The Whiskey Rebellion
PROLOGUE The President, the West, and the Rebellion
President Washington was traveling home to Virginia in June of 1794 when he got hurt. He was sixteen months into his second term. He’d hoped to avoid serving it: at sixty-two, he had begun to feel irretrievably old. He kept catching low-grade, lingering fevers. His inflamed gums endured the pressure of tusk and hinged steel. Rifling through papers, he looked for proof of things people claimed he’d said, waving off polite reminders from subordinates who, the president could see, were shaken by pinholes in his memory.
He’d been embodying republican judgment for so long that what might have been oppressive requirements of office—audiences, dinners, dances, teas—seemed to come naturally. In black velvet or purple satin, his huge frame, still magnificently straight, could endow any occasion with serenity and seriousness, with grace. Yet what George Washington really had to do all day was apply his enormous capacity for administrative thoroughness to a pile of awful problems that grew more numerous all the time. They were problems of mere survival. The Royal Navy was seizing U.S. ships. The British Army declined to evacuate forts on U.S. soil. Indian wars brought carnage but no progress. Washington had been harried, throughout his first term, by battles within his own cabinet: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton undermined each other and, inevitably, Washington’s efforts. Yet both men had been essential to him. Now Jefferson
had quit to lead the nation’s first opposition party. Hamilton, still in the cabinet, ever more essential, led the party in power. Of all dangers to the new nation, Washington was sure that party politics would be the deadliest.
So he was relieved to be able to get home at all this spring. The trip would be so brief that Mrs. Washington had remained in Philadelphia, and when traveling without her, Washington liked to push the pace, keeping the journey to five days. Yet the weather was hot, the horses out of shape, and presidential travel a production. The president’s light, long-distance coach went bouncing over ruts, holes, and rocks. Up top sat the driver and a postilion, both in livery. Riding alongside was a secretary; on the other side a friend might ride as bodyguard. Some ways behind, the baggage wagon lumbered; behind the wagon stepped the president’s saddle horse, led by a mounted slave. Overnight stops meant dinners, tours of friends’ properties, ride-alongs, and side trips. And there was frequent communication with the office.
Washington didn’t want rest. What he wanted, the only reason for taking this quick break, was to be working on Mount Vernon, his five farms on eight thousand acres. He’d been trying for most of his life to make Mount Vernon both a self-sufficient manor in the ancient Roman style and a source of wealth through the sale of produce. Such an estate would normally be ancestral home to a dynasty, but while his wife had borne her first husband four children, George Washington had none. On soil made almost barren by tobacco cultivation before he’d inherited it, he experimented with common crops like wheat and corn and with exotics like treebox, grapes, horse chestnuts, clover, and gourds. He’d planted five kinds of fruit trees. He’d spent years fighting the encroachment of waste by sprinkling plaster on soil, sowing oats and peas, searching in manure for what he called the first transmutation toward gold: fertility. He bred cattle, mules, hogs, sheep, and horses. Support came from smithies, charcoal burners, carpentry shops, mills, looms, cobblers, breweries, creameries, and a fishery. Voluminous accounts were kept separately for each farm, and more than three hundred people managed—most
enslaved, many indentured, some free. At the foot of Mount Vernon’s lawns, the product of all this hard-won fecundity was loaded from wharves onto boats in the Potomac.
Yet Washington always had great difficulty keeping the place on a paying basis. Each week in Philadelphia he sat at a desk and wrote his farm manager page after page of instructions, caveats, reminders, neatly hand-drawn crop-rotation tables and charts; each week he required an equally detailed report in response. He was sure his managers were incompetent, his workers selling butter on the side, his slaves lazy and poorly managed. Finally he couldn’t stand it any longer. With the end of the congressional session, he pushed the cabinet to close executive business, snatched a few weeks from the nation, and started south to give Mount Vernon the personal attention it desperately needed.
After too many days on the road, almost home now, he decided on a quick side trip. He wanted to inspect the construction zone on tidal marshes known as the Great Columbian Federal City; one day it would bear his name. Touring the site, he could see the congressional building and the president’s house, separated by bleak woods, still scaffolded, under construction. Those two buildings were all that suggested potential for civilization. Washington had been trying to whip up interest in land sales that were supposed to be funding the venture, but buyers were few, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. The mall existed only on paper and included an open sluice for sewage. Most people saw this site as wet, buggy scrub.
What George Washington saw was a city that didn’t struggle upward from necessity and convenience. Purpose-built, it would be a neoclassical commercial and political center, surrounded by manorial farms like his own, organizing agrarian bounty and financial savvy, the north and the south, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, in the wisdom and strength of central government. The city would serve as an embarkation point for products of the rich, fresh soil of the interior, barely tapped, yet already owned and controlled in massive tracts by George Washington, his fellow tidewater planters, and
northern speculators. The western produce would tumble, one day, out of the mountains, ride down the Potomac, and be dispatched into the Chesapeake Bay and across the Atlantic for the markets of Europe. When that happened, both the Federal City and the president’s huge landholdings in the west would assume enormous value.
There was an obstacle to realizing this dream, something he needed to look at, again, on this side trip. The Potomac, spreading as an estuary alongside the future capital city, then quietly passing Mount Vernon’s lawns, seemed hospitably southern here near the bay. Follow it upstream, though—Washington had done so for the first time more than forty years earlier—and even before leaving civilization you came to white cataracts, sluices, drop-offs, rocky twists and turns; the river narrowed and became unnavigable. Above the fall line it leveled for a shallow stretch, then steepened again, regaining speed and fight. Arriving many days later at the highest springs, a good surveyor would be disappointed to note that in the western mountains the river simply petered out. Moving western produce eastward called for a road to the shore. The Potomac wasn’t it.
The president knew the Potomac, and he knew the west. Near the crest of the Appalachians, where other streams rise, Washington the redhead colonial had panted his way up the most forbidding passes in the country. Among ice chunks in the raging Allegheny he’d swum for his life. He’d hauled chains and tripods; he’d led snooty superiors to places where, of white men, only he and his rough scouts had been before. He’d followed the streams that flowed down the other way and converged at the headwaters of the Ohio River, which cut southwest and poured at last into the Mississippi; he’d floated the Ohio looking for good land. What Washington had been puzzling over since his teens was how to make the tricky, east-flowing Potomac somehow navigable, then connect it—and thus connect Mount Vernon, and now his Federal City—by a high, wide road across the mountains, to the west-flowing Ohio, thence with the Mississippi, at last with the gulf. He was
weaving a mental network that might pull divergent watersheds together, gathering up a continent’s opposing forces, tilting the American west toward the eastern shore.
Yet lately he’d grown discouraged. After a lifetime of purchasing western tracts and attempting development, he found his far-off property still squatted on, his rents uncollected. Law in the west was disastrously incompetent. Mills needed constant repair yet never produced enough to make expenditures worthwhile. His land agents were passive. He’d started exploring the possibility of selling off his western lands.
It was a dream that would die hard. After taking a look at his Federal City-in-progress, the president, mounted now, turned not downstream toward home but upstream for a quick inspection of his most exciting east–west project, the canal works at the Potomac’s lower falls. The young man’s imaginings had long since been put busily into practice: he’d been made president of the Potomac Company long before becoming president of the United States. Here at the fall line, engineers were taking a standard approach. They diverted flow into trenches dug beside the river; wood-gated, stone-walled locks would float boats up steps. It was above the falls, in the second phase, where the great vision was projected. Washington and his business partners planned to avoid cutting waterways beside the river. They’d dig out the banks instead, take the fight out of the currents by widening the river, dispense with locks; they’d make a new Potomac, an interstate highway, level and calm, pursuing it into the mountains till defeated by the river’s narrowing. Then phase three: the overland mountain road, which they imagined congested, someday, with wagons portaging goods eastward from the Ohio River.
The president’s horse lurched. It lurched again. From the rocks above the lower falls, he’d been viewing the construction; the horse’s feet were tender, the ground was hard, and suddenly the horse couldn’t stop running and bucking. Washington was giving all he had to staying in the saddle and keeping himself and the horse from hurtling down the rocks into rushing water. When he succeeded at
last in pulling the horse to a panting halt, his back was in such excruciating pain that he couldn’t stay mounted.
He got down with difficulty, joined by his anxious party. Virginia gentry saw themselves as horse-tamers out of Homer. Washington was deemed the greatest rider of his age. Now he couldn’t hoist himself into the saddle. With help, he did at last mount up, but the pain was paralyzing and getting worse. At Mount Vernon at last, but unable to stand, he lay around the house. Hands-on management required day-long gallops over miles of country. He was used to dismounting, taking off his coat, joining in the work. In battle, flying lead had torn holes in his clothes while men fell screaming around him, and when dysentery swept through the ranks, it had killed dozens while making him temporarily miserable. An often-told story placed him in the sights of a crack British rifleman, overwhelmed by the nobility of the target, who couldn’t bring himself to shoot. It was amazing but true: never before, in a long and persistently dangerous career, had George Washington been injured. This damage to his back, he was told, would be with him the rest of his life.
Furious, he left Mount Vernon, having done nothing, riding back toward Philadelphia in a coach on what he’d been advised was the smoothest road. The road wasn’t smooth. He sat rigid with pain, day after day, as the carriage bounced and swayed. Rain started falling, then pouring. The entourage slowed in the mud. He caught a bad cold. After seven days of misery he arrived at Philadelphia, planning to go straight to bed, but a party of Chickasaws, he was told, had arrived days earlier and patiently awaited a meeting with the president.
Washington went to dinner. He had world-famous posture; in the presence of Indians there was no question of reclining or even slouching. He sat up straight, smoking the peace pipe and exchanging polite remarks. He badly wanted to make another trip to Mount Vernon, somehow, as soon as possible.
