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The Whiskey Rebellion    by William Hogeland order for
Whiskey Rebellion
by William Hogeland
Order:  USA  Can
Scribner, 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

In the wake of the American Revolution, when the newly independent Americans should have been looking forward optimistically to peace and prosperity, the nation was about to go through a crisis that nearly everyone in the country's government should have been able to predict but virtually no one in the country was able to avoid. That crisis, the Whiskey Rebellion, had its genesis in the political arena of the nation's capital, but it exploded into violence in rural Pennsylvania to the west of the Allegheny Mountains. William Hogeland's entertaining and authoritative study, the first book of its kind to tell the harrowing true story of America's Whiskey Rebellion, gives readers an objective look at the rebellion's inevitable beginnings, explosive outburst, and national repercussions.

Hogeland's book painstakingly describes the fiercely independent men and women of western Pennsylvania; the small farmers, tradesmen, and merchants of the region wanted very much to protect their individual freedoms, and they had little use for the centralized powers of the federal government.

Hogeland also closely examines the key players in the federal government with particularly close attention given to Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. When the federal government needed to confront and resolve the Revolutionary War debt (which threatened to destabilize the country's tenuous peace and the population's strained commitment to nationhood), Alexander Hamilton had a master-plan. Brilliant, crafty, and duplicitous, Hamilton (a disciple of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, and a trusted if not trustworthy advisor to President Washington) persuaded the Congress to adopt a complicated financial strategy for the country's immediate and long-term solvency. One small but critical element of Hamilton's strategy was an excise tax on American whiskey production.

Whiskey production, however, was one of the major sources of revenue for the people in the western counties surrounding Pittsburgh (and, by the way, most of the nation relied upon the Pennsylvanians' excellent whiskey), and when Hamilton and the federal government imposed (and then tried collecting) the new tax, many of the rural westerners were outraged. Rowdy and rebellious, the Pennsylvanians - many of whom are splendidly portrayed in Hogeland's narrative - would rise up and take action against anyone and everyone associated with the bitterly opposed excise tax. As the popular resistance to the tax became more sadistic and vicious in late 1791, President George Washington - no longer willing to tolerate the increasingly violent affronts to national authority and solidarity - sent in federal troops to quickly and decisively put down the rebellion.

When all had returned to peace and normalcy, the opportunistic Hamilton would later declare that the rebellion 'had strengthened the government ... and it made national finance flourish.' As for the president's analysis, Washington stated that 'suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion had drawn from the American people the support for law and government that marked their highest character.' Washington also admitted that the action against the Pennsylvanians 'worked out well for him personally. With commercial distilling newly profitable with the western Pennsylvanian operations nicely controlled by federal constraints, he added whiskey making profitably to his endeavors at Mount Vernon.'

Filled with fascinating character studies and vividly dramatized incidents (which will make you wonder why anyone in their right mind would have ever been willing to be a tax collector in western Pennsylvania in 1791), The Whiskey Rebellion is also a thorough study of the new nation's political and fiscal philosophies (personified by Hamilton, Washington, and other late 18th century notables). Hogeland's book will appeal to professional (and amateur) historians as well as casual readers who will enjoy being treated to a great story about a pivotal moment in America's past.

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