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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
With grain the most abundant commodity west of the mountains, the farmers could eat it or drink it, but they couldn’t sell it in distant markets unless it was reduced in bulk and enhanced in value. Thus a Pennsylvania farmer’s “best holt” was whiskey. A pack horse could move only four bushels of grain. But it could carry twenty-four bushels if it was condensed into two large wooden kegs of whiskey slung across its back, while the price of the goods would double when they readied the eastern markets. So whiskey became the frontier remittance lor salt, sugar, nails, bar iron, pewter plates, powder and shot. Along the western rivers, where men saw few shilling pieces, a gallon of good, sound rye whiskey was a stable measure of value.
The bitter resistance of the western men to the whiskey tax involved both practical considerations and principles. First, the excise payment was due and must be paid in scarce hard money as soon as the water-white distillate flowed from the condensing coil. The principle concerned the whole repulsive idea of an internal revenue levy. The settlers of western Pennsylvania were a bold, hardy, emigrant race from Scotland and northern Ireland, who had set up their mashing tubs, fermenters, and pot stills before the last Indian war whoop ceased to echo among the hills. They brought with them also bitter memories of oppression in the old country under the excise laws, involving invasion of their homes, confiscation of their properly, and a system of paid informers. Revenue collectors were social outcasts in a society which might have warmly seconded Doctor Samuel Johnson’s definition ol excise: “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”
The whiskey boys of Pennsylvania, then, saw it as simply a matter of sound Whig principles to resist the exciseman as he made his rounds with a Dicas hydrometer to measure the proof of the whiskey and his marking iron to brand the casks with his findings. Earlier, the slate had taxed spirits, except that whiskey prodined lor purely private use was exempt. William Findley of Westmorland County, a member of Congress at the time and a sympathetic interpreter of the western point of view, looked into this angle. To his astonishment, he learned that all of the whiskey distilled in the west was for purely personal use. So far as the excise tax was concerned, or any other stale tax, the sturdy Celtic peoples of the Monongahela region had cheerfully returned to a state of nature: they just didn’t pay. About every sixth man made whiskey. But all were involved in the problem, since the oiher five took iheir rye anil corn to the stillhouse where the master distiller turned it into liquid form.
But now mailers had laken a more serious turn. The new federal government in Philadelphia was dividing the whole country up into “districts” for the purpose of collecting the money, and cutting the districts up into smaller inspection “surveys.” The transmonlane Pennsylvanians found themselves in the grip ol something known as the fourth survey, with General John Neville, hitherto a popular citizen and leader, getting ready to enforce the law. Rewards would be paid lo informers and a percentage of the taxes given to the collectors, who appeared to be a rapacious set.
The first meeting of public: protest against the United Slates excise of 1791 was held in July at Redsione Old Fort (now Brownsville, Pennsylvania). The proceedings were moderate on that occasion, and scarcely went beyond the right of petition. Another meeting in August, more characteristic of others which were to follow, was radical in tone, disorderly, threatening, ft passed resolves that any person taking office under the revenue law was an enemy of society.
When warrants were issued in the affair of the molested revenue agent, Robert Johnson, the process server was robbed, beaten, tarred and feathered, and left tied to a tree in the forest. As the inspectors’ offices were established, they were systematically raided. The familiar Liberty poles of the Revolution reappeared as whiskey poles. The stills of operators who paid the tax were riddled with bullets in attacks sardonically described as “mending” the stills. This led to a popular description of the whiskey boys as “Tom the Tinker’s Men,” an ironical reference to the familiar, itinerant repairer of pots and kettles. Notices proposing measures for thwarting the law, or aimed at coercing the law-abiding distillers, were posted on trees or published in the Pittsburgh Gazette signed, “Tom the Tinker,” nom de plume of John Holcroft and other antitax propagandists. Congressman Findley, one of the prominent men of the region who tried to build a bridge of understanding between the backwoodsmen and the central government, described the outbreak as not the result of any concerted plan, but rather as a flame, “an infatuation almost incredible.”
An additional complaint against the tax grew out of the circumstance that offenders were required to appear in the federal court at Philadelphia, three hundred miles away. The whiskey-makers saw this distant government as being no less oppressive than one in London, and often drew the parallel. Some democrats, oriented sympathetically toward the Jacobin Clubs of Paris, whispered that the whole whiskey issue was a scheme of the Federalists to transfer the powers of government from the people to an aristocratic junto.