In The Whiskey Rebellion William Hogeland has written an outstanding history of a little understood part of American history. It is, oddly enough, tremendously relevant to where we find ourselves today.
As Hogeland wrote in a separate essay at Lew Rockwell's site:
In the summer and fall of 1794, President George Washington, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and General Henry Lee began making mass arrests of American citizens. Authorized neither by warrants nor by any resolution of Congress, federal troops rousted from beds, rounded up, and detained on no charge hundreds of people against whom the executive branch knew it had no evidence. Officers administered warrantless searches and seizures of property and subjected detainees to harsh conditions and terrorizing interrogation. Some victims were told they'd be hanged unless they gave false testimony against the elected officials who had vainly opposed this and other executive-branch policies and operations.
After spending various lengths of time in privation and fear, most of the detainees were released. Detachments of troops meanwhile arrived at every home, in a region defined solely for the purposes of this operation, and required every male over the age of eighteen to sign an oath of loyalty to the government. Not surprisingly, most people complied.
Then, in the winter, the few remaining detainees were marched almost 400 miles to the capital, poorly shod and clothed, under the authority of an officer well-known by his superiors for the pleasure he took in denigrating prisoners. On arrival, the suspects were paraded in the streets as victory trophies, then imprisoned under conditions that were even more extreme than normal. Some still hadn’t been charged with a crime. Others had been charged only because the presiding federal judge – whom President Washington's orders explicitly subordinated to an ad hoc military authority – himself felt intimidated by the federal troops and allowed indictments on what he later said he considered insufficient evidence.
In the end, therefore, juries indicted few and convicted almost none of the prisoners, many of whom had been left in jail for many months. Failure to prosecute didn’t inhibit the president from stationing federal troops indefinitely in the region where he'd rounded up those and so many others. The military occupied the area, directing and assisting the civil judiciary. In that process, the sovereignty of the United States was at last established.
Although a disturbingly large number of otherwise well-informed history readers are not aware of those activities of the first executive branch of U.S. government, a good many libertarian students of American history do know about the 1794 suppression, know too that it came in response to a series of protests, petitions, acts of violence against federal officers, skirmishes with soldiers of the U.S. Army, and threats of outright insurrection and regional secession, which Secretary Hamilton – adding insult to injury – trivialized for all time as "the whiskey rebellion."
Focused on the headwaters of the Ohio River in western Pennsylvania, also involving people in western Virginia and Maryland, as well as in Kentucky, the rebellion has routinely been consigned by mainstream history to a sidebar about a dustup, the details of its awful suppression consigned almost to oblivion – despite the paramount place that both the rebellion and the techniques for its suppression had in the minds of Hamilton, Washington, and others in Washington's second-term cabinet.
So Hamilton's insult was well calculated. It achieved the obliteration from history of the seriousness of his rural opponents' criticisms of federal economic policy.
The rebellion did involve whiskey. Distilled liquor played an important part in the economic and financial lives of people living west of the Appalachians, especially at the Ohio headwaters. The complexities of that relationship, in fact, had made placing a federal tax specifically on whiskey far more important to Hamilton's famous plan of national and federal finance – and to his visions of commercial empire, powerful government, and military might – than most historians seem to want to acknowledge.
Still, the rebellion and its suppression were not ultimately about booze. They were about the nature and purpose of federal taxation, about government involvement in finance and monetary policy, and about the relationship between democratic republicanism and markets. (Hence their longstanding interest for libertarians.) The "whiskey rebels" had a nuanced grasp of such issues. So did Alexander Hamilton.
Modern historians of the founding and federal eras, however, as well as many biographers of Hamilton and Washington, tend not to. In large part they've treated the rebellion as a chaotic overreaction, by rural enthusiasts of drinking and abominators of domestic taxation, to a duty that placed new costs on the consumption of a beloved beverage.
