Seeking A Real Tax Revolt

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Given a martyr, the resisters held a mass meeting where they were addressed by a local attorney-politician, David Bradford, who comes down to us in the record as a demagogue. Bradford had arranged for the robbery of a Philadelphia-bound mail coach and learned from the stolen letters the names of prominent Pittsburgh citizens who were in friendly contact with federal authorities. He called for a muster of fifteen hundred to five thousand local militiamen, to be held just outside the town, whose whole population was about twelve hundred. There was talk of teaching Pittsburgh a lesson by fire. But in the end the hard work and common sense of moderate anti-tax leaders prevailed. Free food, liquor, and sympathetic oratory were provided. The undisciplined “army” was persuaded to march through Pittsburgh and bivouac nearby. Some tavern keepers were bullied, but only one house was burned. It was not a first-class sacking—more of a drunken camp-out—but it was armed resistance.

However, even before the news reached Philadelphia, Washington had convened his cabinet and decided that a strong show of force was needed. Hamilton was later accused by friends of the insurrection of being especially eager for an armed demonstration of the new government’s power. Washington agreed that “the constitution and laws must strictly govern” but prudently decided not to rely on regular troops. He was aware that opponents of the Constitution had argued powerfully that a United States “standing army” would be used to crush the liberties of the states. So he called instead for fifteen thousand militiamen.

And as so often happens on the road to war, the momentum carried preparations ahead regardless of changing circumstances. Actually the insurgency was winding down. An anti-tax-committee signed a “solemn promise” to submit thenceforth to all United States laws whatsoever, in exchange for a pardon for any past offenses. The “Whiskey Insurrection” was de facto finished.

It turns out that sending an army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion had more to do with politics and less with necessity than the textbooks admit.

But the gathering punitive expedition was not disbanded. There was a lesson to be taught.

On October 4 the grand force was reviewed at Carlisle by Washington himself, amid cannon salutes and ringing bells. An enthusiastic local reporter rhapsodized about how “ THE MAN OF THE PEOPLE , with a mien as intrepid as that of Hector,” rode majestically down the lines, “nor once turned his eagle eye from the dazzling effulgence of the steel clad band.”

But the march itself and the aftermath were anything but causes for pride. Late October rains lashed the mountain roads and swelled the rivers. Wagons broke down, horses were lamed, soldiers sickened by the hundreds. There were inevitable episodes of theft and aggressive drunkenness at wayside towns. And when the law-and-order forces got to Pittsburgh, the record became genuinely shabby. Eighteen men were arrested—dragged out of their beds, kept in snow and rain in an open pen for hours, and then locked in a guardhouse for days. When they finally got a hearing, it turned out that all but two had already signed the “solemn promise” and that some of the others were witnesses, not rebels.

Twenty prisoners eventually were marched all the way back to Philadelphia—David Bradford, who had got away, not among them. They arrived on Christmas Day in the last stages of exposure and exhaustion and were there paraded through the streets to edify the jeering crowds who wanted to see the wild Western traitors. The insurgents lingered from ten to twelve months in jail without trial. Only two were found guilty of treason in Pennsylvania, and Washington pardoned them both. Point made.

In school I was taught to be a good nationalist, as were we all, and to rejoice in the firm establishment of the authority of the United States. I still do, I suppose. But now I’m freshly aware of the extent to which history is written by winners and how the big winners throughout American history have been the nationalists. I see much posturing and cruelty on both sides. I am inclined to accept the verdict of the most recent historian of the insurgency, Thomas G. Slaughter, who subtitles his account of the Whiskey Rebellion “Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution.”

Above all, I have learned to look for subtexts. What are the between-the-lines messages of current tax objection? Some of it is ordinary selfishness no doubt—but some stems from resentment about real or imagined unfairness in our methods of taxation. In 1991, as in 1791, tax resistance sends signals of popular beliefs about how democracy should work, signals that deserve reasoned attention.