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  • Writer's pictureDavid Crow

George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Painting of George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion
George Washington suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion. Frederick Kemmelmeyer, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Having read at least one book on all 45 of the US presidents, I’ve grown to realize that many of them were misunderstood during their lifetime.

As we study history, it’s critical not to interpret and judge past actions by today’s standards. Attitudes and values have changed dramatically over the centuries. This is especially important to remember during our current troubling times.

After the American Revolutionary War ended, George Washington was elected the first president of our new nation. He refused to be treated like a king and gave up power after his two terms (1789–1794), setting the tone for our democracy. He opposed political parties, thinking they would lead to divisiveness, and believed instead that we should form a consensus through compromise. It’s hard to argue with that.

But it didn’t play out that way. In 1791, two years into his first term, George Washington imposed a tax on corn, wheat, barley, and rye—the essential ingredients for making whiskey. It was the first domestic tax imposed by the new federal government, and its purpose was to pay the debt for the recently won war.

President Washington was convinced all Americans would understand the need for the tax and pay it willingly. He was mistaken.

Although the tax applied to all distilled spirits, it hit American whiskey the hardest. It soon became known as the whiskey tax.

Farmers from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania often used whiskey as a medium of exchange, meaning it was an important part of currency. Many of these farmers were Revolutionary War veterans who felt they had already paid their price for freedom. They fiercely resented Congress setting the tax, believing the federal constitution did not allow this. They were furious with President Washington for signing it into law.

The resistance came to a head in 1794 when US marshals arrived to serve writs to distillers who had not paid. Over 500 angry farmers set fire to the home of revenue inspector General John Neville and burned it to the ground. President Washington ordered the governors of the affected states to call up 13,000 militiamen to quell the rebellion.

Even though the tax remained, the angry farmers began organizing a political party (Republican Party) to oppose the federal government’s rights to impose their laws on the states (supported by the Federalist Party).

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson repealed the whiskey tax, siding with the farmers who believed the federal power to tax was unwarranted. Political parties became entrenched as the fight between a powerful central government and states rights intensified, continuing to this day.

I advise everyone who is upset with the angry partisanship of our era to pick up a copy of The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty by William Hogeland. An eye-opening read.

The challenges we’re facing right now aren’t new to our country. The United States has always experienced difficult times. It’s helpful to go back in history to understand that we have survived much worse.

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