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What the Tea Party Could Learn from the Whiskey Rebellion

1879 Drawing of the Whiskey Rebellion. Source: Library of Congress

In my nascent examinations of the Tea Party movement, I have been astounded by the frequency with which Tea Partyers speak of rebellion, secession, and striking out against the government. Thankfully, the data likely indicate only a minority of Tea Partyers hold such hostile sentiments. But, it is troubling to see some members of the movement have, for example, lionized Joseph Stack, who crashed his plane into an Internal Revenue Service building this past February.

Keeping with the movement’s quasi-religious reverence for the American Founding, these tough-talking Tea Partyers frequently turn to famous figures of yore for pithy quotes. Two of the more beloved quotes are: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” and “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” Both of these quotes come from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote them in letters in 1787.

Plainly, there are problems with using these Jefferson quotes to support a current political cause. For one, the situation in 1787 was the situation in 1787; to simply assume what might have been a fine idea then would be a fine idea in 2010 requires an immense leap of faith and logic. For another, Jefferson’s view was not universally shared. Armed revolt makes a mockery of the democratic processes of self-rule, and it subverts liberty by undermining the law. While Jefferson shined upon the antics of Daniel Shays and his lawless uprising, the men who would become the Founders were so appalled they went to Philadelphia that same year and replaced the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution.

Beyond those quibbles, the greater problem with rebellion is that rebellion is counter-productive to the great Tea Partyer goals— smaller government and more liberty. To see this, we need only recall the whiskey rebellion.

Just four years after Jefferson wrote his impish letters, trouble began brewing in Pennsylvania. Congress had enacted a tax upon distilled spirits in March 1791 in order to pay off the debts of the nation and states. Farmers, many of whom used distilled spirits as a form of currency, felt unfairly targeted. Some felt that Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was a tool for the rich and commercial interests. On September 11, 1791, a tax collector was tarred and feathered, a gruesome practice that inflicts horrific damage on the flesh and mind.

The rebellion was on, and it continued for three years. Government officials were assaulted, forcibly detained, and shot at. Cries of secession were hollered and those who failed to join the insurrection sometimes were branded traitors and suffered reprisal.

Ultimately, President George Washington, a man who later started his own whiskey distillery, raised an army and put down the uprising. Washington could have slaughtered the rebels with ease, but magnanimously restrained the army. In the end, only two whiskey rebels were convicted of treason, and Washington pardoned them both, saving them from hanging.

What can today’s angriest Tea Partyers learn from the whiskey rebellion? Most obviously, that rebellion is not an inherently moral action. Rebelling against a king is just; rebelling against a popularly elected government is not. Thus it was that George Washington, the man who led the fight against the British, saw nothing admirable in the whiskey rebellion.

Additionally, pace Mr. Jefferson, rebellion has its costs, most frequently the diminishment of liberty. In 1794, Washington had to create up an army that had not hitherto existed and march them into Pennsylvania. The “don’t tread on me” attitude grew government and produced a temporary police state. Indeed, it may well be an iron law of American government that every time someone lashes out at government the result is more government. Fifty years ago, anyone could stroll into the U.S. Capitol; thanks to a couple of shootings and assorted threats, one cannot visit Congress without navigating Capitol Police officers, metal detectors, and x-ray machines.

Finally, the most effective way to change government policy is through discussion and the ballot box. The much hated whiskey tax was ended not via whiskey rebel bullets, but voters’ ballots. The people elected Thomas Jefferson President in 1800, and he and his fellow Republicans repealed the tax soon thereafter.

Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2010)


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