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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

April 9, 2013: Taxes in America: The Whiskey Rebellion

[As you finalize your taxes—not you, I know you’re done already, I mean everybody else—this week’s series will focus on some American moments and issues related to this controversial national theme. Leading up to a special weekend post that will frame that theme very differently!]
On two entirely distinct ways to AmericanStudy one of our first domestic crises.
First, at the risk of self-plagiarism, I’m going to copy a paragraph from my prior post on George Washington’s second term; my apologies, but the ideas are relevant to this post as well: “George Washington was reeelected unanimously (and unopposed) in 1792, the last time a president ran uncontested, but much of his second term was dominated by unexpected crises and scandals. That included the unfolding effects of the French Revolution and the related European wars, about which I’ll write more below; but no event was more striking and significant than the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. Tensions had been boiling over since Washington and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton instituted a new whiskey excise in 1791, and came to a head three years later when a group of Pennsylvania farmers destroyed a tax inspector’s home and began armed resistance against the federal government. When diplomatic resolutions failed and Hamilton led a military force (of 13,000 militia men) against American citizens, it became clear that Washington’s honeymoon period was over; the presidency and government had become the controversial and debated entities that they have remained ever since.”
One way to analyze the Whiskey Rebellion would be to do so through the lens of Hamilton, and more exactly his complicated relationship with President Washington’s other most prominent Cabinet member, Secretary of State (during Washington’s first term) Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton and Jefferson represented the clear and striking distinction between the Federalists, with their emphasis on a strong central government, and the emergent Democrat-Republicans (known at the time of the Constitutional debates as the Anti-Federalists), with their resistance to that concept. And the Whiskey Rebellion certainly illustrated some of the tensions that such distinct perspectives could and did produce in the new American polity. But it’s also worth noting that just as Hamilton became closely connected in our national narratives and consciousness to banks, so too did Jefferson come to be associated with what he called “yeomen farmers”—and the two men thus embodied, at least in those dominant images, the opposed groups at the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion’s conflict.
There’s an entirely different, and far less civically minded, way to analyze the Rebellion, however. Perhaps because of our temporal distance from its events, perhaps because it was fought over something as seemingly silly as alcohol, or perhaps because farmers occupy such a generally positive place in our national narratives (see the recent Super Bowl ad, for example), it’s tough to see the rebels as the 18th century equivalents to contemporary armed domestic terrorists such as the Hutaree Militia. But it’s also tough to come up with convincing reasons why these Early Republic violent insurrectionists, shooting federal agents rather than paying taxes, were different from such 21st century extremist groups. The fact is, as long as we’ve had a federal government, we’ve had Americans who position themselves in armed opposition to it—and that’s a dark and troubling but unavoidable American history.
Next taxing topic tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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