“I plainly perceive that the time will come when a shirt shall not be washed without an excise.”— Representative James Jackson of Georgia, speech against the Whiskey Tax delivered on January 5, 1791 in the House of Representatives
As with so many other episodes in early American history, the true story of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion has been purposefully scrubbed from the collective American memory and replaced with a cleaner, more pro-statist version reaffirming one of the core tenets of that doctrine: federal law always trumps conflicting state statutes.
Americans today are accustomed to having to bow in obsequious deference to the omnipotent plutocrats on the Potomac. We accept the insertion of agents of the general government into every facet of human existence, from health care to mortgages to light bulbs. There was a time, however, when our forefathers were not so willing to “lick the hands which [fed them]. The true story of the Whiskey Rebellion reveals one such instance of American refusal to roll over.
We begin, for the sake of clarity and contrast, with the “official version” of the story of the Whiskey Rebellion.
The story goes that farmers in four counties in rural western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax that was being levied on “spirits” as part of Alexander Hamilton’s controversial scheme to pay off public debts incurred during the War for Independence.
Continuing with the commonly told tale, when these rebellious farmers refused to pay the tax and began persecuting the federal agents sent to collect the revenue, President George Washington mustered a militia force of about 13,000 men in 1794 for the purpose of putting down the violent uprising and to teach the “traitors” a lesson in Hamiltonian federalism.
The federalized militia met the menace, defeated them, and restored the balance of power with states being put back into their subordinate position, with a wider revolt being avoided and order restored.
If that’s your story, I suggest you not stick to it. Here are the facts of the episode that have been scraped from the monuments of American history and stripped from the stories taught in textbooks.
Americans familiar with the hereditary hatred of Americans (and the British forbears) of “internal taxation” would recognize immediately the holes in the official version of the Whiskey Rebellion account recited above. They would know that such excises were despised more than any other similar revenue raising scheme for the simple fact that with these programs, government tax men would be, as historian and economist Murray Rothbard once wrote, “in your face and on your property, searching, examining your records and your life, and looting and destroying.”
A reader of the pro-statist story, however, would be forgiven for appreciating neither this seething loathing of such taxes nor the widespread resistance to the collection of the tax on spirits passed by the First Congress serving under the newly minted Constitution.
In perusing the reports presented in Congress of the nearly universal refusal of farmers in the “back country” to pay this tax, one comes to view nullification in a new light.
As he rose to speak against the excise tax, Georgia Representative James Jackson recounted for his colleagues that the state governments of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky had already absolutely refused to enforce the whiskey tax. Jackson went so far as to say that he hoped the other states would follow suit and would “never subscribe” to the payment of the excise.
Jackson went on to provide a “short sketch of the history of excises in England.” In this summary, Jackson reminded representatives that the recent war (for Independence) was fought precisely because Americans refused to allow unjust taxes “swallow up their privileges.”
Imagine, for example, had the British Parliament not repealed the Stamp Act. Had that pernicious policy been applied even a year longer, the War for Independence likely would have started much sooner and this rebellion would have, as Rothbard reckons, “enjoyed far greater support than it eventually received.”
Josiah Parker rose to support Jackson’s position, warning, as recorded in the official record of the debates of the First Congress on Wednesday, January 5, 1791:
“It will…convulse the government; it will let loose a swarm of harpies, who, under the domination of revenue officers, will range through the country, prying into every man’s house and affairs, and like a Macedonian phalanx, bear down on all before them.”
This is so obviously similar to the complaint listed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that King George had “erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
Historical evidence of the hatred of such taxes is useful, but not as useful as another aspect of the event.
The part of the story that must be restored to the memory of Americans facing a federal government that indeed presumes to promulgate one regulation after the other and that sends swarms of harpies “rang[ing] through the country, prying into every man’s house and affairs” is the absolute and unapologetic refusal by the state governments listed above to enforce the federal law. These six states would not send militiamen to augment the federal armed force sent out to compel compliance and they would not step aside for the government agent sent to shake down farmers for the money they “owed” to the federal treasury,
This is, in fact, nullification the way it was meant to be done.
