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The Whiskey Rebellion by Murray N. Rothbard

• lewrockwell.com/Murray Rothbard
his article appeared in The Free Market, September 1994.

In recent years, Americans have been subjected to a concerted assault upon their national symbols, holidays, and anniversaries. Washington's Birthday has been forgotten, and Christopher Columbus has been denigrated as an evil Euro-White male, while new and obscure anniversary celebrations have been foisted upon us. New heroes have been manufactured to represent "oppressed groups" and paraded before us for our titillation.

There is nothing wrong, however, with the process of uncovering important and buried facts about our past. In particular, there is one widespread group of the oppressed that are still and increasingly denigrated and scorned: the hapless American taxpayer.

This year is the bicentenary of an important American event: the rising up of American taxpayers to refuse payment of a hated tax: in this case, an excise tax on whiskey. The Whiskey Rebellion has long been known to historians, but recent studies have shown that its true nature and importance have been distorted by friend and foe alike.

The Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion is that four counties of western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on whiskey that had been levied by proposal of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton in the Spring of 1791, as part of his excise tax proposal for federal assumption of the public debts of the several states.


Western Pennsylvanians failed to pay the tax, this view says, until protests, demonstrations, and some roughing up of tax collectors in western Pennsylvania caused President Washington to call up a 13,000-man army in the summer and fall of 1794 to suppress the insurrection. A localized but dramatic challenge to federal tax-levying authority had been met and defeated. The forces of federal law and order were safe.

This Official View turns out to be dead wrong. In the first place, we must realize the depth of hatred of Americans for what was called "internal taxation" (in contrast to an "external tax" such as a tariff). Internal taxes meant that the hated tax man would be in your face and on your property, searching, examining your records and your life, and looting and destroying.

The most hated tax imposed by the British had been the Stamp Tax of 1765, on all internal documents and transactions; if the British had kept this detested tax, the American Revolution would have occurred a decade earlier, and enjoyed far greater support than it eventually received.

Americans, furthermore, had inherited hatred of the excise tax from the British opposition; for two centuries, excise taxes in Britain, in particular the hated tax on cider, had provoked riots and demonstrations upholding the slogan, "liberty, property, and no excise!" To the average American, the federal government's assumption of the power to impose excise taxes did not look very different from the levies of the British crown.


The main distortion of the Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion was its alleged confinement to four counties of western Pennsylvania. From recent research, we now know that no one paid the tax on whiskey throughout the American "back-country": that is, the frontier areas of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and the entire state of Kentucky.

President Washington and Secretary Hamilton chose to make a fuss about Western Pennsylvania precisely because in that region there was a cadre of wealthy officials who were willing to collect taxes. Such a cadre did not even exist in the other areas of the American frontier; there was no fuss or violence against tax collectors in Kentucky and the rest of the back-country because there was no one willing to be a tax collector.

The whiskey tax was particularly hated in the back-country because whisky production and distilling were widespread; whiskey was not only a home product for most farmers, it was often used as a money, as a medium of exchange for transactions. Furthermore, in keeping with Hamilton's program, the tax bore more heavily on the smaller distilleries. As a result, many large distilleries supported the tax as a means of crippling their smaller and more numerous competitors.

 

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