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A Battle for the Meaning of the American Revolution
on February 2, 2005
In October of 1794, President Washington sent an army nearly 13,000 strong across the Allegheny Mountains into the frontier regions of Western Pennsylvania to suppress a popular uprising against the federal government. This event marked the greatest internal crisis of Washington's administration, and the most significant crisis of disunion to the United States prior to the Civil War. This significance of this event, both at the time, and to the continuing debate about the meaning of America, has often been overlooked or forgotten in popular histories. Thomas Slaughter's book goes a long way toward correcting that oversight.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a reaction against an excise tax place on spirits, and shared much in common with the similar tax revolt against the Stamp Act that ignited the flames of the American Revolution. Indeed, the Whiskey rebels saw themselves as upholding the spirit of the Revolution, and believed that the leaders of the federal government had abandoned those principles in favor of personal gain.
Slaughter does an outstanding job of telling each side of the story without a strong bias toward either side. He paints the rebellion as a massive failure to communicate between the parties involved. The conflict illustrated a deep divide between the East and the West of the country, setting urban against rural interests, localist ideologies against nationalist, and of course, all the familiar divisions that are inherent in class and economic differences. Slaughter describes the federal government and its supporters as having "generally shared a Hobbesian-type fear of anarchy as the starting point for their consideration," while he says that the Whiskey Rebels and their friends "took a more Lockeian-type stance," believing "that protection of liberty, not the maintenance of order, was the principal task of government." The federal government emphasized the power of the Constitution, while the Whiskey Rebels emphasized the much more radical Declaration of Independence.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a turning point in America's history. It showed the central government's willingness and ability to enforce its laws even at great distance from it center of power. It was a midwife to the birth of true political parties that emerged in the following years. And it set the parameters of the great political debate of just what the meaning of the American Revolution and what it means to be an American really is, a debate that continues along remarkably similar lines to this day.
This book will be of particular interest to those interested in the early Republic and the Washington Administration, the career of Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist - Anti-Federalist question, or the early American frontier. It is well written, well reasoned, and highly recommended.