The Whiskey Rebellion in Kentucky

Carl Watner has a meditation on the Whiskey Rebellion in the latest issue of The Voluntaryist, inspired by Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau’s study The Whiskey Rebellion in Kentucky: A Forgotten Episode of Civil Disobedience.

Tachau’s study, not available for free on-line anywhere that I noticed, reveals what she calls “a remarkable story of tax evasion” in which “almost the entire population of Kentucky managed to resist the laws of the United States for fully eight years.”

The Whiskey Rebellion is frequently thought of as a Pennsylvania-thing, since it was in Pennsylvania where the resistance became most violent and confrontational and where the federal government chose to exert its military power in trying to shut the rebellion down. In Kentucky, refusal to pay the excise tax was every bit as widespread, but somewhat less-confrontational (though with occasional acts of violence: “Distillers stole collectors’ records, attacked them in their sleep, threatened those who tried to inspect their stills, docked their horses’ tails, and in at least one instance tarred a collector and rolled him in leaves”). The federal government was unable to hire local attorneys as prosecutors, as these attorneys either opposed the excise tax themselves or were afraid for their reputations. Grand juries refused to consider violations of the excise law.

Edmund Randolph was the sole member of Washington’s cabinet to argue forcefully against using force to put down the Whiskey Rebellion (see this letter from Randolph to Washington). Tachau says that while Randolph lost that battle, what Washington eventually settled on was a combination of Randolph’s plan and those of the hawks. In Pennsylvania, Washington would lead troops to crush the rebellion. In Kentucky (or “several counties in Virginia,” as the region was referred to before Kentucky statehood), Randolph’s more conciliatory plan was tried.

As it turns out, neither approach was successful at making the excise tax work as a revenue-generator. Evasion remained widespread in both regions. But both Randolph and the hawks saw their proposals less as ways of actually enforcing the tax and more as ways of strengthening the federal government. Randolph hoped to forestall secessionist sentiment through conciliatory acts; the hawks felt that a strong demonstration of unanswerable violent coercive power was necessary to cement the authority of the central government. Those goals were to some extent satisfied.

After years of being unable to find a local attorney who was willing to serve as a federal prosecutor in Kentucky, Washington picked William Clarke of Maryland. He had to bring copies of the revenue statutes with him, since “none was available in the commonwealth” (although they had theoretically been in force for over five years). After much difficulty, Clarke was finally able to get the courts to hear cases against whiskey tax refusers. However:

Whether the charges were initiated by Clarke or by revenue collectors or by grand juries made no difference: trial jurors regularly acquitted their neighbors of criminal charges. In Kentucky, violation of the revenue acts was simply not perceived as a crime. Not one of the fifty criminal charges brought during the four years of Clarke’s tenure resulted in conviction. Default judgments were set aside, while other charges were abated by death, or quashed, dismissed, or discontinued. Seven cases went to trial, but the jurors found for the defendants every time, and the judge then ordered their accusers to pay the costs of the suits.

It wasn’t until the election of Thomas Jefferson and the end of the Federalist hold on the executive branch that the whiskey rebels gave in. Jefferson promised to repeal the tax, and his Treasury secretary waived penalties for anyone who paid back taxes.