What does Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and all the other self-styled patriots who ignited the rampage inside the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021 have in common with disaffected Pennsylvania patriots who fomented the failed Whiskey Rebellion in 1794? History says quite a bit.
Historians agree the dead-on-arrival rebellion in PA remains the greatest threat to American democracy that ever occurred before the calamitous American Civil War erupted in 1861. It will undoubtedly be years before historians can put the recent incident in D.C. in enough perspective to compare the two events.
The reputed “insurrection” at the Capitol Building three weeks ago is currently being billed as dangerous an effort as every made since the Civil War to destroy American democracy by force. The claims and explanations offered for why all it happened are tinted with alarmist nonsense peeking from behind the optics of rioters being complete assholes.
The debacle under the Capitol Rotunda was not the beginning of the end of our republic. It was a symptomatic wakeup call to the American government that its inability to govern wisely is showing. The riot was actively perpetrated by perhaps 200 misanthropic goons with a herd of gaping sheep wandering behind them. Because they invaded a sacred American totem, their imbecilic deed is still gathering currency it never earned and was never entitled to. That needs to stop.
Except for Trump’s perpetual lying machine, America’s ratings hungry news industry is as responsible for fanning the sputtering embers of impending revolution as any rabble rousing tub-thumper offering a different bite of the same shit sandwich served up with missionary zeal.
The thin gruel both sides offer is no longer mere fodder for tomorrow’s 24-hour news cycle, it is ammunition for the ideological combatants from the left and right battling each other for predominance in the nation’s political arena.
Too bad for us all that what was once “just the facts” is cherry picked to win over more viewers of a like-minded persuasion. Like Adolph Hitler before him, Donald Trump has again showed the world the benefits and dangers of vile demagoguery disguised as truth.
The swaggering demagogues who broke in to the Capitol, killed a police officer, injured dozens more and contributed mightily to the deaths of four Americans, are being portrayed in stark contrast as either daring patriots seeking change for the good, or malignant murderers on a mission to steal America.
The scatter brained players under the Rotunda were neither. They were and remain unwitting pawns in a political power struggle too obtuse to apply to their daily lives. Three of the worst offenders intend to tell Congress their minds were coopted by Trump during his impeachment trial.
Waiting in the wings are merchants of divisiveness who peddle garbage cleverly packaged as truth. So-called activists like QAnon conspirators and crackpot rabble rouser Alex Jones with his Infowars drivel are intent on destroying the soul of America.
Whether by coincidence or design, the vilest among them are the powerful political preachers who claim to get their guidance from God Almighty. Ministers of their ilk have rediscovered that religious fervor combined with jingoist dogma lures vacuous lawmakers to Jesus like bees to spring’s sweet pollen. What they have actually done is trade the privilege of governance for the opportunity to sell their souls for votes.
Instead of looking outside to find what are the real problems facing America, our representatives should be looking within their own houses to discover why their institutions failed. Perhaps they will discover what ails them in time to heal America’s weakened democracy. If not, who knows? Certainly the Alex Joneses of the world don’t.
Without firm hands on the levers of government, the institutions that are supposed to guide the rest of us have instead emboldened amoral fascists, malignant left-wing reactionaries, equally malevolent right-wing radicals, and ever more belligerent anarchists on to a huge platform where they can freely espouse their calls of revolution for the hell of it.
So what does all that have to do with events in 1794? For one thing, the same institutions that aroused passions in Pennsylvania are still with us. Where the radicals came from in both events and how they were ultimately defeated is remarkably similar. So is the government’s institutional indifference to the injustices that promoted their rage.
Hamilton convinced Washington that while any new revenue stream was always welcome to pay for the Revolutionary War, the excise tax was actually most effective as a pretext for the federal government to assert itself in traditionally state affairs.
The tax was levied in 1791. Those on the frontiers of Pennsylvania who made whiskey from grain they otherwise had no way to sell felt betrayed. The tax assessed was often the difference between feast or famine for a majority of the small farmers and hard scrabble merchants who had to pay it.
Washington was worried with good reason that any tax imposed by the federal government would be a threat to national unity. The country had just freed itself from an English king who used the taxes his revenue agents collected to pay for the colonists own subjugation. At Hamilton’s urging, the President traveled around the affected region soliciting opinions from state officials always desperate for new revenue streams.
President Washington did not solicit the views of ordinary Pennsylvanians, particularly those on the western frontier where whiskey was distilled in copious amounts from grain that would otherwise rot for lack of accessible markets. His absence was viewed as a personal insult to the men their revered General Washington led to victory in the recent war.
The frontiersmen’s sense of betrayal spawned illogical, indefensible rumors of power grabs and sell outs by elected officials who were usually well-to-do members of society. The struggling frontier folk had so little in common with the wealthy patricians who ruled them that even the most illogical lies were easy to believe.
The new law mandated that large distillers who generously supported the Federalist Party paid the annual excise tax at a rate of six cents per gallon. Because of economies of scale, the more whiskey they produced, the bigger the tax break they enjoyed.
Conversely, small producers were stuck with paying nine cents per gallon for the same products no matter how much they made. Perpetually cash poor farmers took particular issue because cash they never had was the only acceptable way for paying the tax.
Their acute skepticism encouraged passive resistance. When the despised excise tax was enacted in 1791, it provided the spark that finally ignited armed rebellion on Pennsylvania’s western frontier. For them, the excise tax on whiskey was the “Big Lie” that incensed them enough to pick up their long rifles and seek redress through force of arms.
The men rebelling were the same men who helped win America’s independence on the battlefield. Despite many promises for sharing the wealth that was soon to come after victory, they had been shunted aside in the peace, forced farther and farther west by rich land buyers forever in need of new land for their slaves to raise tobacco.
Washington was so alarmed by the rebels’ threats of violence he wanted to call out the army to quell the unrest in Pennsylvania before it could spread. Unfortunately, his roughly 6,000-man regular army was already occupied fighting The Northwest Indian War (1785–1795) in faraway Ohio country.
Those on the frontier felt especially put upon by a government they fought for to prevent taxation without representation, an explosive expression that was their call to arms two decades before. Tired of complaining to an unresponsive government, in late 1791 the frontiersmen began attacking federal and state revenue collectors. At the height of their supremacy, the insurrectionists assembled about 600 armed rebels.
Fearful of a second revolution, Washington federalized 13,000 militiamen from Pennsylvania and surrounding states to quell the rebellion. At the end of the uprising in late 1794, history records that the militia army had killed either three or four Pennsylvania rebels and captured 170 more. The rest fled the field. Thanks to Washington, the old saw goes, the nascent United States survived the first true challenge to federal authority.
Ultimately, Washington pardoned or otherwise freed all the rebels. In 1802, Republican President Thomas Jefferson repealed the excise tax on whiskey. It will be interesting to see what is done today.