Alexander Hamilton hated whiskey.
Okay that’s not technically true. While the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 can trace its roots to my boy Hammy, there’s no proof he hated the liquid gold that is whiskey. He just wanted to tax it. Afterall – people like whiskey. Whiskey is sinful. And the nation needed money. Which all points to – we should tax the crap out of it. Right?
Be kind, rewind. 8 years doesn’t seem like that long; after all that’s only ⅔ of FDR’s presidential term. But 8 years is a long time to be fighting. During the American Revolutionary War, the states bankrolled the EIGHT YEARS OF fighting. For a new country, this is tough. It left the states in hellacious debt. Alexander Hamilton – The Little Lion – was a monetary genius, and in 1790 he pushed for the federal government to take on the debt from the war. But what’s the fun of debt without getting to tax it? Spoiler alert: there isn’t any. So yes – Hamilton pushed to have an excise tax implemented to tax whiskey to prevent further financial debt. Although George Washington was originally skeptical of it, after speaking to government officials across the young-nation, he was convinced that it was a good idea. Funny how our friends can convince us to go along with bad ideas – kind of like those tequila shots from last Saturday.
With any popular idea, it’s no surprise that protests started immediately. As proof that history repeats itself, people argued that this new tax was unfair to small producers, and preferred the large distilleries. God, that sounds familiar. Under the 1791 Excise Whiskey Tax, large distilleries were taxed six cents per gallon with greater tax breaks the more they produced. Small producers however were saddled with a nine cents per gallon tax. Another sore spot: only cash would be accepted which significantly hurt farmers who were used to trading for various goods. Obviously this country has always supported farmers.
Just like Atari’s E.T. video game, this was a huge failure. Instead of people giving up the booze, they just refused to pay the taxes. The excise officers tasked with collecting the taxes faced threats of violence. Not only was the common man refusing to pay these taxes, but so were the producers.
What happens when people dislike a policy? They go to social media. Or in the 1790s, they form a mob. September 11, 1791 was the fateful day for excise officer Robert Johnson when threats of violent became reality. He was “surrounded by 11 men dressed as women, who stripped him naked and then tarred and feathered him before stealing his horse and abandoning him in the forest” (History.com). Sorry. That quote was too good to paraphrase or ignore.
Johnson was no fool. Unlike I would have, he kept his eyes open during this event and recognized two of the men. When he took this to officials, warrants were issued for their arrest. The man tasked with serving the warrants was John Connor (no, not that John Connor), and he was faced with the same punishment as Johnson…in addition to being tied to a tree for five hours (somehow only 1 hour shorter than “Gone with the Wind”).
This wasn’t the end for whiskey lovers and tax protesters. Events such as this continued for years.
Life certainly wasn’t easy for the whiskey tax collectors, but it wasn’t until 1794 that non-alcoholic shots came into play. Federal marshall David Lenox was serving writs to distillers who had avoided paying taxes. Wealthy landowner John Neville (no relation to this objectively better Neville) served as a guide for Lenox through Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania.
It’s all fun and games until an angry mob whips out pitchforks. Which literally happened. While (attempting) to serve the summons, an argument broke out, an angry mob became involved – literally with pitchforks – and a shot was fired.
The next day, an angry mob woke up Neville at his home, Bower Hill. If we’re throwing around names for our homes, I dibs Bourbon Hill. Anyways, some of the angry men were ones that had been served summons the previous day. Note to self: if you’re going to piss somebody off, make sure they don’t have your address.
Here’s the (approximate) dialogue of what happened next:
Angry Man 1: Neville! Some people – totally not us – want to kill you!
Angry Man 2: …Yeah! Not us!
Neville: (grumpy old man voice) Get off my property!
Angry Man 2: No can do, bro.
Neville: (grabs gun) Fine by me. (Shoots into crowd).
When Neville shot into the crowd, he shot and killed Oliver Miller. Obviously, the pitchfork squad wasn’t too happy with this, so they shot back at the house. Neville sounded an alarm, his slaves attacked the crowd, six mob members were injured and took Miller’s body with them as they ran. This was not the end for Neville.
A few days later, around 700 men stormed the property. Neville and the women escaped in time, but the mob still set the estate on fire. Less than a week after that, the mob members were warned that Washington would send a militia to take care of them. After stumbling across (read: attacking) a mail carrier and reading the letters they carried, they found out the disapproval of the Bower Hill incident. And used these letters as an excuse to attack Pittsburgh.
7,000 men showed up at Braddock’s Field (just outside of the Pittsburgh). Trying to avoid another Bower Hill, the city sent delegates to the crowd to let them know the letter writers had been expelled…and went on to gift several barrels of whiskey to the men in the field. Note: I also accept gifts in the form of entire whiskey barrels. Obviously after indulging in the whiskey, the crowd wasn’t really into the idea of attacking the city. So with permission, they peacefully marched through Pittsburgh.
Hamilton – never at peace – feared the whiskey rebels would attack again. While Hamms wanted Washington to send troops, Washy disagreed and sent peace representatives. Just like New Coke, this also failed. And yeah – Washington ending up forming a 12,000-man militia anyways. The rebels tried to convince Washington that the militia wasn’t necessary, but he kept them around until all signs of rebellion had ceased.
A rebel army didn’t appear. The militia rounded up the usual suspects (aka suspected rebels). Those most at fault had already fled, and in the end, only two men were found guilty of treason, and they were later pardoned.
Spoiler alert: the whiskey tax didn’t hang around forever. The Republican Party – and many citizens – opposed Hamilton’s Federalist tax policies. So when Thomas Jefferson became president, he worked to have the tax repealed. After all, it’s hard to keep a tax around when everybody refuses to pay it.