Alexander Hamilton vs. the Whiskey Rebels. Yet Again

“Hamilton: an American Musical” doesn’t mention the Whiskey Rebellion and the military suppression of western Pennsylvania that brought Alexander Hamilton’s creative phase to its climax. An earlier version of the play did have a Whiskey Rebellion section, but since the rebellion and its relationship to Hamilton’s national economic plan formed the subject of my first book, I can only be glad that that part of the show got cut. Leaving out the public-finance efforts that made Hamilton who he was may be understandable in creating a work of musical theater — but without some such realistic economic framing there would be no way to get any sense of what the Whiskey Rebellion and its suppression were about.

Many of Hamilton’s new fans, among many others, have no way of knowing that the linchpin of his great plan of national finance was a tax on whiskey (the first-ever federal tax on a domestic product). Violent resistance to that tax and its purposes became the nation’s first-ever insurgency for democratic access to political and economic power. The rebels didn’t object to taxation, they weren’t against American nationhood, and they didn’t just like to sit around and drink (they did like that, but so did everybody else then). They objected to the tax as unfair because its proceeds were earmarked to pay interest on government bonds held by a small number of very rich Americans. Whose income from those bonds was, of course, untaxed. Also the tax discriminated against small whiskey producers and encouraged industry consolidation among big producers.

So the years 1791-1794 saw the famous founders Washington and Hamilton, in hopes of authoring a rich, expansive, dynamic nation based on concentrating wealth and building military power, pitted against the little-remembered white working-class populists of the day who wanted economic and political equality for the less- and unrich.

That conflict between Hamilton, as first Treasury Secretary and architect of the national economy, and the proponents of democratic approaches to public finance who included the whiskey rebels represents the central issue for the important part of Hamilton’s career. He was fighting those he and his allies disdained as social “levelers” and “the democracy” long before he was fighting his opponents in officialdom Jefferson and Madison. From Hamilton’s efforts to demolish movements for economic equality came the economic blueprint — its linchpin a tax on, yes, whiskey — for the dynamic, powerful, rich, expansive nation that the United States did go on to become.

This founding fight between Hamilton and the whiskey rebels isn’t merely “relevant,” as the nation argues anew about taxes, wealth, Wall Street, corruption, monopoly power, money in government, etc.; and as the culture explodes with hiphop Hamilton onstage in city after city; and as major politicians square off to accuse one another of socialism or plutocracy, extremism or corruption. This founding fight isn’t just one among a number of historical examples of elitism versus democracy, or moderation versus extremism, or any of the other oppositions that various political positions will always read in various ways. This fight, whichever side of it you’re on, at any given moment, is the founding fight: the fight that actually launched the country and left us in a state of perpetual conflict with one another over what the country’s supposed to be about, when it comes to credit, debt, taxation, property, wealth, money.

The founding fight is the thing about the founding. 

Yet each side in the fight, as it re-ignites today, wants to invoke the founding in hopes  of grounding its position in fundamental American values and defining the other side as un-American. That hope forces each side to rewrite founding history. Some recent essays have tried to define the current re-energizing of assertive social-contract liberalism — Medicare for all, breaking up big tech and other monopolies, encouragement for organized labor, marginal tax rates approaching those of the 1950’s — with reference to the founders. Various articles and Twitter threads have framed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s positions in terms of supposed founding values. Some make her a neo-Paine. Others make her a neo-Jefferson or a neo-whiskey-rebel. One even makes her a neo-Hamilton.

The underlying assumption is always that when the country was founded, the country’s values were established and the enemies of those values were laid to rest. So if you like Paine, say, you see the country established as Paineite, and if you also like AOC, you show the connections between her and Paine (and they’re there); now her policies have the blessing of the American founders, as supposedly summed up by Paine. The only problem is that if you hate her, and like, say, Washington, you can run a reverse set of operations and arrive at the opposite conclusion. Or if you like both her and Washington, run the operations again and get yet a different result. Or define the founding as really occurring in 1800, with the election of Jefferson. Or whatever. All that’s required, in each case, is ignoring certain glaring things about the history of the American founding.

There are no fundamental American values when it comes to the clash between great concentrations of wealth and democracy.  The nation was created in the clash, not in resolution of the clash. The founding is anything but consistent intellectually, spiritually, politically, morally; it’s a violent series of convulsions, impossible without the economic egalitarians of the day, fighting the Revolution in hopes of gaining fair access to power and the tools of development; impossible too without the crushing of  those movements by Hamilton and his allies. Both sides were not merely present at but critically important to the nation’s birth.

So there are indeed founding-era precedents for the policies of an AOC, and many of them have been written out of the same popular history that fails to look realistically at Hamilton’s finance plan — written not only out of the musical but also, more significantly, out of the Hamilton biographies, and out of the whole postwar scholarly consensus that remains influential in the non-scholarly sphere today. That same history provides founding-era precedents for rejecting AOC’s policies with extreme prejudice; that’s what Hamilton did. Both sides in that drama can be seen in the Whiskey Rebellion, but the entire founding story lends itself to both-siderism, because it didn’t make any consistent sense.

If we were to read the American founding for the hot mess that it was, and take up economic policy as a fight for where we want to go, not where we want to pretend we were, we might do better with both history and policy.

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4 thoughts on “Alexander Hamilton vs. the Whiskey Rebels. Yet Again

  1. Thanks for this, Bill. My students will appreciate this “boiling down” of Hamilton (I’ll forgo the temptation of expounding on that metaphor).

  2. Bravo!
    Did you see Danielle Allen’s piece in today’s Washington Post Opinions?

    What Alexander Hamilton would say about the Mueller Report: “He would clearly this see this as a moment for Congress to reclaim its power against executive overreach.”

    Is she sure?

  3. How did I miss this article? Well, I’ve read it now and believe you sum up then and now quite eloquently. I plan to steal the term “both-siderism,” In reply to the above comment, my take is that Hamilton was a big fan of the executive branch. But I’ve also read that several congressmen were stockholders in the first central bank, as were all those foreign investors.

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