The Whiskey Rebellion: A Parable

“So who’s in a hurry?” – Robert Benchley, when told that drinking was “slow poison.”

This week (August 1) marks the anniversary of the beginning of the “Whiskey Rebellion” in 1794, an episode that offers a few lessons on taxation, political deal-making and the advancement of civilization.

The rebellion began because the federal government under George Washington was seeking a way to pay for its earlier agreement to assume the war debts incurred by the states in the wake of the American Revolution. Washington’s treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, had brokered this debt agreement, and he decided an excise tax on whiskey was the perfect way to help pay for the debt.

Now like all good taxes, a whiskey tax was bound to hurt some more than others, and in this case it was bound to hurt “Westerners” the most (back then the “West” was Western Pennsylvania).  Why?  Mainly because these Westerners, who were mostly farmers, drank more whiskey than the sophisticated Easterners, whose tastes ran to wine and port.  What’s more, many more Westerners earned a living making whiskey, while more Easterners earned a living making politics (I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which poses more long-term health risks).  So the combination of a (perceived) lack of political clout on the part of the Westerners, and the fact that the Easterners would pay proportionately less due to their drinking habits and their livelihoods, made a whiskey tax seem ideal — at least to Easterners.

Not so to Westerners, who rebelled against the tax.  The rebellion spread swiftly but was no match for George Washington, who raised an army and quickly defeated the rebels’ ragtag band. That ended the Whiskey Rebellion, although the excise tax was — unlike the whiskey — later diluted.

This said, there are some interesting similarities between this episode and the fate of cigarettes today.  As a reformed smoker, I agree that cigarettes cause myriad health problems, but — let’s face it — as we of the “educated class” became more aware of the harm cigarettes cause, and therefore reduced our use of them, we conveniently became more enamored of the idea that taxing the bejabbers out of tobacco was a great way to improve the country’s health and raise revenue.

This has angered smokers, although instead of armed rebellion you mostly see letters‑to‑the-editor, or smokers complaining on TV about losing their “rights,” or — increasingly — lawsuits and counter lawsuits.

Call it progress. In 1794 they would have reached for their firearms and started shooting. Today we reach for our lawyers and our lobbyists, our PACs and our PR firms.  And most of our shots are verbal.  It goes to show (I think) how civilized we have become.