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How the Whiskey Rebellion Changed American Politics and Taxes

on 08/12/11 at 11:27 am

Booze News

In 1794, an all-out rebellion took place when farmers from 4 western Pennsylvania counties refused to pay taxes on their favorite tipple, whiskey.

They fought the law and the law won, but the farmers’ defiance, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, permanently changed the political make-up of the United States.

The roots of the rebellion started when Alexander Hamilton realized that the U.S. had racked up staggering debts.

The federal government was $54 million in the red, while the states had accrued a total debt of $24 million. Saddled with this exorbitant financial burden and hoping to build national unity, the nation’s first treasury secretary was determined to balance the books as quickly as possible.

Recognizing that the sale of spirits was a lucrative venture, Hamilton set his sights on taxing distilled beverages. By 1791 the Distilled Spirits Tax was put into effect.

The Importance of Whiskey

Prior to its passage, debates erupted over whether the levy on liquor was fair to the common man. The tax varied from 6-18%, and placed a heavy financial burden on individual farmers.

Opponents to the legislation said it was excessive, and disliked the idea of “internal taxation” compared to taxes on imported or exported goods. Some suggested a tax on ales and other drinks that were popular with city dwellers to make the tax a bit more egalitarian.

Thomas Jefferson, whose Democratic-Republican Party was created to contest virtually anything proposed by Hamilton, opposed the Whiskey Tax on the grounds that it impeded a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness.

Selling corn wasn’t easy or highly profitable, but distilling whiskey helped small farmers make a decent income.

Whiskey was the beverage of choice for scrappy country folk living in the wilderness. They enjoyed it at weddings as well as funerals and used it to cure the daily aches and pains of rural life.


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