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What Was the Whiskey Rebellion

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

Whiskey has been part of American culture and commerce from the beginning. Americans did not just drink the spirit; it was used as money, to barter; it was used as medicine.. Suffice to say, it was more importance to the young nation than mom's apple pie.

What was the whiskey rebellion?

It was a violent protest against the national tax imposed on whiskey in 1791, during George Washington's presidency. Taxes were something new and unpopular, and a tax on whiskey -- America's drink that was used for so many things -- was very unpopular, especially outside of the east coast, in the land westward, where the frontiersmen did not take kindly to government interference.

What Was the Whiskey Rebellion

(Photo: "Famous whiskey Insurrection in Pennsylvania," an 1880 illustration of a tarred and feathered tax collector. Wikipedia, public domain)


Before Alexander Hamilton was a Broadway musical character, before he was killed in a duel, and many mistook him for having been a US President, he was Treasurer in the Washington Administration. He favored a centralized government and an economy that was centralized and controlled by large companies. It was the polar opposite of Thomas Jefferson, who preferred the laissez-faire economics. Their opposing beliefs were the stuff of legend as this clip illustrates from the HBO television miniseries, John Adams starring Paul Giamatti:

Taxing America's lifeblood

Whiskey, in particular what would be called bourbon, was such an integral part of the American economy, it was the lifeblood of the nation and an 11-cent tax per gallon could be enough to pay the debt from the American Revolutionary War. This was not the only reason Hamilton pitched the tax to Washington. The tax details favored the large companies Hamilton thought would strengthen the nation. For example, the large distilleries were given allowances for leakage and shipwrecks.  Meanwhile the small distilleries in the country were taxed on still capacity -- the dubious assumption that the frontiersmen were always producing a max amount. The big commercial distillers were not held to this standard.

Washington's Treasurer Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Tax

(Alexander Hamilton, portrait by Trumbull, public domain. Hamilton was the proponent and architect of the whiskey tax of 1791.)

Whiskey as money

Turning a portion of their crops into alcohol was a good way for farmers to preserve their grains into a product that did not spoil and could be better stored or transported. Corn is the primary grain in bourbon, a crop that dominated fields in the new world. Farmers and others could barter what they needed with whiskey. The value could often be more stable than the Continental Dollar. Tensions over the tax were thus further inflamed that this was a tax on income and currency.

Old George Washington once again leads an army

Tired old Washington with his wooden teeth was in his second term as President when he led a mission into western Pennsylvania to subdue the rebellion. Tax collectors had been tarred and feathered by the small distillers in the region.

General John Neville, a tax inspector with the rather blatant conflict of interest of also supplying whiskey to the army, became the personification of what was perceived as evil about the tax. He found himself barricaded in his house, surrounded by rebels, in a gunfight. Eventually 600 surrounded the house, with Neville having been reinforced by barely a dozen troops.

Washington made the decision to bring in federal troops to squash the rebellion, and he led it himself, supposedly drinking whiskey along the way, even though that was not his preferred drink. The decision was about more than the tax. It was a decision to preserve the nation, to stop a civil war, and not to abandon territories.

The whiskey rebels eventually scattered into the hills. 

The tax was repealed a few years later

Part of  American legend

Like the Boston Tea Party, the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s has become part of American history, with plenty of legend to boot. It has been said that bourbon whiskey is the liquid definition of capitalism, as much as capitalism is the definition of America. Throughout US history, what you drank often signified where you stood regarding the young country. Did you stand by her against her adversaries who drank rum? 

Philip Wigle

In 2012, a new distillery named itself after Philip Wigle, one of two men sentenced to hang for the rebellion, who was pardoned by Washington. The distillery writes:

"American whiskey was born in Pittsburgh! Throughout the 1700 and 1800s, Western Pennsylvania was the epicenter of American Whiskey production. Wigle is named for one of those pioneering Pennsylvania distillers. In the 1790s, Phillip Wigle defended his right to distill in a tussle with a tax collector and unwittingly helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion..."

Of course, the epicenter of bourbon, which is a whiskey that is at least 51% corn, is in Kentucky. It is estimated over 95% of bourbon is made in that state. The weather -- hot summers and cold winters, which expands and contracts the aging barrels -- and the limestone water, make Kentucky a perfect place to make bourbon.

An epilogue

The opposite occurred in the 1920s, when the United States shot itself in the foot with Prohibition.  As Congress and the states fell to the temperance movement, the politicians seemingly forgot that outlawing America's spirit would cause tax revenue to drop. By then the federal income tax had been established (in 1913) and the tax on income, which it was said the whiskey tax had been, came to be.

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