- Historic Sites
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
In a perverse and curious way, the subject of whiskey is part and parcel of the story of the highlanders. Whiskey meant a great deal to them: in a region where it might take a doctor three days to reach a dangerously sick or injured person, it served as palliative and anesthetic. It was, in the real sense of the phrase, a pain killer. It was easy for the farmer to produce and it was usually his only cash crop. The mountain roads were so abominable that no quantities of farm produce could be hauled out to the civilized world, so “corn juice” became, from earliest times, the product that was traded for cash or goods.
The Scotch-Irish who came to America in the eighteenth century soon discovered that all the good land on the eastern seaboard was taken, so they fanned out in the direction of the Appalachians. Driving out the Indians, they settled the Alleghenies; from there, when the game was gone, the more ambitious or restless headed west again. But some stayed behind: they were the men who fought as riflemen in the Revolution and carried the day at Saratoga and at Kings Mountain, who went back to the hills after that war to take up life in the old way (which was to say, under their own set of standards or laws). Unknowingly, they had helped remake the outside world, and in 1791, when the new federal government passed a law imposing a tax on whiskey of nine to eleven cents per proof gallon, the mountain people rose in opposition to governmental authority and its power to tax them. One thing the Scotch-Irish had brought with them to America was an abiding hatred of the British government and its excise laws, plus a tradition of resistance to all who attempted to enforce those laws; the new government in Philadelphia did not find them any more tractable than had George III.
Albert Gallatin, a western Pennsylvania farmer who was to become Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, defended the frontiersmen as the Whiskey Rebellion erupted. “We have no means of bringing the produce of our lands to sale either in grain or in meal,” he argued. “We are therefore distillers through necessity, not choice, that we may comprehend the greatest value in the smallest size and weight.” It was difficult for the mountain farmer to understand why he should pay a tax on what he made: when he harvested and shucked and ground his corn to be baked into bread by his woman, he paid no tax on that. Why should the government collect an excise on another product made from the same corn?
The financial cost of George Washington’s expedition against the Whiskey Boys was more than one third of the total expenditures of the government of the United States that year. The government proved its point—that it could enforce the law of the land and preserve domestic tranquillity—but the result in the mountains was an enduring hatred of federal authority that had political as well as social repercussions. Rather than submit, some of the stubbornest Pennsylvania malcontents picked up their belongings and their stills and moved to western Virginia and the Carolinas, where it was unlikely that any serious government effort could be made to collect the odious excise. The moonshiner called himself a blockader and his product blockade liquor; he regarded himself as a blockade-runner dealing in contraband. Back in the mountains he and his descendants remained, obstinate and self-reliant, as independent—in their phrase—”as a hawg on ice,” their life a hard, cruel war against the elemental forces of nature. As the years passed they stayed on lor a variety of reasons. Isolation from the outside world kept them ignorant of the opportunities it afforded, and their poverty was such that they would have had no money with which to migrate, in any case. Passionately attached to their homes, their kinfolk, and the old-fashioned ways, they were without ambition because nothing in their environment inspired it. While other Americans grew in wealth and education and culture, the mountain people stood still or retrogressed.
Despite their earlier resistance to the government, during the Civil War the mountain residents of eastern Tennessee were loyal to a man; West Virginia became a separate state when its people “seceded from secession,” as someone put it; and in Jackson County, Kentucky, Lincoln’s call for troops depleted the county of every able-bodied male under sixty and over fifteen. Although the region’s loyalty astonished both North and South, at least two factors were apparently at work: the national feelings dating back to the Revolution had never vanished—the ideal of a nation was one to which the mountain folk clung with fierce pride; and their belief in freedom and in the principle that one man was the equal of all others put them squarely on the side of Abraham Lincoln. It was all right for a person to hold property, they reasoned, but not to own another man.