiskey excise as a tax on income: if community distillers had to pay the tax, they'd have to compensate themselves by taking a larger share of whiskeythat is, currency from people who brought their grain salaries in for conversion. Growers too felt the pain. There was no tax on grain, but westerners who raised grain were forced, in part by federal policies that kept the Mississippi closed, to convert grain to whiskey in order to transport it eastward. The tax thus imposed a federal tax on western farmers while leaving farmers in more convenient and prosperous places untaxed. (67-8)
But even coming up with coin wasn't the worst difficulty the tax would give small farmers and laborers. Hamilton explained the tax as one on drinkers; producers, he said, simply passed the tax along in the price. That fact had an effect he didn't describe. Nobody could work up a subject like Hamilton, and he'd studied distilling: the draft excise bill was replete with knowledgeable calculations regarding proof, heads, and low wines. His inspiration was a success of the British Empire, where distilling and government had a long history together. From as early as the seventeenth century, large distillers had actually favored whiskey exciseshad even contributed expertise to helping the government write excise laws. In 1785, an act of Parliament gave a tax rebate to big distillers, and later acts went all the way, placing an outright ban on small stills, making it actually criminal in England to distill on anything but the largest scale. Even as the U.S. Congress was passing its whiskey tax in 1791, Parliament was banning stills of less than five-hundred-gallon capacity.
The goal was industry consolidation. Hamilton had learned from the English that commercial agriculture and large industry, when publicly chartered, given tax breaks, and financed by large, loans, might turn the United States into an industrial empire to compete with England's. The labor power dissipated on small family farms and in artisan shops could be gathered up, deployed at factories and diversified commercial farms, and boosted through efficient organization. Big distilling had the potential, given American drinking habits, to be highly profitableyet small, seasonal producers, especially in the west, competed with industrial distillers and kept revenues scattered, engines weak. Hamilton's whiskey tax didn't merely redistribute wealth from the many to the few, subdue rural economies, and pound the restless, defiant west. It also served as one of the heavier cogs in a machine for restructuring all of American life.
Not that Hamilton was offering an explicit tax break to big distillers, who did pay the tax, too. But just as in England, big distillers were all for the excise, and it wasn't hard to see why. Hamilton was giving them overwhelming competitive advantages. He established two modes of paying the tax. Distillers in towns and villages, more readily monitored by tax officials, paid a per-gallon tax on the gallons they actually produced; distillers in what the law defined as the country, where operations were isolated and hard to reach, paid an annual flat fee on the gallon capacities of their stills, defined as the number of gallons of wash held in the pot. Hamilton's arithmetic was informed and precise. (68-9)
In every configuration, on every level, Hamilton had designed the law to charge small producers who could least afford it a higher tax. And the most significant effect of the higher tax was that it would, as Hamilton said, have to be passed on to consumers. Small producers would have to raise prices. Big producers could lower prices, sharply underselling the small distillers, taking over their customers, ultimately driving small producers out of business. Closing down local whiskey economies, the whiskey tax pushed self-employed farmers and artisans into the factories of their creditors. (70)
Men like Daniel Hamilton had fought a war that failed hopes for fairness and democracy. Their state constitution had been altered to restore old, pre-revolutionary relations between the many and the few. Industrial entrepreneurs were engrossing small farms, sewing up trade, and turning Forks settlers into hired laborers. That was bad enough. Then Congress passed the whiskey tax. (70)
Regulators, as Husband's constituents began calling themselves, went beyond traditional blackface attacks and court riots. The Regulators' rioting was indeed memorable, especially at one court session in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where they occupied the town for days, beat and dragged officials through the streets, conducted a mock trial, and destroyed all the property of the most reviled official, whose elegant house they dismantled brick by brick. (82)
Husband's allies, though approving of many of his tax ideas, disliked the excessive regulation his monetary plan would requireand the idea of a paper currency without an ultimate gold standard was simply baffling. Despite his grave and authoritative mien, Husband's thinking lent him an aura that struck even fellow radicals as strange. (88)
One of the most important products of army supply was whiskey. General Neville could expect to start outselling his small competitors on a grand scaleif the tax was enforced and illegal whiskey made unconveyable to the army. Meanwhile, as tax enforcer, he would draw not only a Treasury Department salary of $450 per year but also a 1 percent commission on what he and his deputies, also paid by commission, collected from their neighbors. Neville had railed, at first, against federal excise. Then he'd taken the collection job and changed his mind. Naturally some at the Forks imagined he'd been corrupted by salary and commission.
