In October 1794, Alexander Hamilton took time out from his regular duties as secretary of the Treasury to lead 13,000 militiamen into western Pennsylvania. Resistance to a tax on whiskey production, intended to help pay down the government’s $45 million Revolutionary War debt, had been growing since it went into effect in 1791. Tax collectors had been attacked, and at least one was whipped, tarred, and feathered. By early 1794, some 7,000 men had joined the rebellion, and talk swirled about declaring independence from the United States. But in the face of federal bayonets, the revolt collapsed; many of its leaders were arrested, and the rest fled into neighboring states.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a critical moment in the life of the new republic. President Washington’s use of the military to force payment of the tax demonstrated that the fledgling federal government had real power—and was willing to use it.
But to Hamilton, who conceived it, the tax was about more than raising cash or asserting the central government’s authority. It was also a way to reduce alcohol production and consumption. Hamilton wrote in Federalist 12 that a tax on whiskey “should tend to diminish the consumption of it,” and that “such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society. There is, perhaps, nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits.” Washington agreed: Drinking, he said, was “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country”—even though, as the owner of one of America’s largest distilleries, he contributed his share to that ruin.
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