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The Whisky Boys

The ragged settlers of an empty continent rebelled against a distant tyrannical government that attempted to impose an unfair tax, when America was 15 years old.

Two hundred years ago a federal army marched towards a showdown with the Whiskey Boys of Western Pennsylvania. Fifteen thousand men, about the same number that seventeen years before had fought the powerful British army to a standstill, led by the Revolutionary War hero, General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton tagged along to oversee their progress, and aging President Washington clambered onto his horse in support.

By the time the army arrived in Western Pennsylvania the hotheads who had protested taxation, not of tea, but whiskey, had gone home to their farms. Soldiers stumbled upon a few surprised workers and arrested seventy-five men, shipping them back east, where they were tried and acquitted of treason, except for two who were pardoned by George Washington, on the grounds that one was feeble-minded and the other insane.

The headaches started in 1791 when Alexander Hamilton pushed through congress a 25% excise tax on whiskey, to be levied at source, which in the case of the Pennsylvania farmers was a multitude of small stills in barns and outhouses dotted around the back country. Hamilton no doubt acted from a sense of fiscal responsibility, but three hundred miles across the mountains was a different world and the wealthy Easterner overlooked several important facts.

One was a belief on the part of the farmers that the tax was one more instance of rich Easterners bleeding hard-working poor frontiersmen. Whiskey was important to these people. They distilled the spirit from grain, since the long journey across the mountains to the major markets of the east was expensive, and whiskey was much easier to transport than the bulky primary product. Distance also meant that a tax at source would be difficult to pass on to the consumer across the mountains, and locally, whiskey was used in what was still largely a barter economy, almost as a form of currency. A familiar tipple, a linchpin of the economy, and a basic money maker, the spirit was dear to the hearts of the Whiskey Boys.

Considering this, the initial reaction in Western Pennsylvania was mild. Petitions were signed. Local luminaries like Hugh Henry Brackenbridge, William Findlay and Albert Gallatin were a moderating influence. Meetings took place in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas where talk and whiskey were dispensed liberally. The tax was evaded wherever possible, and the irritated central government brought sporadic pressure to bear on the distillers.

Over the next three years the excise act was somewhat modified but the tax was still considered unfair by the whiskey boys who conducted a tug-of-war against the government regarding the disposition of their profits. Unfortunate tax collectors, mostly locally based federal employees, were harassed and threatened. Between 1791 and 1793, a handful of excise men were roughed up and intimidated, but this was quite restrained behavior for the wild frontier of a young country which, on the issue of unfair taxation, had less than two decades earlier wrenched independence for itself by violent revolution. It seemed that sooner or later something must break loose, and in 1794, something did, with a vengeance.

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