AN ALTERNATE WHISKEY REBELLION
How successful could the rebels have been?
How successful could the rebels have been?
"Someone's barn goes up in flames on a moonless night. Ink runs down an official document soaked in alcohol. A lonely victim jogs, panting and pursued, down a dirt track. Hoisted up a pole, a homemade flag hangs over men who wander through smoke, guns pointing at nothing in particular, firing again and again."
- William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion
The national crisis that came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion began in the fall of 1791, when gangs on the western frontier started attacking collectors of the first federal tax on an American product, hard liquor. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America, had established the excise tax on domestic distilled spirits to provide much-needed federal revenues without resorting to the raising of tariffs. These revenues were required to pay back war debts and expand financial operations throughout the country, but to the frontier folk across the Appalachians who used whiskey as a form of hard currency the tax affected them disproportionately. The whiskey tax could very well destabilize and weaken the entire economy of the west. So, frontier Americans took to frontier methods of justice. Gang attacks on tax collectors took on frightening forms. The attackers' faces were often blackened to inspire fear among the victims of tarring-and-feathering and other torture tactics. Stripped to deerskin breeches, the gangs streaked their chests and faces with herb-dyed clay and stuck feathers in their hair, imitating native raiding parties.
Those attacks would develop, over the course of more than two years, into something far more frightening to eastern authorities than rioting: a regional movement, centered at the headwaters of the Ohio in western Pennsylvania, dedicated to resisting federal authority west of the Alleghenies. The perpetrators were the toughest and hardest of westerners: farmers, laborers, hunters, and Indian fighters; most were disillusioned war veterans from the Revolutionary War. Expert woodsmen and marksmen, adept in rifle sharpshooting, they were organized in disciplined militias and comfortable with danger. The rebellion would bring to a climax an ongoing struggle not over taxation but over the meaning and purpose of the American Revolution itself.
By September 1793 the federal government in Philadelphia had yet to respond to the lawlessness that continued to spread west of the Appalachian Mountains because of the unpopularity of the whiskey tax. During this interim, anti-government forces took the opportunity to organize themselves... In late 1791 a three-day conference of local leaders in Pittsburgh sent an anti-tax petition to Philadelphia. While the petition went ignored, the conference unified the community against federal injustices and motivated them to do even more. In the summer of 1792, five hundred militiamen in western Pennsylvania gathered to form the Mingo Creek Association, named after the church where they gathered. The Mingo Creek men endeavored to unite the western counties of Pennsylvania against the whiskey tax, and proceeded to do so by secretly placing their men in key positions of power in the militias of the region. They followed this by constituting their own makeshift courts of law to circumvent state-appointed judges, so that they effectively controlled the application of all laws west of the Alleghenies. When their power was questioned the Mingo Creek Association struck with force, sending their gangs to harass citizens. But for the most part, they reserved the majority of their ferocity for the tax collectors and anyone that cooperated with them. With the Mingo Creek Association dominating the political sphere in western Pennsylvania, the second Pittsburgh convention that was called in late 1792 could hardly keep from being radicalized. Demands made by the convention included the replacement of the whiskey excise with a progressive tax on wealth, the disabling of federal government hirelings, and the resignation of the most hated they wanted hirelings of the federal government disabled, and demanded the resignation of the inspector of federal revenues for the region, General John Neville.
But while anti-government forces assembled in western Pennsylvania, Philadelphia was forced to concern itself with problems it believed were more important. The king of France had been decapitated. Algerian pirates were harassing American shipping. Britain seemed nearer and nearer to initiating a new war against the United States with every new report from London. In September 1793 Alexander Hamilton was worried about all of these developments, including the rebellion in Pennsylvania, and may have done something about it if fate hadn’t intervened.
In the summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, some residents who lived near the wharves began to sicken and die from a disease that shook the body with chills and severe muscular pain. The red-eyed victims belched up black vomit from bleeding stomachs, their skins turned a hideous jaundiced color. The onset of the yellow-fever epidemic was later traced to an earlier influx of refugees from Santo Domingo, where a slave revolt had led to optimal conditions for the disease to spread. By late August, twenty people per day were expiring from the epidemic, which ultimately claimed nearly five thousand lives, bringing government and commerce to a standstill. Alexander Hamilton was determined to work through the epidemic in Philadelphia, and doing so caught yellow fever, most likely from one of his clerks. On September 9, 1793 news broke that the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury had succumbed to the disease. Alexander Hamilton was dead.
There was an immediate emotional outpouring of sympathy from all Federalist strongholds. The body was returned to New York City for a grand funeral, which all the businesses in the city stopped out of respect. The funeral was held in St. Paul’s Chapel, where Gouvernour Morris, one of Hamilton’s political allies and dear friends, delivered the oration. One paper recorded: “The scene was impressive and what added unspeakably to its solemnity was the mournful group of tender boys, the sons, the once hopes and joys of the deceased, who, with tears gushing from their eyes, sat upon the state, at the feet of the orator, bewailing the loss of their parent! It was too much. The sternest powers, the bloodiest villain, could not resist the melting scene.”
Much less widely applauded was the death of another man in Philadelphia that would have most certainly become a rival of Hamilton’s had he lived. Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, newly elected from Pennsylvania to the Senate, was in Philadelphia participating in the impeachment of a local official, which was to be his first act in government. At some point he contracted yellow fever, but this was only discovered on the September 28 when Gallatin was in New York City having stayed there following Hamilton’s funeral. In the house of his fiancée’s father, he perished from yellow fever and shared in his political rival’s fate. Unfortunately for Gallatin, for his funeral the city’s businesses did not cease.
Replacements for these men into now-vacant positions of government were relatively quick. For Albert Gallatin, a special election by the General Assembly was held in which Federalist lawyer James Ross was chosen to be the new Pennsylvanian Senator. For Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington reluctantly chose the young Oliver Wolcott Jr., Hamilton’s deputy at the Treasury. The course of events of the Whiskey Rebellion would be decided in part by these two men, and in part by the lack of the greater men that it was their responsibility to replace.
By May of 1794 the rebellion accelerated its pace. Liberty poles were rising. Up to a hundred feet tall, these were symbols of the trees under which the revolutionary committees of correspondence had organized to resist Great Britain. Where there were no appropriate trees, rebels of the senties had erected poles. The poles displayed symbols of resistance, the snake saying "Don't Tread on Me," striped flags showing the unity of townships. The appearance of liberty poles in the west thus had a meaning that was clear to everyone. Rebellion against tyranny was underway. The Revolution of 1776 was breaking out again.