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How The Whiskey Rebellion Changed America

The Whiskey Rebellion forced new Americans to define the limits of state power.

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By Jack Parkos | United States

In my previous article, I talked about the Gadsden flag. I have the Gadsden Flag and the First Navy Jack Flag. Since then, I decided to start a collection of Early American Flags. The most recent addition to my collection is the Flag of The Whiskey Rebellion.

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It got me thinking, how many people actually know about the Whiskey Rebellion? I asked a sampling of random people, and only 20% knew what the flag was. Some people remember hearing the name in high school but knew nothing about it. The majority of people don’t know the historical event the flag seeks to immortalize. Some may argue this is the most important event in early America, as several things came out of it.

The Whiskey Rebellion was a tax protest by farmers and distillers from 1791-1794. The tax was introduced by Alexander Hamilton. After the revolution, many states were in major debt Hamilton had the Federal Government take on all the debt and to pay off the debt, he proposed a tax on whiskey. Thomas Jefferson and the anti-federalists opposed the tax. However, Congress still passed this tax, making it the first tax imposed on a domestic product.

However, this tax was very unfair to small farmers and distillers, for the large producers got taxed less per gallon. So the government gave bigger producers the advantage over the smaller guy (sound familiar?). This angered both farmers and whiskey distillers.  With the spirit of the American Revolution and this anger, the defiance began.

Some congressmen tried to appeal to protestors by enacting a very minor reduction on the tax. But the protesters were not satisfied; people refused to pay these taxes and often intimidated tax collectors. The angry mob would feather the tax collectors, often forcing them to resign out of fear of further violence. Robert Johnson, who was tarred and feathered, reported them, but the man who later delivered the court warrants was also tarred and feathered.

The violence against tax collectors continued. With some having there homes burned down by the mob. The protesters believed they were fighting for the principles of the American Revolution, No taxation without (local) Representation. On the other side, the Federalists argued it was a fair and legal tax by congress. Whoever is right, is up to your own opinion.

But President Washington, who was originally opposed to the tax,  faced a bigger problem than politics: the mob had been burned down houses and participated in violent protest and property destruction. A rebel army had been raised. Washington wanted peace, while Hamilton wanted to send men into Pennsylvania. When peace failed, Washington gathered and led 12,000 men in a state militia into Western Pennsylvania. There was no rebel army, so suspected rebels were gathered and tried for treason. Two men were found guilty of treason, but both were pardoned by Washington. While the law remained, the tax was still evaded, but most violence stopped. The tax remained law until Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson, who opposed Hamilton’s taxes, repealed it in 1802.

This is a big event in American history. It showed that the United States Federal Government was legitimate in it’s authority to pass and enforce laws. This event contributed to the formation of the first two political parties in America. People who had been Anti-Federalist started voting for Democratic-Republicans and accepted the Constitution. The Federalists also started to be more accepting in First Amendment rights.

This event raised the question. “Was the violent rebellion a legitament form of resistance under the new constitution?” The Whiskey Rebels believed they were fighting under the same principles as the revolution and that people had the right to challenge the government, even if in extreme ways . The Federalists believed that because the new government was by the people that such methods were no longer needed. This question, raised by the Whiskey Rebellion is a very important one to understand.

The Whiskey Rebellion changed America. It was more than a bunch of riots. It caused a lot of people to think, it caused political tension, and lots of change to American Politics.


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