From 1791 through 1794 in western Pennsylvania, acts of resistance to a federal excise tax on the production of whiskey led to an insurgency serious enough for George Washington to deploy the nation's first federal military force to put it down. This was the first war for the American soul, according to William Hogeland, who traces the events in his lively new book The Whiskey Rebellion.
In part, Hogeland explains, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton needed the whiskey tax of 1791 to fund the nation's staggering war debt. Beyond that, he saw a continuing pool of capital in the hands of moneyed investors [whose] financial ambitions would fund the nation's ambitions. The poorest people, however, would experience the whiskey excise as a tax on income.
The ensuing rebellion pitted well-off Easterners with large distilleries against less well-off Westerners, many of them desperate and disgruntled war veterans with small farms and businesses. Radical Westerners felt that resisting the tax, often with threats and violence (such as the tarring and feathering of collectors), was their last chance for fairness. Caught in between were Western moderates who worked to reach a compromise, but found themselves distrusted and threatened by both sides. As resistance continued, Hamilton advised Washington to raise an army to enforce the law, an action Washington saw only as a last resort.
Hogeland gives us vivid characterizations of the major players and evokes the atmosphere around the protestors. One of the most colorful is Herman Husband, a wealthy businessman, a plantation owner who owned no slaves, a Quaker pacifist who believed in nonviolence, and a radical leader, legislator and author. Religious absolutism brought him to the conviction that what was happening was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Hogeland also describes the Dreadful Night, as it came to be called, when people whose names appeared on lists that Hamilton and his allies had compiled were rounded up and detained. Unfortunately, almost every adult male was fair game for capture. The fact that most of those arrested would have to be turned loose later was not an issue for the Dreadful Night. The Whiskey Rebellion is important history, carefully researched and written with verve for a general readership. Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.