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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
By the time the expedition had crossed the mountains, the rebellion was already coming apart at the seams. David Bradford, who was excluded from the subsequent amnesty, fled to Spanish Louisiana, where he finished out his life as a planter. About 2,000 of the best riflemen in the west left the country, including many a distiller who loaded his pot stills on a pack horse or a Kentucky boat and sought asylum in Kentucky, where, hopefully, a man could distill “the creature” without giving the public debt a lift.
The punitive expedition moved forward in glorious autumn weather, raiding chicken coops, consuming prodigious quantities of the commodity which lay at the heart of the controversy. Richard Howell, governor of New Jersey and commander of the right wing, revived the spirits of the Jersey troops by composing a marching song, “Dash to the Mountains, Jersey Blue”:
To arms once more, our hero cries, Sedition lives and order dies; To peace and ease then bid adieu And dash to the mountains, Jersey Blue.
Faded diaries, old letters, and orderly books preserve something of the gala atmosphere of the expedition. At Trenton, New Jersey, a Miss Forman and a Miss Milnor were most amiable. Newtown, Pennsylvania, was noted as a poor place for hay. At Potts Grove a captain of a cavalry troop got kicked in the shin by his horse. Among the Virginians, Meriwether Lewis enjoyed the martial excitement and wrote to his mother in high spirits of the “mountains of beef and oceans of Whiskey,” sent regards “to all the girls,” and announced that he would bring “an Insergiant Girl to se them next fall bearing the title of Mrs. Lewis.” If there was such a girl, he soon forgot her.
Yet where there is an army in being, there are unpleasant occurrences. Men were lashed. Quartermasters stole government property. A soldier was ordered to put an insurgent under guard. In execution of the order, he ran the rebel through with his bayonet, of which wound the prisoner died. At Carlisle, a dragoon’s pistol went off and hit a countryman in the groin; he too died. On November 13, long remembered in many a cabin and clearing as “the dismal night,” the Jersey Horse rounded up suspects whom they described grimly as “the whiskey pole gentry,” dragging them out of bed, tying them back to back.
In late November, finding no one to fight, the army turned east again, leaving a volunteer force under General Morgan to conciliate and consolidate the position during the winter. Twenty “Yahoos” were carried back to Philadelphia and were paraded by the Philadelphia Horse through the streets of the city with “Insurrection” labels on their hats. It was an odd Federalist version of a Roman triumph. The troop was composed, as an admirer said, of “young gentlemen of the first property of the city,” with beautiful mounts and uniforms of the finest blue broadcloth. They held their swords elevated in the right hand, while the light flashed from the silver stirrups, martingales, and jingling bridles. Stretched over half a mile they came, first two cavalrymen abreast, then a pair of prisoners, walking; then two more mounted men, and so on.
The army, meditating upon their fatigues and hardships, called for a substantial number of hangings. Samuel Hodgson, the commissary-general, wrote to a Pittsburgh confidant: “We all lament that so few of the insurgents fell—such disorders can only be cured by copious bleedings…,” while Philip Freneau, friend and literary colleague of Brackenridge, suggested in retrospect—ironically, of course—the benefits which would have accrued to the country “If Washington had drawn and quartered thirty or forty of the whiskey boys…” Most of the captives escaped any punishment other than that of being held in jail without a trial for ten or twelve months. One died. Two were finally tried and sentenced to death. Eventually both were let off.
If the rising was a failure, so was the liquor tax. The military adventure alone, without ordinary costs of collection, ran up a bill of $1,500,000, or about onethird of all the money that was realized during the life of the act. Meanwhile the movement of the army to the Pennsylvania hinterland had brought with it a flood of cash which furnished the distillers with currency for paying their taxes. Gradually the bitterness receded. During Jefferson’s administration, the tax was quietly repealed. Yet the watermelon armies and the whiskey boys made a not inconsiderable contribution to our constitutional history. Through them, the year 1794 completed what 1787 had begun; for it established the reality of a federal union whose law was not a suggestion but a command.