Some writers, who do give reasons for what they nevertheless imply was the rebels' mistaken belief that the federal government deliberately created the conditions of their ruin, see the government too as overreacting – as if the awful effects of the tax and the excesses of its enforcement came mainly from insensitivity, not design.
Even the few historians who do acknowledge the rebels' embodiment of a long and serious (if often distressingly violent) tradition of dissent from finance policies that Hamilton was perfecting and enforcing fail to draw from the decisions that Hamilton made in suppressing the rebellion any conclusions about the degree to which his finance project explicitly contemplated just such a military triumph over the citizenry – had indeed been constructed partly to achieve such a result.
And all of this seeming confusion flies in the face of Hamilton's very clear statements throughout his letters and reports and the well-known ideas he cogently articulated throughout his career. History has somehow managed to read the Whiskey Rebellion exactly as Hamilton hoped it would.
Libertarians, by contrast, have read the whiskey rebels as heroic property holders, victims of overly strong government, and the rebellion's suppression as a dystopian parable, with the distressing quality of having not only actually happened but happened at, and because of, the birth of the United States. It remains a stunning fact that Alexander Hamilton explicitly connected (with a blatancy, even a joyousness, impossible for politicians today) his vision of a federally encouraged and managed national economy – fed by massive federal borrowing; supported by a slate of taxes carefully calculated to achieve social ends; based on the consolidation of industry and finance and the absorption of small enterprises into corporate structures with the closest possible ties to the executive branch of government – with his concomitant vision of a large, privileged military establishment; national unity imposed by brute force of arms; day-to-day policing of the citizenry by the military, when deemed necessary by the executive; and the systematic violation, when deemed necessary, of virtually every one of the individual liberties that had been set out, so reverently and recently, in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
Hamilton, in other words, was a liberal. An activist of executive power, already running the most bloated executive department, he famously believed in powerful government as older brother to the market, and he was willing – at times eager – to subordinate individual rights to managing the economy for what he perceived as national good. The fact that American liberalism has, since Hamilton's day, redefined "national good" . . . is less telling in this context than the similarities between post-War American liberalism and the relationships that Hamilton endorsed among federal power, taxation, national ends, and big credit and capital.
The rebellion, such as it was, was deliberately provoked and fomented by Hamilton to achieve the result he wanted, to break the power of the common folk in the west.
"In the early 1790's, at the federal government's birth, Alexander Hamilton constructed a tax, carefully predicated on the special role played by whiskey in rural economies, to shift economic opportunity away from small-scale, generalist operators, who had long sought fair access to economic opportunity and growth, and had contributed their efforts to the Revolution in order to achieve it. The whiskey tax, linchpin of the whole national finance plan, offered overwhelming advantage to large, government-connected, specialized operators; it pounded the people of the always restless, defiant, independence-minded west; it drove small farmers, independent artisans, and landless laborers alike into the factories of their creditors.
And Hamilton had no scruples about associating that plan with the overwhelming physical force of the newly empowered federal executive."
Hogeland lays out in excruciating detail the tactics of the 'regulators' of the back country to intimidate tax collectors. In the end, their tactics played right into Hamilton's plan. One wonders at this remove what might have been had the rebels had:
a. a leader worthy of the name;
b. did a little more planning and a lot less drinking their own stills' product;
c. used the principles of maneuver warfare against both the invading federal column (made up of mostly militia draftees) and the leaders who sent them (i.e. Hamilton and his banker buddies).
You cannot read this book without coming away with the fervent wish that Hamilton had been killed at Yorktown. Failing that, one wonders how hard it would have been to put a rifle ball between Hamilton's eyes either before the troops marched or while it was making its ponderous way west. Hamilton was the evil genius behind these mens' oppression. Kill him, and the drive, the competence, the ability would have gone out of the attempt (successful in the event) to subordinate the common folks to the creditors of the new nation.
Yet though the rebellion failed, and Hamilton got his tax, Hogeland notes on page 239 of the book;
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 nit challenged. It was eluded.
There are lessons here for today. Read and ponder.