As with so many other episodes in early American history, the true story of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion has been purposefully scrubbed from the collective American memory and replaced with a more pro-statist version reaffirming one of the core tenets of that doctrine: federal law always trumps conflicting state statutes at least until Trump became President. Americans today are accustomed to having to kneel in groveling deference to the odious Byzantines on the Potomac. We accept the insertion of government agents into every facet of human existence, from health care to mortgages, light bulbs to flushing toilets. There was a time, however, when our forefathers were not so prone to boot licking. The true story of the Whiskey Rebellion reveals one such instance before 1861 of American refusal to roll over.
To begin, for the sake of clarity and contrast, with the “official version” of the story of the Whiskey Rebellion. The story goes that farmers in four counties in rural western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax that was being levied on “spirits” as part of Alexander Hamilton’s controversial Mercantilist scheme to pay off public debts incurred during the 1775-1781 Anglo-American Civil War. When these rebellious un-American farmers refused to pay the tax and began persecuting the hapless good intentioned federal agents sent to collect the revenue, President George Washington, the Father of our country no less, mustered a militia force of about 13,000 men in 1794 for the purpose of putting down the violent uprising and to teach the “traitors” a lesson in Hamiltonian federalism and Mercantilism. Perhaps Washington’s act of Federal absolutism will spare his monuments when the Cultural genocides begin looking that way. The force was comprised mostly of Virginia militiamen supplied by then Virginia Governor, war hero, and Washington friend, Harry “Light horse” Lee. Governor Lee’s future born son would grow up to lead his state of Virginia in defense of her sovereignty against the same hubris Federal despotism.
The federalized militia met the rebel menace, defeated them, and restored the balance of power with states being put back into their servient position, with a wider revolt being avoided and order restored. If that’s your story your sticking with then you must be a Limbaugh chalder head incapable of original thought. Here are the facts of the episode that have been scraped like Confederate monuments from American history and stripped from the stories taught in textbooks.
Americans familiar with the hereditary hatred of Americans (former Englishmen) of “internal taxation” would recognize immediately the child like official version of the Whiskey Rebellion account recited above. They would know that such excises were despised more than any other revenue raising scheme for the simple fact that government tax men would be on you and on your property, searching your records and your life, in order to loot and destroy. However, A reader of the central statist story could get lost from the appreciation of the seething loathing of such taxes nor the widespread resistance to the collection of the tax on spirits passed by the First Congress serving under the newly minted, flawed Constitution. The nearly universal refusal of farmers in the “back country” to pay this tax, one comes to view nullification in a new light.
As he rose to speak against the excise tax, Georgia Representative James Jackson recounted for his colleagues that the state governments of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky had already absolutely refused to enforce the whiskey tax. Jackson went so far as to say that he hoped the other states would follow suit and would “never subscribe” to the payment of the excise. Jackson went on to provide a “short sketch of the history of excises in England.” In this summary, Jackson reminded representatives that the recent war (for Independence) was fought precisely because Americans refused to allow unjust taxes “swallow up their privileges.”
“I plainly perceive that the time will come when a shirt shall not be washed without an excise.”— Representative James Jackson of Georgia, speech against the Whiskey Tax delivered on January 5, 1791 in the House of Representatives
How prophetic Southern Statesmen were in foretelling the future of America. Imagine, for example, had the British Parliament not repealed the Stamp Act. Had that pernicious policy been applied even a year longer, the Civil War for Independence likely would have started much sooner and probably in Virginia. This rebellion would have, enjoyed far wider support than it did from 1775-1781. Josiah Parker rose to support Jackson’s position, warning, as recorded in the official record of the debates of the First Congress on Wednesday, January 5, 1791:
“It will…convulse the government; it will let loose a swarm of harpies, who, under the domination of revenue officers, will range through the country, prying into every man’s house and affairs, and like a Macedonian phalanx, bear down on all before them.”
This is so obviously similar to the complaint listed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that King George had “erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
Historical evidence of the hatred of such taxes is useful, but not as useful as another aspect of the event. The part of the story that must be restored to the memory of Americans facing a federal government that indeed presumes to promulgate one regulation after the other and that sends swarms of harpies “ranging through the country, prying into every man’s house and affairs” is the absolute and unapologetic refusal by the state governments listed above to enforce the federal law. These six states would not send militiamen to augment the federal armed force sent out to compel compliance and they would not step aside for the government agent sent to shake down farmers for the money they “owed” to the federal treasury, This, is nullification the way it was meant to be done. As it was by cotton states in 1861. Why, then, did the local government in western Pennsylvania capitulate to the Washington administration’s collection of the whiskey tax? Here’s the story as told by Murray Rothbard:
President Washington and Secretary Hamilton chose to make a fuss about Western Pennsylvania precisely because in that region there was cadre of wealthy officials who were willing to collect taxes. Such a cadre did not even exist in the other areas of the American frontier; there was no fuss or violence against tax collectors in Kentucky and the rest of the back-country because there was no one willing to be a tax collector.