Yet the general's wealth made his salary less important than the way his appointment embodiedeven reveled inwhat ordinary people saw as yet another wrap in a tightly cinched system. The overarching purpose of federal law seemed to be to funnel money from a growing military establishment into corrupt mercantile cartels. (102)
He was stuck with feathers, tied up, and left in the woods in agony, his horse, money, and warrants seized.
Fox got news of his process server's fate and fled the area. No warrants were served that fall. (104)
Mr. Brackenridge was forever getting stuck between terrible extremes like these. It was a position he found anything but neutral. Rejecting, for all the obvious reasons, extremism, he was both a federalist and a republican, a populist and an elitist. He therefore found himself perpetually at odds with federalists and republicans, populists and elitists. (106)
Having been kicked by both parties out of the political process, he returned the favor and withdrew from it. He began to distinguish himself as a dismayingly deadpan humorist. His remarriage raised some eyebrows. In the fall of 1787, the wife he'd brought west had died, leaving him with a son not yet two. Riding between courts in a company of lawyers one hot day, he saw a wild-looking girl, darkly beautiful, tending cattle. When one of the cows broke away, the girl gave chase. The lawyers stopped to watch. Coming to a fence, she didn't stop, or even vault it, but leaped the fence without touching it and kept running. Women wore only loose garments under their dresses. Mr. Brackenridge considered. If she does that again, he thought, I'll marry her. She did. A few days later, he was taking shelter from a storm in a farmhouse and there she was, the farmer's daughter. Her name was Sabina Wolfe. Her father pointed out that he needed her for a job in his fields that otherwise would cost ten dollars. Mr. Brackenridge paid up. After a stint in Philadelphia, where the lawyer sent her to be educated in the ways of polite society, Sabina returned to Pittsburgh and took up duties as the second Mrs. Brackenridge. (108-9)
Attacks on collectors were grotesque, but what would the people, knee-jerk anti-federalists anyway, not resort to if the Washington administration kept confirming their suspicions that drafting, the Constitution, and even gaining independence from Great Britain, had been nothing but tricks for liberating rich merchants and landlords to prey on settlers who improved land and built economies? (110)
In March of 1792, the secretary [Hamilton] reviewed petitions and complaints against the whiskey tax. From large-scale distillers and his own inspectors he accepted some suggestions for revising the law. But he rolled western arguments slowly around in his mouth and then, with pursed-lip disgust, spat each soggy bit out. Digesting this stuff wasn't on his mind. (111)
Hamilton began musing aloud about enforcing the law not through normal judicial process but through a military expedition directed by the executive branch. As he contemplated using troops against the citizenry, Hamilton would often resort to an unaccustomed delicacy, which inspired euphemism and recalled his subtlest letters to Washington during the Newburgh crisis. The thing must, he declared in July of 1792, be brought to an issue. Just as Mr. Brackenridge feared, certain people at the Forks of the Ohio, less inclined to euphemism, were coming to the same conclusion. (115)
He was therefore under the mistaken impression that he was famous throughout the state.
To remain incognito, on his way west he introduced himself as Henry Knox, secretary of war. While Clymer was not, in fact, well known, Henry Knox was known at least to be fat, and the traveler was skinny. People whom Clymer encountered had no idea who he was, but knew he wasn't Henry Knox, and word spread of a mysterious man on a badly concealed errand. (126)
Clymer galloped out of Pittsburgh like a man pursued by nightmares, the hooves of his cavalry escort beating retreat. He'd been in town only a few days. His impact was lasting. As an emissary from the luxurious east, at first traveling in disguise like the secret agent of a hostile nation, then moving officiously about with an armed guard, he gave the people of the Forks a clear picture of their government as remote and ostentatious, timorous, slippery, and, though entirely incompetent, in command of thuggish dragoons. (128)
The gangs called themselves Tom the Tinker's Men. They huzzaed Tom at gatherings and made victims do the same. While nobody believed Tom existed, everybody knew that he did. His author, some said, was the veteran resister John Holcroft, who had served in the Shays Rebellionbut Tom wasn't an alias for a person. He was the stark fact that loyal opposition to the resistance was disallowed. Tom was Mingo Creek personified. (131)
By May of 1794, liberty poles were rising. Up to a hundred feet tall, these were symbols of the trees under which, most famously in Boston, but in other villages and towns as well, the revolutionary committees of correspondence had organized to resist Great Britain. Where there were no appropriate trees, rebels of the seventies had erected poles. Often the poles had displayed symbols of resistance, the snake saying "Don't Tread on Me," striped flags showing the unity of townships. British occupiers in Boston and New York had cut them down. Patriots had erected them again.
