I make frequent car trips between Washington, D.C., where I work, and Ohio, where I have extended family, friends, and a man cave stocked with beer, a crossbow, and power tools. On U.S. Route 76, I inevitably pass a modest billboard advertising the Jean Bonnet Tavern. Few of the innumerable drivers hurtling by at 70 miles per hour likely take much notice of it.
Which is a pity. This sign points the way to one of the oldest watering holes in America, dating perhaps to the 1760s. The Jean Bonnet’s importance, however, goes beyond that. In 1794, locals gathered in front of the tavern in Bedford, Pa., and raised a liberty pole in protest of the federal whiskey tax. Their ruckus came at the height of the Whiskey Rebellion that riled southern and western Pennsylvania for three years.
The paucity of historical indicators along Route 76 and, for that matter, on nearby U.S. Route 70, is not entirely surprising. The Whiskey Rebellion figures little in Americans’ collective memory of the Founding Era. The episode was not glorious nor did it bend the arc of history like, say, George Washington crossing the Delaware to deliver a defeat to the British. Those who heard of it in a high school history class likely recall it as a flash-in-the-pan incident involving angry farmers running amok with pitchforks and refusing to pay taxes on their homemade booze.
But it was far more than that, explains Brady Crytzer in The Whiskey Rebellion: A Distilled History of an American Crisis. "The event that was known in its own time as ‘the Western Insurrection’ had very little to do with actual whiskey. The event was a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the federal government in the emerging west." The uprising was no small matter. Had the rebels "achieved their goals," Crytzer writes, "the United States of America would have been dismembered just a decade after its founding."
As such, the rebellion is worth remembering on its own merits, and those crazy days are a useful reminder of the volatility of populism and its often contemptuous relationship with constitutional self-government.
The protest began on July 27, 1791, albeit in a muted and entirely appropriate manner. Community leaders gathered at Redstone Old Fort in Brownsville to discuss their objections to "the whiskey tax," which had been enacted four months prior. Those gathered were not the mean, snaggle-toothed "debtor class" that Alexander Hamilton and other Eastern elites scoffed at. The chairman of the convention was Edward Cook, a civic leader, and three members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives participated, including Albert Gallatin, the future secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
The men agreed to a resolution calling the tax "unequal in its operation, dangerous to liberty, and especially oppressive and injurious to the inhabitants of the western country." They agreed to encourage other counties to hold their own conventions, and then for representatives of each convention to meet in Pittsburgh in September to produce a shared petition of grievances to Congress. They would work within the governance system to repeal a wholly constitutional policy lawfully passed by the national legislature and signed by the president.
Their complaints had merit. On paper, the statute seemed sensible, at least to Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton and the Federalists in Congress who enacted it. The law required any distiller to register the still with a federal excise officer, and to pay a tax for each gallon of spirit he produced or a flat fee based on size of the still. Excise officers would be incentivized to do their duties by allowing them to keep a small portion of the collected revenues. Hamilton calculated that the government could reap 9 cents for every gallon of whiskey made, which could pay down a substantial portion of the nation’s debt. Booze, Hamilton thought, was a luxury and it was appropriate to tax it.
Crytzer notes that Hamilton erred in basing his policy on coastal presuppositions and math based upon the operations of big distilleries. The policy mostly met with shrugs and compliance in Philadelphia, New York, and other East Coast urban centers, but it elicited shock and outrage on the frontier.
Everything about the law was offensive. Americans had been distilling since the mid-1600s. It was a private matter, not a federal concern and certainly not one that justified federal agents intruding on private property and pocketing their money. Whiskey was not a luxury product; it was an essential good. Farmers made it to help recoup the cost they incurred in growing rye and other grains, not all of which they could sell at market. Whiskey also was an asset they traded for the things they needed to survive. For them, the cost of compliance was high. The statute’s mandate that fees and taxes must be paid in cash was an outrage—cash was sparse and settlers relied heavily on barter and notes. And who could afford to pay a $250 fine for noncompliance with the law, which was more than the annual income of the average farmer?
Unfortunately, whatever moral high ground the objectors held was quickly lost. Radicals co-opted the anti-tax movement and turned it into an anti-government movement. They took up arms and ambushed newly appointed excise officers, beating them and often stripping them nude and pouring boiling tar on their flesh and coating them with feathers.
As often happens in popular uprisings, a Manichean mentality took hold and a terror ensued. The rebels threatened citizens who obeyed the law. They saw spies and traitors among them, and kidnapped and tortured an itinerant teacher with a hot poker. Horses were stolen. Property was torched. A lunatic rebel declared Pittsburgh was the new Jerusalem and that rebel resistance was an end-of-times struggle. Other rebels deemed the city as Sodom on the Monongahela and hatched a plot to burn it to the ground.
Come late summer of 1794, President Washington’s patience was exhausted. The United States’ economy was wobbling and the country was threatened by the machinations of England, France, and Spain. The conflagration in Pennsylvania had spread the embers of anarchy into Maryland and Virginia, where anti-tax protests had erupted. Washington raised a force of nearly 13,000 men and took to the field as commander in chief. His administration’s message to the insurrectionists was clear: lay down your arms, swear fealty to the government, or be crushed. The radicals quickly folded, and the Washington administration prosecuted very few of them. The whiskey tax stayed in force for eight years. Congress and President Thomas Jefferson repealed it.
Crytzer, a Pennsylvania-based historian, has done readers a double favor with this book. We denizens of the 21st century benefit from remembering the Whiskey Rebellion and its populist excesses. His book also includes instructions for visiting sites—like the Jean Bonnet Tavern—where the insurrection unfolded. Finding the history of the insurrection necessitates exiting the national highway and traveling local roads with a keen eye and a copy of Crytzer’s trim book handy.
The Whiskey Rebellion: A Distilled History of an American Crisis
by Brady J. Crytzer
Westholme, 196 pp., $30