On September 30, 1794, President George Washington mounted his horse to lead a 13,000-man all-volunteer army, against Americans who refused to pay, or threatened to not pay taxes on whiskey.
Tea Partiers and Republicans might do well to spend a few minutes refreshing their memories from history class — or getting the information they didn’t get the first time around. Citizens in western Pennsylvania, and that part of Virginia that would be come West Virgina, and the Ohio Territory, complained that federal taxes on whiskey were “theft.”
No, taxes are not “stealing.” Here’s an offending but explanatory poster I found on Facebook:
I told one guy who posted it that I thought it was a crude misrepresentation of George Washington, there on the left — but that I had always suspected he didn’t like the “founders,” and was grateful to have any doubts I may have had, removed.
He said, “Huh?”
One could always refer to that wonderful line from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., about how he liked to pay taxes because “with them I buy civilization.” But I suspect most tax revolters in the U.S. don’t much like civilization (and they have the guns to prove it).
Instead I simply told the story of George Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion, the first, and mostly-forgotten, case of U.S. tax rebels. You know the story.
Yeah, in 1794, a bunch of farmers out in western Pennsylvania got ticked off at taxes. They said paying taxes was like the government stealing from them. And, they had their representatives explain to President George Washington, didn’t they fight a war against paying taxes?
Washington, you may recall, was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the great American Revolution against Great Britain. “No taxes without representation” was one of the original war cries.
Washington said, ‘It takes money to run the government, and that money is collected from the people in taxes fairly levied by their elected representatives.’
The farmers weren’t having any of that. They were way out in western Pennsylvania, near the wilderness Fort Pittsburgh. The federal government, what little bit of it there was, was in Philadelphia. ‘How are they going to make us pay taxes?’ the rebel leaders shouted to crowds.
Washington got a dozen nooses, and a volunteer army of 13,000 Americans, and marched to western Pennsylvania to hang anyone who wouldn’t pay the tax. Oddly, by the time Washington got there with the nooses, the rebels decided maybe it was a good idea to be patriotic about it after all.
So I assumed you just updated the pictures a little. [In the poster] There’s George Washington on the left, with his Smith and Wesson “noose,” telling the big corporate farmer to pay his taxes.I think your portrayal of Washington is a bit crude, but it’s historically accurate, with regard to taxes.
I always suspected you didn’t like George Washington. Now I know for sure you don’t.
You could have looked it up: The Whiskey Rebellion – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/peopleevents/pande22.html
And it was on this day in 1794, September 30, that Washington and the army set out to put down the rebellion.
How would Washington have dealt with secession, or the Texas Republic movement?
- How False History Props Up the Right (consortiumnews.com)
- The Whiskey Rebellion, a history from the Department of the Treasury
- From the site above, we learn that Albert Gallatin, one of our more famous Secretaries of the Treasury, was a prominent Whiskey Rebel! Seven years later Thomas Jefferson put him in charge of collecting taxes: “Albert Gallatin, a leading Pennsylvania businessman, land developer, and State legislator long opposed internal Federal taxes. Given the opposition, his Fayette county neighbors elected him to the rebel assembly during the Whiskey Rebellion. While in the assembly, however, Gallatin spoke out against an open, violent break with the National government, and he also served on the 15-member committee that met with President Washington’s three commissioners in an attempt to end to the crisis peacefully. Gallatin ‘s name appeared on a list of rebel leaders, but he was never arrested for his role in the Whiskey Rebellion.”
- The Whiskey Rebellion – Friendship Hill National Historic Site (Pennsylvania)
- The Whiskey Rebellion, as told at Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon
- An annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival is held in Washington County, Pennsylvania — this year on July 11-13
- Update, August 30, 2013: William Hogeland’s probably the best current authority; he’s had some things to say about comparisons of the Tea Party to Whiskey Rebels, and the frequent errors of such comparisons. One might learn a lot from Hogeland’s bloggy writings on the issues surrounding the Whiskey Rebellion, not least that Washington thought people ought to pay taxes and ultimately did not regard them as “theft.”
Tip of the old scrub brush to the historians and other fine people at Mount Vernon, for the reminder: