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A Tax On Whiskey? Never!
To the backwoods distillers of Pennsylvania, that was like taxing the air they breathed. Rut the government was deadly serious: the Constitution itself was at stake
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
When one retails that the President of the United States, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the governors of four states once mobilixed against the fanners of western Pennsylvania an army almost as large as ever took the field in the Revolutionary War, the event appears at first glance one of the more improbable episodes in the annals of this country. Equipped with mountains of ammunition, forage, baggage, and a bountiful stock of tax-paid whiskey, thirteen thousand grenadiers, dragoons, foot soldiers, pioneers, a train of artillery with six-pounders, mortars, and several “grasshoppers,” paraded over the mountains to Pittsburgh against a gaggle of homespun rebels who had already dispersed.
Yet the march had a rationale. President George Washington and his Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, moved to counter civil commotion with overwhelming force because they well understood that the survival of the new U.S. Constitution was involved. Soon after he assumed his post at the Treasury, Hamilton had proposed, to the astonishment of the country, that the United States should meet fully and promptly its financial obligations, including the assumption of the debts contracted by the states in the struggle for independence. Part of the money was to be raised by laying an excise tax upon distilled spirits. The tax became law on March 3, 1791.
In the back country settlements that produced the whiskey and drank the lion’s share of it, the news of the passage of the measure was greeted with a roar of indignation. The duty was laid uniformly upon all the states, as the Constitution provided; if the West had to pay more, the Secretary of the Treasury explained, it was only because it used more whiskey. The East could, if it so desired, forego beverage spirits and IaIl back on cider and beer. The South and the frontier West could not, for they had neither orchards nor breweries. To Virginia and Maryland the excise tax appeared to be as unjust and oppressive as the well-remembered Molasses Act and the tea duties of George III. “The time will come, predicted Georgia s fiery James Tackson in the House of Representatives, “when a shirt shall not be washed without an excise.”
Kentucky, then thinly settled, but already producing its characteristic handmade, copper-fired, whole-souled liquor, was of the opinion that the law was unconstitutional. Deputy revenue collectors throughout the Jiluegrass region were assaulted, their papers stolen, their horses’ ears cropped, and their saddles cut to pieces. On one wild night the people of Lexington dragged a stuffed dummy through the streets and hanged in effigy Colonel Thomas Marshall, the chief collector for the district.
Yet, in no other place did popular fury rise so high, spread so rapidly, involve a whole population so completely, or express so many assorted grievances as in the Pennsylvania frontier counties of Fayette, Allegheny, Westmorland, and Washington. There, in 1791, a light plume of wood smoke rose from no less than five thousand log stillhouses. The rates went into effect on July 1. The whiskey-maker could choose whether he would pay a yearly levy on his still capacity or a gallonage tax on his actual production.
Before the month was out, “committees of correspondence,” in the old Revolutionary phrase, were speeding horsemen over the ridges and through the valleys to arouse the people to arm and assemble. The majority, but not all, of the men who made the whiskey decided to “forbear” from paying the tax. Revenue officers were thoroughly worked over. Robert Johnson, for example, collector for Washington and Allegheny counties, was waylaid near Pigeon Creek by a mob disguised in women’s clothing. They cut off his hair, gave him a coat of tar and feathers, and stole his horse.
The Pennsylvania troubles were rooted in the economic importance and impregnable social position of mellow old Monongahela rye whiskey. The frontier people had been reared from childhood on the family jug. They found the taste pleasant, the effect agreeable. Whiskey kept the population cool in summer. In winter, it was the old settlers’ equivalent of central heating. Whiskey was usually involved when there was kissing or fighting. It beatified the rituals of birth and death. It provided almost the only diversion, while enjoying at the same time a high reputation as the West’s greatest therapeutic agent, effective against fevers, ague, snake bite, or general decline. The doctor kept a bottle in his office for his own use, with the protective label, “Arsenic—Deadly Poison.”
Whiskey lubricated the machinery of government. The lawyer produced the bottle when the papers were signed. Whiskey was available at the prothonotary’s office when the trial list was made up. Jurors got their dram, and the constable drew his ration for his services on election day. The hospitable barrel and the tin cup were the mark of the successful political candidate. The United States Army issued a gill to a man every day. Ministers of the gospel were paid in rye whiskey, lor they were shepherds of a devout flock, Presbyterians mostly, who took their Bible straight, especially where it said:
“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.”
“Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.”