Whiskey Rebellion and the Origin of Bourbon
At a time when France was bringing down the monarchy, another revolution was taking shape across the Atlantic. Less violent, but at least as unprecedented. The whiskey rebellion would ignite the minds of the very young republic. To get around the prohibitions, the colonists would find a solution that would ultimately give birth to bourbon as we know it.
“Perhaps there is no other nation on the earth, that has in so short a period experienced such various and interesting scenes as the people of the United States.” thus begins History of the insurrection, a work that has become a classic since published by William Findley in Philadelphia in 1796. Retracing the circumstances of the whiskey rebellion. It’s hard not to admire the understatement of “Interesting scenes”. The author evokes here a country which in less than fifteen years before had waged a war of independence against the greatest world power of the time. The settlers installed in the westernmost part of the territory were subjected to violent attacks from the indigenous populations (those “savage tribes”, according to Findley and where a harmonious coexistence between the constituent states of the new Republic was far from assured. As is often the case, the dispute at the origin of the insurgency was over taxation,
A discriminatory tax
After having fought hard under the slogan “no tax without representation” to free themselves from the yoke of the British crown, the settlers located further west were more than careful about the demands of their new government. In the Far West of Pennsylvania, life was out of step with that of the distant Atlantic coast, a sedentary and prosperous region, where the new central government was installed. In fact, in the western states, many settlers preferred self-government. They recognized the local authority, but not some distant central authority. The constitutional debate of the time determined the institutional structures of the United States, which explains the importance of the whiskey rebellion.
Western states have long defended pro-independence positions. The “revolutionary” war of the United States had resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but the native American Indians supported when not overtly led or by the English, still harassed the regions of the western Appalachians. The Spaniards who then controlled New Orleans also levied heavy tariffs on goods passing through the Mississippi, leaving the settlers no sensible and profitable way to transport excess yields to the eastern markets of the United States. To make matters worse, wealthy East Coast residents were acquiring lands in Pennsylvania and Virginia that were already cleared and cultivated by settlers, which forced the latter to buy their own houses and estates from speculators who had often never visited these regions. Let us add that these embittered and increasingly irritable colonists were of Scottish or Irish stock, populations little known for their respect for central authority.
So when in 1791 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton passed new taxes on whiskey, confrontation became almost inevitable. The whiskey that many settlers then distilled on their small farms had almost acquired the status of local currency. It was the possibility of converting large stocks of grain into a valuable and more transportable commodity. It was used for bartering and for many it was a way of surviving the long, harsh winters. The new tax was to bring in some $ 21 million intended to finance military operations against the Indians and their British allies who had defeated the smaller American Expeditionary Force in 1790 and 1791.
Hamilton’s tax set at 7 cents per gallon was based not on actual production or selling price, but on the capacity of the still. The tax thus imposed on whiskey at its source, and not on the points of sale, discriminated against spirit produced for the personal consumption of the distiller or for barter, as well as for whiskey marketed locally. As a result the price of whiskey west of the mountains cost around 25 cents per gallon, for a tax rate of 28%. In contrast, east of the mountains, because the sale price was doubled, the rate of tax translated to around only 14%.
To complicate matters further, Hamilton demanded that stills be declared once a year, in June, to the county tax office. However, certain counties (including Washington) having no tax office, necessitating the few taxpayers willing to register their still (they were rare) to undertake a long and tedious journey on horseback to pay a tax which caused a deep resentment. Failure to do so would see anyone accused of illegal distillation to be brought before the Philadelphia Federal Court of Justice, another discriminatory provision that further incensed increasingly aggravated settlers.
A decisive epilogue for whiskey
In 1791 and 1792, several federal tax collectors were smeared with tar and feathers, and vigorous resistance was opposed to any attempt to open a tax office in Washington. Alexander Hamilton, who some historians say was deliberately trying to provoke a rebellion, demanded that offending western farmers be brought to justice in Philadelphia. Perhaps animated by concern for the new republic and seeking to provoke an insurrection as a pretext to decisively stifle desire for autonomy in the western regions or merely zealous to raise funds to protect the border the result was the same, Either way, in an attempt to decided to crack down on the recalcitrant distillers in May 1794 Hamilton summoned seventy-five of them to Philadelphia for trial on the charge of tax evasion. A clash took place between General John Neville excise inspector, and about forty inhabitants of the region with shots being fired.
The next day, more than a hundred men surrounded Bower Hill, the general’s luxurious mansion, and reduced it to ashes. The rebels gather their forces: a group of five hundred armed men cross Pittsburgh where they are managed to persuade them to disperse, but they will again set fire to another property, that of the officer in charge of the militia who tried to defend Bower Hill. The case, it seems, would have ended there, was Hamilton’s attitude. Alarmed by the threat to central authority, he persuades an aging President George Washington that it was necessary to set an example to put down the rebels.
Nearly thirteen thousand troops were mobilised and placed under the command of General Henry Lee, hero of the War of Independence. Alexander Hamilton could not be dissuaded and in one of only two occasions in which the President personally led his troops in the field President Washington saddled up. Nearly one hundred and fifty rebels are taken prisoner. Although the charges were numerous, they were also relatively moderate sentences by benevolent judges. Two men were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, but pardoned by Washington on the grounds that one was addle-minded while the other was insane. The insurgency turned out to be strong enough to put a stop to the more aristocratic mode of government favoured by Hamilton and others, but too weak to jeopardize the fragile unity of the new republic. A crisis had been narrowly averted and the American democratic system of government strengthened as a result.
But the epilogue of this event is just as important, at least when it comes to whiskey. To sidestep a potentially embarrassing political situation and other difficulties created by the tough and stubborn character of the Scottish and Irish settlers, the government offered them land in which to settle, namely twenty-four hectares in Kentucky, on condition that they build permanent facilities there and grow “native corn”. It was impossible for a family to consume on its own the quantity of corn produced annually by such an area, and the cereal being perishable and its volumes too large to be transported, two problems were solved at once by turning it into whiskey. Turning away from the distillation of rye, the colonists then undertook to produce a corn-based brandy: the spirit destined to be crowned bourbon was born.
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