The appearance of liberty poles in the western country thus had a meaning that was clear to everyone. Rebellion against tyranny was under way. Attacks by blackface gangs had been one thing, but the formal establishment of the Mingo Creek Association, the forced recantings in letters to the Gazette, the extralegal court system, the takeover of the militia, Tom the Tinker's acts of destructionthese were something else.
The Revolution of '76 was breaking out again. (132)
Government there was anything but well toned, and the irresponsibility, disregard for law, and disaffection with the east that Washington saw as inherent in the character of western people were turning his land into an actual drain.
He planned on replacing his agenthe had in mind General Neville's son Presleybut really he was considering giving up his dream. The land wouldn't fetch, now, a fraction of what it someday might when canals, roads, and governmental authority linked west to east. Still, he needed income, not outgo. Recently he'd been writing his friend James Ross, in Washington County, about finding buyers for his land.
For Washington, dire personal matters were inseparable from dire national ones. The western land bubble would soon burst for everybody if lands appeared not to be under effective control of the United States. (140)
The whole problem was becoming encapsulated for Washington in the western people's resistance to the tax law, which hadn't been enforced anywhere over the mountains, from Kentucky to the Northwest Territory. Failure to collect a national tax imposed an embarrassing limit on the national reach. Tax resistance also had the practical effect of weakening big creditors' confidence in the financial stability of the United States, which had promised to pay bondholders interest derived from excise revenues. To make up the shortfall, Hamilton had been forced to propose new federal taxes: excises on snuff, sugar, and carriages, as well as stamp taxes and new import duties. Because such taxes shifted burdens back to eastern merchants and creditors, now even high federalists were worried about excessive taxation.
The awful national weakness, in all its military, legal, financial, and public-relations aspects, had a source, the president was beginning to believe, in the calculations of western opposition radicals, like those of the Washington County democratic society. A display of overwhelming force at the Forks of the Ohio might serve multiple purposes. (140-1)
The idea, which appeared straightforward, was to send the federal marshal for Pennsylvania to serve summonses to the people on the list. Hamilton officially described the operation as a means of testing the law's effectiveness in prosecuting offenders. Its real purpose, however, wasn't to develop prosecutions. The writs required defendants to appear in court in August; courts were closed then. Attorney General Bradford noted privately that anyone who received a warrant and agreed to register a still on the spot wouldn't actually be charged. What was being tested was the reaction of people at the Forks to being served warrants. As Hamilton, Bradford, and Rawle knew, people at the Forks, less and less likely to respond peacefully, better and better organized for panregional action, were likely to respond with the kind of violence that would justify a federal military suppression. And with Congress in recess, the president would be empowered by the new militia law to call out the largest possible force on his own discretion.
Yet even as Hamilton, Bradford, and Rawle were developing this plan, Congress was busy setting more lenient rules for trials of excise defendants. William Findley had argued for this reform. To people accused of nonregistration of stills or nonpayment of tax, travel over the mountains to federal court in Philadelphia meant many weeks away from work and family, new and overwhelming expense, even the failure of farms. It all seemed punishment in advance of judgment. Court costs were prohibitive enough; the huge fines were designed to be ruinous; nothing had caused deeper bitterness among the people of the Forks, Findley said, than being forced to stand trial in Philadelphia. It was a truism of common law that nobody must be hauled from a vicinage for trial among the strange people of another region. The west's sense of itself as a distinct region, whose problems were persistently ignored and misunderstood by easterners, amplified passion for this principle.
So a new tax law, though involving tougher enforcement provisions, would allow the federal judiciary to establish court sessions in the countryside, using local courts to hear federal tax cases, just as William Findley had hoped. This leniency might give people being served warrants a feeling that their government was heeding their most deeply felt grievance. They might be less apt to explode with the kind of violence that would justify a military suppression.
U.S. Attorney Rawle rushed the warrants into the May 31 docket. He just beat passage of the more flexible law, signed on June 5. The warrants could be served under the old law. They would impose the travel requirement. This master stroke contrived to deliver the sting that the people considered the nastiest. (142-3)
John Lynn wasn't a tax collector. Yet after his tar and feathering, he was shunned with astonishing unanimity. His tavern was empty of customers. After part of the house was torn down, the landlord ordered Lynn off the property; Lynn had to seek refuge at the home of Robert Johnson, who, facing new threats himself, and not making any money, kept telling General Neville that quitting the tax-collection business might be the only option. (144)
The two officers visited four farms as the day warmed. Lenox read out his summonses while General Neville looked on from the saddle. By noon it had already been a long day. Lenox was no hysterical Clymer but a brave, upwardly mobile hero of the revolution. Yet he was shocked: each of the people to whom he read a writ expressed loud contempt for the government he represented. One man had to be found out in a field, working with other sweaty reapers, who stood listening with menacing hostility to words that meant not only fines and legal fees, which could never be afforded, but also the crushing expense and insult to liberty of being carried away to stand trial among strangers, News of the marshal's, presence traveled through the forests and farms. A hastily gathered posse" of thirty or forty militiamen began tracking the two federal officers, at a distance.
Around noon Lenox and Neville rode up the lane of William Miller's farm and stopped in the dooryard of the log house. Miller was supervising about twenty men who were working his harvest; interrupted, he stood and listened as the marshal, who had dismounted, stood before him and read out the summons. As insects hummed in the noonday sun, Miller found himself desperate. He wasn't a rebel. He'd supported the Neville Connection; he was a war veteran who had fought Indians near the Forks throughout the revolution; he was a cousin of the general's brother-in-law, Abraham Kirkpatrick, with whom he'd done business. But he wasn't rich, and he couldn't believe what was happening to him. All his hopes had lain in selling his farm, right after this harvest, and moving to Kentucky. Now he was required not only to pay an impossible $250 but also to spend more money and time traveling to court in Philadelphia in order to pay it. The fine and the trip killed his move to Kentucky. His pulse pounding, Miller considered the fact that General Neville, still atop his fine mount, had deliberately piloted the marshal to Miller's door. Every time Neville had run for office, Miller had voted for him.
"William Miller, you are to put aside any manner of work and excuses ... " But Miller was lost in a heart-pounding heat of rage and desperation and refused to accept the writ. He began cursing the marshal. Lenox, stung by an outright display of emotiontheday had been harder than any other on his overlong journeyresponded by giving Miller an angry lecture. The two men were arguing when General Neville called out to Lenox to hurry the shadowing posse, leaving the screen of woods, was advancing across a field toward the main road, where it would cut off Lenox and Neville and trap them in Miller's lane. Mounting up, Lenox left Miller in his doorway and caught up with Neville. Reaching the road ahead of the posse, the two men began riding away toward Bower Hill. The snap of rifle shots made them pull up, wheel, and face the posse, at whom they shouted angrily. The posse stopped, too. Black smoke drifted. It wasn't clear to Lenox whether the shots had been meant to hit or only to frighten. Neville, who knew that these men could have hit the left eye of a squirrel at long distance if they'd wanted to, warned Lenox that confrontation was not advisable. Lenox did loudly warn the gang against interfering with federal officers. The gang shouted back in accents that Lenox found incomprehensible. Neville and Lenox, turning to ride again, agreed that Neville should head for Bower Hill, not far away, and already fortified; Lenox would ride to relative safety in Pittsburgh. (145-6)
Hoping to stop what he saw as an escalation, the lawyer picked out the youngest of the men, John Ormsby, whose parents he knew. "What, armed?" he said. "You will not ride with us armed." "Ride as you please," the young man retorted, “I am armed." "We are not all born orators," Presley told the lawyer. (150)
When some brought news that soldiers of the Army of the United States, led by Major Kirkpatrick, were on their way to defend Bower Hill, the rebels voted to face down those troops and make two demands. The marshal must hand over his remaining writs. General Neville must resign as excise inspector. If the demands were met, violence would not ensue.
