Seeking A Real Tax Revolt

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Whenever I begin the research for one of these columns, I am gratefully surprised to find that what I recall as a simple story turns up new questions and insights, as if I were unfolding an unsuspectedly intricate and lovely paper cutout. My latest rediscovery began in a search for historical parallels to a currently rising “tax revolt.” Last fall many state gubernatorial candidates played to the discontents of heavily taxed real property owners. Nationally the first version of a deficit-reduction package of taxes was shot down by the House.

I decided to remind readers of what I thought was a real protest: armed resistance in western Pennsylvania to a 1794 federal tax on whiskey. It was so severe that it took a federal army to put down the “insurrection.” My theme was to be that the levy on whiskey was actually somewhat unfair because, like all consumption taxes, it was unprogressively the same for rich and poor. But, I intended to argue, the war in the Alleghenies was unavoidable if the new United States government was to have any credibility. Taxation, especially on optional activities like tippling, is an unfortunate price of union, nationhood, and, well, civilization.

But on review it turned out to be a bit more complex. The sending of an army had more politics and less necessity in it than the usual brief textbook accounts admit. The great “rebellion” had only one confirmed fatality. Moreover, it had ended in virtual surrender before the troops marched. Finally, some of the insurgents believed that they were fighting not about money but rather on behalf of the cause of 1776—local and democratic control of taxation and government in general.

A whiskey tax was nothing new, but this one had special drawbacks. Its first version was passed in 1791 as part of Alexander Hamilton’s plan for a national revenue to be used (in part) to pay off the war debt, much of which had settled in the hands of rich speculators. That made it instantly suspect among ordinary folk. Some of them had opposed the Constitution on the very grounds that members of the far-away Congress would “consist of the lordly and high-minded … who [would] have no congenial feeling with the people.”

The tax, at seven cents per gallon distilled, might not seem heavy, but it had to be paid in hard currency by frontiersmen in a barter economy. And the tax collectors, empowered to poke around cellars and barns for illicitly hidden whiskey, were to get a share of the take. It was this practice that had led Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary, to define an “excise” as a “hateful tax” collected by “wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

In addition, whiskey was a particularly hard item to tax in undeveloped western Pennsylvania. It had a crucial economic role. Wagon roads were non-existent or miserable, so that grain could not profitably make it to Eastern markets. But twenty-four bushels of rye, reduced at a community still into two 8-gallon kegs of whiskey, could be slung over a packsaddle, and the whiskey could fetch up to a dollar a gallon for necessities. Nor was there agreement that personal whiskey consumption was the government’s business. The temperance movement was yet in its infancy. Pennsylvanians drank good Monongahela rye to cure ague and snakebite, to season simple meals, to cheer at christenings and to console at wakes. The analogy to a modern gasoline tax is compelling: it raised the price of an activity that was seen as necessary, pleasurable, and respectable.

Not only did respectable, well-off people imbibe, but some of them even invested in large-capacity stills. Large operators could afford the tax and didn’t mind that it would rub out smaller competitors. That made them, in the eyes of objectors to the tax, upper-class collaborators with the Eastern elite that dominated federal fiscal policy. Perception is everything, and the growing number of protesters saw themselves as threatened defenders of many nonmonetary values.

But perceptions work in both directions, and the proponents of the tax were frightened too. In the early 179Os the French Revolution was in full course, and the first national American parties were taking shape. Throughout the fourteen states, antiaristocratic and pro-French Democratic and Republican “societies” were organized, generally with purposes like the one in Pennsylvania, to which many anti-tax spokesmen belonged. It called on citizens to “erect the temple of LIBERTY on the ruins of palaces and thrones .” To conservatives like Vice President John Adams that opened the prospect of a “fatal revolution of government.”

The government issued writs ordering nonpayers to appear before judges and thereby handed the rebels another major grievance, since the nearest federal court in Philadelphia (at the time also the national capital) was a long, hard, expensive trip away. But the conservatives got a legitimate fighting issue when violence broke out, for anti-tax protesters on a rugged mountain frontier did not stop at principled noncooperation. Collectors were tarred and feathered, and on July 15, 1794, several hundred resisters gathered at the home of Gen. John Neville, the district supervisor of collection, probably intending to burn it. Neville (a veteran of the Revolution) and his family defended themselves with guns, and a shot killed one of the leaders of the “rioters.”