In other words, western Pennsylvania was the site of the showdown because the local leaders there were in the pocket of the federal government and were loyal to party, rather than to principle. Could anything describe the contemporary Republican Party more? Of the innumerable unconstitutional acts of the federal government and the thousands of programs they spawn, each one is only successful because there are legions of local and state lawmakers who willing cooperate with the Centralists, committing valuable local resources and man(woman) power to the carrying out of the fiats handed down from Rome on the Potomac.
We, the people, aren’t much better, however. As the statements by Representatives Jackson and Parker reveal, there was a time in our history when the people wouldn’t cower in the face of congressional threats. In fact, our ancestors stood firm in the face of armed federalized troops sent to shut them up. In fact, many of us have been programmed to accept unconstitutional federal acts and executive edicts as if they were etched in stone and handed down from Capitol Hill as if it were Mt. Sinai. Many of us rightly rail against this destructive despotism, but wrongly look to secure the support of seemingly sympathetic congressmen, presidents, and judges for redress. Others vie for the attention of radio talk DJ’s. Washington D.C. is the daughter of a harlot bitch and can’t be trusted or believed. We must rely on the states and the localities of people to bust up the brothel and send the legislative ladies of the evening home to find less lascivious and criminal vocations. Despite what one thinks of the insidious modern immigration cesspool one must appreciate California for giving the preverbal finger to the Feds by not supporting immigration law. One must hope the Central American blithe will mainly harm California. But a precedent has been set for other states to engage in more noble causes of nullification.
Ironically and tragically, the roles in the relationship between the states and federal government have been reversed and Washington considers the states expendable fiefdoms in its power orgy. State borders are drawn in sand that will dissolve and disappear under federal aggression. The nefarious premise of Lincoln is accepted where the states preceded the Federal Government.
In fairness, there are those who will argue, as did Washington and Hamilton, that the whiskey tax was a constitutionally authorized exercise of Congress’s taxing power. Perhaps that is true (it is arguable), but it is a technicality when viewed in the larger context of civil disobedience to unjust laws (be they nominally constitutional or not). As Algernon Sidney, a man of immense influence on the Founding Generation, wrote, “That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.” The 1964 Civil Rights Act, anyone? But that is whole other topic if not book for another discussion.
The real question in the view of the thousands of Americans who flatly refused to pay the whiskey tax — was whether this was a just tax, one narrowly tailored for the just purpose for which it was enacted. Here’s how Representative Josiah Parker — a Federalist! (a member of the Hamiltonian party) explained his reasonable opposition to the whiskey tax being imposed on the people of the United States (those who could be coerced into obeying it), according to the official records of the debates of the First Congress:
Mr. Parker said no man was more heartily disposed than he was to give his approbation to even just measure for supporting the public credit, and doing everything in his power to support the constitutional operations of government; but this mode of raising a revenue he considered as particularly odious to the people; and at the present moment he was not satisfied that such an increase to the public burdens in necessary.
The next day, after James Madison (yes, that James Madison) rose to speak in favor of the excise, James Jackson dared challenge the “Father of the Constitution” on the wisdom of this policy. Again, from the record of the debates:
“Mr. Jackson observed, that his defeat…should not defer him, while he had a monitor within, from rising in his place to do his duty, in opposition to a system unfriendly to the liberties of the people.”
In light of the true story of the Whiskey Rebellion — the recently revealed fact that the “rebellion” was not localized to western Pennsylvania and the federal government’s quashing of that pocket of resistance did not assure accession of the rest of the republic to the collection of the tax — perhaps the most important aspect of the story is that thousands of our late 18th Century countrymen reflexively recognized the despotism present in a revenue scheme that was neither based on just principles of taxation nor proven to be effective or necessary to the accomplishment of the purported purpose: paying off the state debts.
In summary the incident was not a victory for the Centralist. The entire American back-country was gripped by a non-violent, civil disobedient refusal to pay the hated tax on whiskey. No local juries could be found to convict tax delinquents. The Whiskey Rebellion was widespread and successful, for it eventually forced the federal government to repeal the excise tax. Only a few tax dissenters were arrested and two were convicted in Federal courts but later pardoned by the President.
Today we face legions of special goon squads in lieu of the 18th century militias ready to visit violence on those who even imply resistance. More often it is directed at those of us share the independent spirit of our Pennsylvania and Southern frontier ancestors.