No blackface now, no wild disguise. This wouldn't be a raid by a gang but an expedition by a large, disciplined fighting force, mobilized without orders from any legal authority, offering to do battle with a division of the U.S Army. (150-1)
The force-of six hundred rebels arrived on Neville's broad hilltop at five in the afternoon. Unarmed men were ordered to hold the horses at the rear. Men in arms began a formal muster in front of the house. Drums beat a tattoo. Orders were shouted. What the general could see from his hiding place was at once impressive and distressing. Ranked men paraded and drilled with discipline on his lawn. (152-3)
Slaves were pleading with the rebels to spare the slave quarters, as well as the smokehouse where the slaves' food was kept, and when it was all over, slave quarters and smokehouse were the only things left standing at Bower Hill. (154)
Major Kirkpatrick had been taken by another group of rebels, who were saying that he'd personally shot James McFarlane. David Hamilton, calmer brother of the wild Daniel, joined the group, and Kirkpatrick, knowing David, felt safe enough to start berating his captors. But when David told him quietly, "I'm putting my life at risk trying to save you," Kirkpatrick fell silent, and David found a way to let Kirkpatrick too escape. (155-6)
Timing the process service for June had been effective: Congress had closed its session right after passing the new excise-enforcement law, and with Congress in recess, the president had personal discretion to create the largest possible force. To invoke his powers under the Militia Act he needed only the certification of a justice of the Supreme Court that law enforcement had truly failed at the Forks. (185)
Mincing with his usual onrush of delicacy around the desire to smash with force (here he called it "what is in such cases the ultimate resort"), Hamilton noted that all milder meanssending Clymer, serving the writshad now been tried without success. (187)
As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, James Madison, then Hamilton's collaborator, had based his argument for replacing the confederation of states with a national government on a hypothetical situation, which was now arising in fact at the Forks. Suppose Congress were ever called upon, Madison had asked, to maintain order within one of the states. In a confederation, that conflict must occur between the central Congress and the member state. But in a national government, which acts on individuals, not on states, the conflict occurs between the government and the rioters as individuals. Military force can never be applied to citizens collectively without ceasing to be punishment and becoming war; citizens treated in that way will seize the opportunity to dissolve all compacts by which they might have been bound; union itself will dissolve. But when a government insists on treating each citizen as an individual, and treating insurgents, however numerous, however organized, and however they describe themselves, as criminals, not as a regional entity, union can survive even the most egregious crimes against it. (188)
Hamilton and Knox were arguing for moving immediately, with an overwhelming force of at least twelve thousand men, bigger than any American army to date, more than had beaten the British at Yorktown. (189)
Major Kirkpatrick had written twice to the president; other federalists had been writing east, and the term "civil war" had been used. (190)
Farther west, news had it that a proclamation issued by Governor Mifflin had been read at the Forks only for the purpose of exposing it to sarcastic comment; in some places it had been torn up, with magistrates joining in. In Bedford, Bradford learned that the west was actually declaring its independence. (191)
Hamilton was taking control of the military buildup. Henry Knox had been worrying over some precarious land investments in Maine. Hamilton encouraged Knox to go and check personally on his land; Washington gave Knox permission to leave; Hamilton stepped with alacrity into the job of secretary of war. On August 14, Governor Thomas Lee of Maryland called out his state's militia. On the sixteenth, Governor Henry Lee of Virginia called out his. Governor Mifflin, despite his dissent, had already called out the Pennsylvania militia; New Jersey was signed up as well. The governors were responding to Knox's orders, but it was the author of the whiskey tax who now coordinated the military effort to enforce it. (192)
Absolute secrecy was critical to these mobilizations. The rebel negotiating committee in Pittsburgh, Governor Mifflin, the U.S. Congress, and the public at large must not learn that before completingor even beginningpeace negotiations, the administration was planning an invasion. Writing to Henry Lee, Hamilton told the governor not only to keep his orders secret but to postdate them. (195)
