Books » Book Reviews + Features

The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty

By William Hogeland
Scribner, 302 pp., $26.95

by

comment

 

 

Like the Teapot Dome scandal or "54-40 or fight," the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s is a chapter in history most Americans forgot after high school. That goes even for Pittsburghers who drive along Bower Hill Road or who attended Fort Couch Middle School ... two names that recall key locations in the local uprising.

 

 

But now we have William Hogeland's eminently readable primer to remind us of this singular moment in local and national history.

 

Like the American Revolution itself, the cause of the Whiskey Rebellion was taxation ... specifically, an excise on whiskey levied to pay the nation's massive debt. As Hogeland shows, the whiskey tax hurt western Pennsylvania more than British taxes ever did. Whiskey was the only cash crop these subsistence farmers had; taxing it meant the working poor would be paying the nation's debts ... debts held by Hamilton's wealthy peers. "Westsylvania," as the restive area was sometimes known, grew resentful. Arguably, it was America's first red state: suspicious of Eastern elites, fond of its guns, hostile to taxes and big government.

 

And so the rebels rose up to defy the tax and the government that levied it. They torched the property of the local gentry, tarred and feathered tax collectors, and accosted enemies while disguised in housedresses. Eventually they were crushed by the federal army, but never have gun-wielding cross-dressers posed such a threat to the Republic (with the possible exception of J. Edgar Hoover, of course).

 

Hogeland will visit Pittsburgh on April 28, and descendents of those frontier farmers should buy him a drink. His portrayal of the tax's architect, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, is so scathing you'll never look at a $10 bill the same way again. By contrast, Hogeland takes pains to show the rebels sympathetically: The army sent to quash them, he writes, "seemed thirstier for blood, more intent on murder" than the rebels themselves.

 

The rebels often acted like a mindless mob ... their own leaders feared them almost as much as the federal government ... but they could show an evolved sense of justice. Some proposed progressive tax plans that were a century ahead of their time, for example. And in one oddly touching moment, Hogeland recounts the rebels razing a tax collector's home while sparing the dwellings of his slaves.

 

Hogeland recounts his tale with brio. Take his sketch of the rebels' backwoods prophet, Herman Husband: "He was born in 1724 and annoyed his family, fifteen years later, by being born again. He wasn't being groomed for religious enthusiasm." (Get it? "Groomed"?) Hogeland's gloss on rebel grievances is skillful, and he negotiates complicated matters of finance and governance glibly.

 

Maybe a little too glibly, in fact. Hogeland almost quotes directly from the ample historical record ... letters, personal memoirs, etc. Whole chapters go by without a single set of quotation marks; and while Hogeland provides copious endnotes, that's no substitute for hearing these historical figures speak in their own voices.

 

This is a popular history rather than a scholarly text, of course: General-interest readers might have lost the narrative flow if it had been coagulated with footnotes. But Hogeland sometimes violates the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don't tell. Why not let us read from the correspondence between Hamilton and George Washington, for example, so we can see whether the president "was in perfect harmony, both explicitly and tacitly, with Hamilton's execution" of unfair arrests?

 

Moreover, Hogeland's facile retelling of the rebels' story skips over the lessons it could teach us. Crushing the rebellion may have been necessary for America's survival. But as historian Howard Zinn and others have noted, it also established an unhappy precedent: Throughout American history, the federal government often guarded the prerogatives of wealth more zealously than the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. The mill towns of "Westsylvania" were taught that lesson as harshly as anyone.

 

Hogeland deserves credit for bringing this story to light, and to life, for new audiences. I just wish he'd shared a bit more of the record, and the conclusions he drew from it.

Add a comment