20 February 2017

Whiskey Rebellion Series

The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hodgeland, 2006, Excerpts

The national crisis came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion began in the fall of 1791, when gangs on the western frontier started attacking collectors of the first federal tax on an American product, hard liquor. The perpetuators were the toughest and hardest of westerners: farmers, laborers, hunters, and Indian fighters; most were disillusioned war veterans. Expert woodsmen and marksmen, adept not only in musket drill but also in rifle sharp shooting, they were organized in disciplined militias and comfortable with danger. Triggered by the tax on domestic whiskey, the rebellion brought to a climax an ongoing struggle not just over taxation but also over the meaning and purpose of the American Revolution itself. With independence won, a U.S. Congress imposing the hated excise tax would seem the ultimate in ideological betrayal.

Those attacks would develop, over the course of more than two years, into something far more frightening to eastern authorities, a movement 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 troops, more than had beaten the British at Yorktown – and led them over the Appalachians, where armed Americans were leading a secessionist insurgency against the United States of America. The president’s decision to suppress the rebellion became a test for the fragile new nation’s viability, the biggest news of the day.

By the time federal forces marched west, the Whiskey Rebellion was bathing all of its actors – founders and terrorists, extremists and moderates – in the stark light, not of an argument between genteel parties in Congress, but in a guerrilla war on the country’s ragged margin, our first war for the American soil.

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