Writing for Randolph, who was fast becoming irrelevant, Hamilton now launched the kind of attack in which he took the greatest pleasure. Excessive politeness emphasized the enjoyment he took not in persuasion but in decimation. (196)
Armed and sweating, men gathered around as a gallery. The first order of businessshowing how far the rebels were from handing authority back to the federal and state governmentswas to try a man who had made the mistake of calling the Parkinson's Ferry congress a scrub congress. Seventy men had seized the man and were accusing him of speaking ill of constituted authorities, common-law-sedition, punishable at the very least by banishment and house burning. Mr. Brackenridge, resorting to shtick, got the accusers and the standing committee laughing and the punishment reduced to forcing the man to buy whiskey and being called a scrub himself. (200)
The committee of sixty should have an internal vote, Gallatin proposed, just to take its own temperature, not for the commissioners, no standing up to be counted, a secret ballot. Such was the tension that men of the standing committee thought even their handwriting would be too revealing. Sixty slips of paper were handed out, each with "yea" and "nay" written on them. Each committeeman tore off the vote he wanted to cast and threw it in a hat, chewing on the other vote until it was unrecognizable. (201)
The seaboard cities, meanwhile, filled with patriotic fervor. The writings of "Tully" and other federalists had done their work. Eastern newspapers railed against the insurgency; the officer classes in city militias were gung ho to march for glory. The opposition party could take no credible position. More than one opposition paper avidly supported sending troops. (203-4)
In Congress, Findley had loudly opposed not merely Hamilton's finance plan but Hamilton's influence, and the influence of any executive department, on processes that he considered strictly the province of the House. He was furious at finding Alexander Hamilton on this expedition at all. The secretary of the treasury, never officially appointed or confirmed by the Senate to any such position, should not be taking charge of a massive military operation to enforce his own policies on the citizenry. (208)
Cobbled together and cumbersome, this was the nation's first army of significant size. It was entering terrain unknown to it, preparing to engage what its leaders considered a strange and unpredictable people. (210)
The citizen army that Washington and Hamilton were moving west had two classes. Officers came from the ranks of the creditor-aristocracy in the seaboard cities. These were young volunteers, hyped on the patriotism of Hamilton's writings as "Tully" and other exhortations, eager for low-risk glory. Gorgeously uniformed, mounted, and armed, they hoped to associate themselves in the public mind with the leaner, more truly endangered army that was finally engaging the native tribes farther west; they called the western rabble they were out to punish "white Indians" and saw themselves as avengers of union. Yet they'd volunteered under certain conditions. Their ranks must be high. Their brigade colors must be exciting and appropriate. Their commanders must not be certain people they didn't like. State governors spent precious hours trying to salve acrimony among young men over personal snubs and outraged dress sense, When preferences could not be satisfied, many adventurers refused, at the last minute, to participate, and those who did serve brought extreme personal touchiness, along with happy dreams of vengeance, to the western march.
The men these cavaliers were supposed to be commanding were mainly militia draftees. Because better-off draftees hired substitutes to serve in their places, the ranks were crowded with the poorest laborers and landless workers, recent immigrants and subsistence farmers. They had no uniforms. Their clothing couldn't keep out autumn dampness and chill. To Hamilton's frustration, the supply process was chronically sluggish, and desperately needed tents, overalls, and jackets, even blankets, were scarce. The men slept in cold fields, sometimes in tents but always on the ground, usually without straw for insulation. Drinking water could be bad, food paltry. Officers stayed in warm taverns and homes, where they spent their plentiful coin on extra food and drink. At times they were lavishly fed and entertained by hosts who could proffer fine wines and the charms of piano-playing daughters. Out in the camps, men drank whiskey and fired newly issued muskets for fun. Drunk on wine in brick houses, officers didn't focus on orders not to waste powder.
