Here's How to Treat Tax Men

July 03, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington -- Two hundred years ago this Independence Day, Western Pennsylvania was acting altogether too independent. It was up in arms and jeopardizing what had been accomplished in Eastern Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention seven years earlier. This Independence Day let us remember the Whiskey Rebellion, with its interesting echoes.

In exchange for Hamilton's agreement to a national capital where Washington now is, Jefferson and Madison agreed to federal assumption of state debts. An excise tax on whiskey was considered the least objectionable means of financing assumption. The initial grievances of people near the coast were palliated by reductions of the tax, but the West, across the Allegheny Mountains, was unassuaged.

Out there, folks didn't cotton to tax collectors. And as to the theory that the cost of the tax could be bumped along to consumers, well, the tax was collected at the still and owners of stills often were consumers, there being few other amusements at hand. Furthermore, currency was scarce so whiskey sometimes served as currency. And because canals were few and roads were problematic, it was difficult getting grain to market in bulk, so grain was turned into something more transportable: whiskey.

Taxing this staple proved that taxation with representation was not much more tolerable than taxation without. It was unfair, for several reasons, said these early populists.

Some large distillers, who could pay the tax more easily than their small rivals, rather liked it. (Just as today some large corporations accept government burdens that will cripple their smaller competitors.) And the Westerners felt they were being taxed to fatten the purses of Eastern speculators who had bought at a discount the state debts the federal government was paying off with the whiskey tax.

And what were the Westerners getting for their taxes? The federal government had neither removed the Indian menace nor pried Spain's grip off the Mississippi. Westerners, like most Americans most of the time ever since, wanted government to do more and cost less.

Law-abiding Westerners trembled. James Flexner, Washington's biographer, writes: ''The inhabitants of the little metropolis of Pittsburgh -- 200 houses, 150 built of logs -- were in terror that their town would be sacked by the wild men of the forest.''

With reason. A wealthy friend of the president, John Neville, who first opposed the tax then agreed to help collect it, had his house burned. Soldiers arrived, a man was killed, the soldiers were routed. Soon stills whose owners paid the tax were being perforated with bullets, and government agents were being tarred and feathered, and even seared with hot irons, which was somewhat severe, even for tax collectors.

But rough justice was in character for the insurgents, who were ** stiff-necked Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. America would see their likes again in Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson.

A Scotch-Irish congressman, James Jackson, who understood the ravenousness of government, warned the House of Representatives, ''The time will come when a shirt shall not be washed without an excise.'' Excise taxes frequently are fixed upon the enjoyments of the portion of the people least nimble at finagling exemptions. The tax on whiskey spared the effete Eastern upper crust that went on sipping untaxed wines.

It is ever thus. Today cigarettes are not only anathematized by government, they may soon be burdened by a whopping excise-tax increase, evidence that the middle and upper classes have decided smoking is declasse, and that smoking is increasingly a habit of the lower orders.

In 1794 one rattled resident of Pittsburgh -- where the Gazette was reporting the nastiness of the French Revolution and some rebels were bandying the word ''guillotine'' -- warned that the rebels would become a devouring torrent: ''There can be no equality of contest between the rage of the forest and the abundance, indolence and opulence of the city.''

But resistance evaporated when Washington himself marched in with 13,000 militiamen.

Back then, when gun control meant felling a wild turkey at 200 yards, militias embodied popular sovereignty. The militias that pacified Western Pennsylvania put a stop, for a while, to loose talk about the local nullification of national laws, and to murmurings about secession.

Pennsylvania would not know such excitement until the first week of July 69 years later, when armed men again revisited the issues of federal sovereignty, at Gettysburg.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.