Why, then, did the local government in western Pennsylvania capitulate to the Washington administration’s collection of the whiskey tax? Here’s the story as told by Rothbard:
President Washington and Secretary Hamilton chose to make a fuss about Western Pennsylvania precisely because in that region there was cadre of wealthy officials who were willing to collect taxes. Such a cadre did not even exist in the other areas of the American frontier; there was no fuss or violence against tax collectors in Kentucky and the rest of the back-country because there was no one willing to be a tax collector.
In other words, western Pennsylvania was the site of the showdown because the local leaders there were in the pocket of the federal government and were loyal to party, rather than to principle. Could anything sound more like it was written yesterday?
Of the innumerable unconstitutional acts of the federal government and the thousands of programs they spawn, each one is only successful because there are legions of local and state lawmakers who willingly cooperate with the feds, committing sparse local resources and manpower to the carrying out of the marching orders handed down from D.C.
We, the people, aren’t much better, however. As the statements by Representatives Jackson and Parker reveal, there was a time in our history when the people wouldn’t cower in the face of congressional threats. In fact, our ancestors stood firm in the face of armed federalized troops sent to shut them up.
In fact, many of us have been trained to accept unconstitutional federal acts and executive edicts as if they were etched in stone and handed down from Capitol Hill as if it were Mt. Sinai. Many of us rightly rail against this destructive despotism, but wrongly we look to secure the support and attract the attention of seemingly sympathetic congressmen, presidents, and judges for redress. Washington D.C. is the daughter of the mother of harlots and we can’t count on her to bite the hand that feeds her. We must rely on the states and the people to bust up the brothel and send the legislative ladies of the evening home to find less lascivious and criminal vocations.
We, the people, are witnesses of the damage done by the perfect storm of the federal government’s usurpation of unconstitutional power and the state governments’ flaccid surrender of sovereignty. States willingly endure the federal flogging and then thank the federal rulers for the privilege of being beaten by their superiors. Then, they confirm their servitude by sending billions in tribute like sham regents of vassals of the all-powerful federal suzerain that generously tosses them scraps of sovereignty over a few residual areas of “strictly state concern.”
Ironically and tragically, the roles in the relationship between the states and federal government have been reversed and Washington considers the states expendable extras in its power play and state borders are drawn in chalk that dissolve and disappear under the steady, pounding rain of federal aggression.
Acts not authorized under the enumerated powers of the Constitution are “merely acts of usurpations” and deserve to be disregarded, ignored, and denied any legal effect.
More state legislators need to learn this. Familiarity with these facts are fundamental to a reclaiming of state authority and removing the threat to liberty posed by the centralization of power in the federal government.
Until the states reassert the sovereignty they theoretically retain, there will be no end of the demands and they will get more and more difficult to comply with and will thus justify increasing federal control over the apparatuses of state government. The trajectory is easy to see and follow into the future. The federal government will mandate by mandate, regulation by regulation, grant program by grant program devolve into a central government after the model of the so-called European democracies.
In fairness, there are those who will argue, as did George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, that the whiskey tax was a constitutionally authorized exercise of Congress’s taxing power. Perhaps that is true (it is arguable), but it is a technicality when viewed in the larger context of civil disobedience to unjust laws (be they nominally constitutional or not).
As Algernon Sidney, a man of immense influence on the Founding Generation, wrote, “That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.”
It isn’t so much, then, whether the law is constitutional (that is a legalistic argument that will lead us down a slippery slope of signing off on statism that will ruin the republic), the critical question — at least in the view of the thousands of Americans who flatly refused to pay the whiskey tax — was whether this was a just tax, one narrowly tailored for the just purpose for which it was enacted.