Mornings began with floggings. Draft evasion had been rampant, with militiamen simply running and hiding. Once pressed into service, men deserted incorrigibly, embarrassing state governors and undermining the mission's political spin: this was supposed to be a patriotic citizen army, reporting eagerly for duty to suppress ambitious traitors. Despite the governors' repeated calls for troops, filling draft quotas had been almost impossible. The mission required forced marches of up to twenty-five miles a day. Rumors circulated among the troops that they were actually being sent to reinforce the Indian war. The men malingered; they organized mass refusals to follow orders. Much time was spent dispatching parties to hunt deserters, who were then beaten by festively dressed commanders before ranks of surly men. (211-12)
Footsoldiers from the other three states, if less personally irked by the rebels, felt resentment for the mission and had hopes mainly for plunder too. They were all hungry and cold. While families cowered in farmhouses, freelancing soldiers crashed drunk through fields of just-ripened crops, tearing down fences for firewood, slaughtering chickens and pigs, building fires, and sleeping where they fell. (212-13)
Findley blamed Hamilton and the Nevilles. The scene reminded him of the Forks region itself, when under the thumb of rebel militias. Yet this army seemed thirstier for blood, more intent on murder, less disciplined. Rebel militias had been trying to takeover the legitimate government. These soldiers were even more frightening: they were the legitimate government. (214)
Findley had long suspected Hamilton of inciting this rebellion solely for the purpose of quelling it with brutal force, which the soldiers outside in the streets were looking forward to indulging. (215)
On the evening of October 18, Washington paraded three thousand troops in Bedford. Metal clanked up the steep dirt street as the mountain people watched in silence. Dragoons shouted orders. Ranks sluggishly responded. At the county courthouse the army lit a patriotic transparency, a traditional holiday dazzlement, sometimes accompanied by fireworks, and rarely seen in Bedford. This one announced the triumph of President Washington himself in large text illuminated by candles. On the reverse it read, "Woe to Anarchy." (217)
Washington's standing order, imposed at Carlisle, had been to flog any man caught stealing. Officers carried out that order mercilessly, even while soldiers had no choice but to run amok in narrow valleys and on steep hillsides, snatching from isolated farms all the scarce grain, cows, eggs, and chickens they could find.
Hamilton resolved this dissonance between orders and reality. He made theft legal. The quartermaster corps, he announced, would impress civilian property along the way. Now families watched helplessly as bayonet-wielding soldiersno longer freelancing thieves but officials, authorized by the presidentcommandeered hard won winter supplies of grain, meat, firewood, and blankets on behalf of the government of the United States. A steady, freezing rain meant the arrival of winter. Families whose sustenance was carted away faced grim months ahead. (218)
If not exactly war, it resembled war. The whole population had been defined as insurgent. The very presence of federal troops made the Forks a kind of battlefield, even if no shots were fired. Rules for capturing and interrogating prisoners of war weren't governed by the Bill of Rights. (219)
A synchronized effort throughout the regionfocused most vociferously on Washington and Allegheny countiesbrought soldiers to the doors of slumbering families. To prevent suspects from taking alarm, the effort involved no warrants. General Lee and U.S Attorney Rawle had recommended that course of action, and Hamilton offered further legal support: Treason has different rules, he reminded Washington in a letter. (220)
Ensuing interrogations resulted, not surprisingly, in the eventual release of most prisoners. In the days after the Dreadful Night, mass arrests went on anyway: the brutality of the arrests and the torment of detention served the purpose of discouraging citizens of the Forksand everywhere elsenot only from engaging in resistance but also from forming societies and organizations. The world was watching. The ultimate goal, superseding any individual prosecution, was national unity. (222)
Hamilton did spend time prompting detainees to manufacture evidence against two prominent men: William Findley and Albert Gallatin. They were Hamilton's bitterest western enemies in Congress. They'd both opposed the tax, the finance plan as a whole, and Hamilton's influence in the administration. (225)
An hour later, he was ushered back into Hamilton's office. Still polite, Hamilton asked whether Powers had remembered anything, and Powers, frightened, said he hadn't. Hamilton changed. The questioning had been a test, he announced; he already had the evidence he needed on Gallatin. Powers's refusal to help only showed rebel sympathy. Hamilton called for the guard, and this time it wasn't a test. John Powers was taken to the lockup at Fort Fayette. His offers of posting bail were declined, as were his demands to know the charge against him. He wasn't charged, but he stayed in jail until after Hamilton, having failed to find any grounds for arresting Gallatin, had left the area.