What the president didn’t know, as he forced himself upright for one more diplomatic dinner: attempts at federal law enforcement,
over the mountains in his old Ohio River stomping grounds, had run into a kind of trouble the United States hadn’t yet faced. He wouldn’t return to Mount Vernon soon. The old general, with his wrenched and faulty back, would be leading troops again, making his last trip west.
• • •
The national crisis that came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion, a scene of climactic moments in the lives of famous founders like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and in those of equally determined and idiosyncratic Americans whose names have been forgotten, began in the fall of 1791, when gangs on the western frontier started attacking collectors of the first federal tax on an American product, hard liquor. The attacks took lurid and, to contemporaries, familiar form. The attackers’ faces were blackened; the victims were tortured and humiliated. Sometimes the gangs dressed as their own worst nightmare. Stripped to deerskin breeches, they streaked their chests and faces with herb-dyed clay and stuck feathers in their hair, imitating a native raiding party. Or they borrowed their wives’ dresses. Black faces framed by white caps, they kicked the awkward skirts while confronting human prey.
Those attacks would develop, over the course of more than two years, into something far more frightening to eastern authorities than freakish rioting: a regional movement, centered at the headwaters of the Ohio in western Pennsylvania, dedicated to resisting federal authority west of the Alleghenies. In the fall of 1794, the rebellion would climax when President Washington raised thirteen thousand federal troops—more than had beaten the British at Yorktown—and led them over the Appalachians, where armed Americans were no longer petitioning for redress, or carrying out grotesque attacks on officers, but leading a secessionist insurgency against the United States of America.
The perpetrators were the toughest and hardest of westerners: farmers, laborers, hunters, and Indian fighters; most were disillusioned war veterans. Expert woodsmen and marksmen, adept not only in musket drill but also in rifle sharpshooting, they were
organized in disciplined militias and comfortable with danger. The president’s decision to suppress the rebellion, in which he deployed the first federal force of any significant size—and led it as commander in chief—became a test of the fragile new nation’s viability, the biggest news of the day. Triggered by the tax on domestic whiskey, with which the prodigiously energetic Alexander Hamilton was realizing his visions of high finance and commercial empire, the rebellion brought to a climax an ongoing struggle not over taxation but over the meaning and purpose of the American Revolution itself.
That struggle had financial, political, and spiritual aspects. In the most literal sense it was about paying the revolution’s debt. The whiskey rebels weren’t against taxes. They were against what they called unequal taxation, which redistributed wealth to a few holders of federal bonds and kept small farms and businesses commercially paralyzed. Farmers and artisans, facing daily anxiety over debt foreclosure and tax imprisonment, feared becoming landless laborers, their businesses bought cheaply by the very men in whose mills and factories they would then be forced to toil. They saw resisting the whiskey tax as a last, desperate hope for justice in a decades-long fight over economic inequality. Alexander Hamilton and his allies, meanwhile, whose dreams had long been obstructed by ordinary people’s tactics—crude, violent, sometimes effective—for influencing public finance policy, saw enforcing the whiskey tax as a way of resolving that fight in favor of a moneyed class with the power to spur industrial progress.
Problems facing rural people everywhere were amplified west of the Appalachians, and the whiskey tax, wreaking a special kind of havoc on westerners’ lives, helped shape the national concept of the American west. Some of the whiskey rebels envisioned stranding the seaboard cities, vile pits of unrestrained greed, on the far side of the Appalachian ridge and leaving the coast a vestige. Some imagined a new west, spiritually redeemed, with perfect democratic and economic justice: small farmers, artisans, and laborers would thrive, while bankers, big landowners, and lawyers would be closely
regulated, even suppressed. Believing they could wrest their country back from frontier merchants and creditors, their own neighbors, some rebels wanted to banish big businessmen as traitors to the region even while fending off the distant federal government in all its growing might.
The rebellion thus became a primal national drama that pitted President Washington and other eastern founders, along with their well-heeled frontier protégés and allies—all recent revolutionaries themselves—against western laborers with a radical vision of the American future. The rebellion also troubled the inner circle of the president’s administration. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington brought to suppressing the rebellion a long-standing tension and a peculiar closeness, whose background was in the ambiguous wartime politics of the revolution. Edmund Randolph, the new secretary of state, urged the president to avoid the drastic, irreversible step of bringing military force against American citizens; he became the isolated cabinet moderate. Within the insurgency were moderates too, accused by the government of leading insurrection, yet in fact dissenting from their neighbors’ extreme radicalism. Committed to peaceful petitioning, yet unable to control or direct the fury of their neighbors, western moderates faced danger from all sides as the rebellion and its suppression turned into outright conflict. By the time federal forces marched west, the Whiskey Rebellion was bathing all of its actors—founders and terrorists, extremists and moderates—in the stark light, not of an argument between genteel parties in Congress, but of a guerrilla war on the country’s ragged margin, our first war for the American soul.