Here’s how Representative Josiah Parker — a Federalist! (thus a member of the Hamiltonian party) explained his reasonable opposition to the whiskey tax being imposed on the people of the United States (those who could be coerced into obeying it), according to the official records of the debates of the First Congress:
Mr. Parker said no man was more heartily disposed than he was to give his approbation to even just measure for supporting the public credit, and doing every thing in his power to support the constitutional operations of government; but this mode of raising a revenue he considered as particularly odious to the people; and at the present moment he was not satisfied that such an increase to the public burdens in necessary.
The next day, after James Madison (yes, that James Madison) rose to speak in favor of the excise, James Jackson dared challenge the “Father of the Constitution” on the wisdom of this policy.
Again, from the record of the debates:
“Mr. Jackson observed, that his defeat…should not defer him, while he had a monitor within, from rising in his place to do his duty, in opposition to a system unfriendly to the liberties of the people.”
Will we ever see the restoration of a generation of leaders so firmly committed to principles of liberty?
In light of the true story of the Whiskey Rebellion — the recently revealed fact that the “rebellion” was not localized to western Pennsylvania and the federal government’s quashing of that pocket of resistance did not assure accession of the rest of the republic to the collection of the tax — perhaps the most important aspect of the story is that thousands of our late 18th Century countrymen reflexively recognized the despotism present in a revenue scheme that was neither based on just principles of taxation nor proven to be effective or necessary to the accomplishment of the purported purpose: paying off the state debts.
This is how Rothbard summed up the situation in his inimitable laconic style:
“The entire American back-country was gripped by a non-violent, civil disobedient refusal to pay the hated tax on whiskey. No local juries could be found to convict tax delinquents. The Whiskey Rebellion was actually widespread and successful, for it eventually forced the federal government to repeal the excise tax.”
Apprised, then, of the complete picture of the events surrounding the so-called Whiskey Rebellion, consider the following challenges.
Imagine the federal government being unable to panel a jury to hear charges levied against an American for violating this or that unjust regulation forbidding him from digging a pond on his family farm.
Imagine the federal government being unable to purchase the participation of police forces in the prosecution of people accused of committing some strictly federal criminal offense.
Imagine the effect on this country if citizens could rely on their local leaders to stand steadfast between them and the ever-grasping, ever-aggrandizing, always more despotic forces of the federal authority.
Despite his support for Hamilton’s scheme, Madison himself once envisioned a time when states would serve as levees protecting the people of the states from a flood of federal tyranny.
“What degree of madness,” Madison asks incredulously in Federalist #46, could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity,” to ambitiously encroach on the state governments?
There is almost a dismissive and incredulous tone in Madison’s reassurances of the failsafe and organic potency of state governments. The people, he proposed, would refuse to “cooperate with the officers of the union” attempting to encroach on the prerogatives of the states. He genuinely believed that were the federal government to take such a tyrannical tack, states would combine to block the way, uniting to draw up “plans of resistance.”
Ironically, Madison’s prediction came true. It came true in widespread refusal of citizens and lawmakers of six states “to cooperate with the officers of the union” in the latter’s attempt to impose unjust and unsound imposts on the American farmer.
Across these states, back country patriots drew up and carried out Madison’s predicted “plans of resistance” and left the federal government with no other option than to lean on its lackeys in western Pennsylvania to try and enforce the tax and then use that isolated incident to portray the Whiskey Rebellion as treason and the quelling of it as proof of the supremacy of the cadre of consolidators then in control of Congress.
With a view of the full spectrum of the events that were a part of the Whiskey Rebellion, we can now appreciate its importance, its exemplary demonstration of the true spirit of ’76: that life, liberty, and property are God-given rights and are unalienable. That these fundamental liberties must be protected and preserved despite the attempts — nominally constitutional or not — by the forces of the federal behemoth to tax them out of existence.
Today, we stand, as did those patriot plowmen of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland; face to face with a federal government whose billion dollar taxation schemes make the whiskey excise seem insignificant. We have a choice. We must decide whether to elect state and local officials who will not willingly surrender our liberty to the central government in exchange for surplus federal materiel, for highway funds, or after school programs. We, the people, ultimately, must regain that virtue and valor that compelled our forefathers to fight rather than to fall in line.