Hamilton took a similar approach when John Hamilton, colonel of the Mingo Creek militia and high sheriff of Washington County, decided to turn himself in. [ . . .] He didn't realize that trials weren't foremost in Alexander Hamilton's plan. John Hamilton was just prominent enough at the Forks to make a fine example, yet unlike Findley and Gallatin, not so well known in the eastern world that evidence would be needed for imprisoning him indefinitely. (226)
It wasn't that Philadelphia juries were nullifying in protest. As Judge Peters had predicted, there simply wasn't any evidence against most of the men who had been selected for removal and trial. Despite Peters's concerns, none of the twenty men brought in that Christmas was released for lack of evidence. Charges weren't revealed to prisoners in advance of hearings. The judges explicitly instructed juries to return indictments and guilty verdicts. But there were just too many mistaken identities, too few witnesses, too much confused and inconclusive testimony. (237)
But successful prosecution had never been the way Hamilton expected to drive his point where he wanted it driven. He'd hoped to hang Findley and Gallatin, and he'd tried to substitute Brackenridge, but the real subject of his operation had remained the whole people of the Forks, not prominent individuals pressed into leadership. Holding large numbers of lesser-known people in Philadelphia for long periods of confusion and fear, and then sending them home, extended the policy Hamilton and Lee had imposed on the entire Forks in the fall. Hamilton had started this fight in the confederation Congress in the 1780s. The idea was to destroy the will of an enemy that, though stubborn, had in the end been no match for the energy and scope of the national government.
Only twelve cases went to trial, and in the end only two rebels were convicted. […] The administration was still enjoying renewed popularity. Hanging what appeared to be two sad cases might have raised questions about the real purpose of the operation.
Washington evinced the mercifulness that, with the crisis over, and easterners sated, most people hoped to see. He pardoned the condemned men. (238)
The amazing sight, that hot summer of 1794, on the bluff at Parkinson's Ferry, when for two days a new flag had flown over a western congress, wouldn't recur around Pittsburgh. Radicals' hopes for the American Revolution were over.
Yet the whiskey tax remained hard to collect. There were occasional disruptions of court proceedings and occasional threats, but mainly there was sneakiness and recalcitrance, smuggling and moonshining. The authority that established itself at last in the Western country was not challenged. It was eluded. (239)
"The Whiskey Rebellion": this was Alexander Hamilton's term for what people at the Forks had been doing. With it Hamilton scored a final victory over the rebels, permanently reducing their struggle to one over a beloved local drink. Hamilton did retire from the cabinet early in 1795. The experience of suppressing the rebellion had revived some old dreams. His hopes for empire were not exclusively commercial; the martial called out to him with increasing urgency, and at the end of the 1790s he commanded the United States Army, only technically second to the infirm Washington, who had been called out of retirement to put a beloved face on, a possible war with France. In official charge, at last, of American military power, Hamilton badly wanted that war to happen. Preparations for it were swelling the army; he wanted to make the force permanent and fill it with his own sense of order. But the supply process became infuriatingly chaotic, as usual, and when war didn't come, and the army shrank almost to nothing, Hamilton's disappointment raged. He'd imagined marching troops south, preemptively invading Spanish Florida before it could be taken by the French, not stopping there, driving onward, into South America. He mused too, about bringing his army into Virginia and putting that state, as he phrased it, to the test.
Yet he had some jubilant moments during and after the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, and when in high spirits, he could be surprisingly frank about the useful part insurrection had played in realizing his vision for the country. The rebellion (he didn't say its suppression) had strengthened the government, he was happy to boast. The rebellion solidified the country, he said, and it made national finance flourish. (239-40)
In Washington's stated opinion, suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion had drawn from the American people the support for law and government that marked their highest character. Washington also noted that the operation worked out well for him personally. With commercial distilling newly profitable, he added whiskey making to his endeavors at Mount Vernon. […] The far west was truly opened. With the suppression of the rebellion, his land in the west, which he'd been annoyed about having to sell cheap, increased in value by about 50 percent. (240)
Then ushered in, [Edmund] Randolph was surprised to be presented with a paper that the president asked him to read and explain. It was a dispatch from the French minister to authorities in Paris, analyzing the U.S. government's conduct in the Whiskey Rebellion. The minister cited Randolph as his source not only of privileged information but also of a portrait of Washington as a puppet-frontman for the monarchist ambitions of Hamilton and other federalists, who had incited the rebellion in order to exercise absolute power over the American people and punish political enemies in government. (241)
In the election of 1800, the Jeffersonians came to power and the whiskey tax was repealed. President Jefferson's treasury secretary was Albert Gallatin. (242)