19 October 2012

Taming a Mutinous Army – Make the Officers Creditors

The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hodgeland, 2006, Excerpts

The Revolutionary War was effectively won in late 1782. The past seven years had been a slog through cold, starvation, at time near-nakedness, along with the daily horrors of slaughter. Neither officers nor men had been paid in years. Tight cash forced choices between paying soldiers and paying creditors. Creditors came first: Morris officially suspended army pay. Washington himself was near bankruptcy. Mutiny was what Washington feared most. He blamed Congress. Uncertainty about pay was haunting – and uniting – a large, angry force, 550 officers and around 10,000 enlisted men, who might refuse to be sent home impoverished and in debt.

When officers met with Congress, they mentioned mutiny as the probable outcome of demands not being met. Hamilton was now determined to build the situation into a genuine crisis. That the crisis really might end in coup and military government was a risk they had to take. They even considered the potential benefits to their national agenda of the success of such a coup. But their main idea was merely to frighten the states with the threat of military takeover. The officer class was armed. Morris advised the officers to refuse to lay down their arms unless the states agreed to federal taxes.

In Philadelphia, Morris met with officers and hailed them as fellow creditors. The only solution was to demand federal taxes to pay not just officers but all creditors. Hamilton addressed Congress to rule out compromises. He opposed a motion to levy the impost only for paying officers: all bondholders must be included. Congress did just that. All army obligations thus passed easily to the federal government, adding to the debt. The officers agreed to take the interest-bearing bonds, to be funded after final settlement of states’ accounts with Congress.

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