Bundy, the BLM, and the Whiskey Rebellion

The tense standoff at the Cliven Bundy ranch in Clarke County, Nevada tapped into a wellspring of government distrust that dwarfed Bundy's specific situation. A comparable event from just over 200 years ago, the “Whiskey Rebellion,” suggests the government's efforts to quell small pockets of insurrection like Bundy and his allies can easily cause more political problems than they're worth.

Although the 1794 incident was at a vastly larger scale than the standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, the situations share important parallels including the use of what many people in each situation considered the disproportionate use of force by the government.

In Bundy's case, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is demanding that Bundy remove his family’s herd of cattle from federal land, due in part to the presence of tortoises, and claims he owes them $300,000 in grazing fees. Bundy claimed he would do “whatever it takes,” to keep using the land, denied the authority of the federal government, and said that his stand is “a statement for freedom and liberty and the Constitution.” While few question the federal government’s legal right to the land, many view it as government overreach and wonder about federal priorities elevating tortoises over human beings.

In response, a veritable army of hundreds of federal officers and helicopters arrived and began rounding up Bundy’s cattle, intentionally killing several of them. Following a four-day standoff in which both the federal agents and Bundy supporters had trained snipers on each other, the federal government abruptly backed off, at least for now.

BLM has come under fire for aggressive tactics across the West. Texas Attorney General said of the BLM’s plan to seize 90,000 acres of land along the Texas/Oklahoma state line “out of bounds” and “offensive.” Abbot said he would “raise a ‘Come and Take It’ flag to tell the feds to stay out of Texas.” Several groups have also claimed that they are “prepared” to resist the BLM with deadly force in self-defense if the agency tries to take land from farmers in Nevada and Texas.

BLM supporters, meanwhile, have heaped invective on Bundy, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) calling the rag-tag group “domestic violent terrorist wannabes.”

In what came to be called the Whiskey Rebellion, a federalized militia force of over 10,000 men entered the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in October 1794 to crush a “rebellion” of small-time western farmers and merchants that had been delinquent on their alcohol excise taxes and nearly riotous in their opposition to government policies.

Though the overwhelming force of the federal government quickly dispersed the small band of aggrieved farmers, the event marked a significant turning point over which budding national party lines were drawn and a political dynasty was created.

The “insurrection” began in 1791 when Congress passed an excise tax on distilled whiskey with the firm backing of President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s plan was to federalize the debt accumulated by the states during the Revolutionary War and pay it off through a variety of measures, including domestic taxation. On top of that, Hamilton wanted to fund a more widespread extension of government investment in the new country’s military and infrastructure. The tax was excessively high--about 25 percent per gallon of whiskey--and encountered almost immediate opposition. Supporters of the plan began to coalesce on one side, Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalists,” and opponents on the other, Thomas Jefferson’s “Republicans.”

Hamilton argued that the tax was the most equitable that could be devised and if the taxed citizens did not like it they could stop drinking whiskey. Though the tax fell heavily on New England and New York rum distillers, it was in large part aimed at the predominantly Scotch-Irish frontiersmen in the West who had dubious respect for the newly-created federal government. He said to Congress in 1792 that it was up to the frontiersmen themselves to “diminish consumption,” but the administration would support and collect the tax.

The frontiersman did not see it that way; one of them said, “To be subject to all the burdens of government and enjoy none of the benefits arising from government is what we will never submit to.”

Supporters of the excise tax measure trotted out a study by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia that backed Hamilton’s claims about the usefulness of the tax and the detriments of alcohol usage. However, James Jackson of Georgia, a dogged opponent of the treasury secretary’s entire plan, said that the American people had a right to get drunk, “that they have been long in the habit of getting drunk and that they will get drunk in defiance of a dozen colleges or all the excise duties which Congress might be weak or wicked enough to impose.”

But the cost to rural American inhabitants in America was far greater than simply losing the ability to get wildly inebriated. Most of the resistance came from the rural west where whiskey was acting as a medium of exchange for the cash-poor citizens and was a primary means of earning a living. Large distillers, mostly in the East, had fewer problems with the tax because they had lucrative contracts with the government to supply whiskey to the army and already had a large, commercial advantage over their small-time competition.

Western Pennsylvania became particularly agitated and many were organizing to resist the hated taxes. Historian John H. Miller wrote in The Federalist Era:

In four western counties of Pennsylvania, excise officers were terrorized; the Pittsburgh mail was robbed; federal judicial proceedings were stopped; and a small body of regular troops guarding the house of General John Neville, excise inspector for western Pennsylvania, was forced to surrender.

On top of the riotous western farmers, the Washington administration was the rise of “democratic-republican” societies. These groups, springing up all over the country, were civic-patriotic organizations that were upset about the growth of government, perceived betrayal of America’s revolutionary principles by their newly-elected leaders, and were generally supportive of the budding French Revolution.

Washington and his cabinet were convinced that these democratic-republican civic organizations were the cause of all the trouble. The president said, “I early gave it as my opinion to the confidential characters around me, that if these societies are not counteracted (not by prosecutions, the ready way to make them grow stronger)… they would shake the government to its foundation.”

These perceived threats to the power of the government pushed Washington’s administration to suppress the law breakers, putting out a call to assemble a national militia.

Historian Miller wrote that Hamilton “knew that he was committing the government to a trial of strength with Westerners, but he deliberately courted the contest” to display the power and legitimacy of the federal government. Goaded by Hamilton, Washington assembled one of the largest armies built in America up until that time. The president, with the treasury secretary by his side, would lead this force from the capitol in Philadelphia into to wilds of western Pennsylvania. The size of the assembled army was astounding given the importance of a smattering of incidents instigated by a few frustrated malcontents.

The massive force, called the “Watermelon Army” by detractors, marched through Pennsylvania, rounded up about 30 “rebels” and generally made a mess as they went through. The army “broke down fences, trampled crops, and stole food, firewood, and shelter.”

Prominent Federalist Fisher Ames warned his colleagues of the incident’s potential impact:

A regular government, by overcoming an unsuccessful insurrection, becomes stronger; but elective rulers can scarcely ever employ the physical force of a democracy without turning the moral force, or the power of public opinion, against the government.

Historians have given various assessments of federal government’s reasonableness and necessity for acting with such overwhelming force in this situation. The great biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Dumas Malone, gave his assessment of the incident:

Since no opposition was encountered, this ostentatious military display now appears disproportionate if not ridiculous, and modern students of the episode can readily perceive the pathos of the situation of the small farmers in the transmontane country, faced with a hated tax on what was their only marketable product and virtually their medium of exchange.

Most leaders, and Americans throughout the country, supported some kind of suppression of the lawbreakers. However, a group of statesmen, sympathizing with the plight of the aggrieved farmers, began to take aim at the government’s callous and overbearing attitude toward citizens in the western country. They viewed the sudden expansion of government power as a blow to the principles fought for during the Revolution, and worried about a government quick to pull the trigger on legitimate freedom of assembly and protest.

According to the historian Malone, Jefferson attacked the excise tax an “infernal tax” and said that the “conduct of the ‘rebels’ no worse than riotous.” He and many others called for an elimination or reduction of the hated excise taxes.

Western Pennsylvania had its own Jeffersonian hero in Albert Gallatin. A Swiss immigrant whom had moved the United States due to his belief in the timeless principles of the American Revolution and for economic opportunity, Gallatin became a leading champion of the western, middle-class farmers without outright endorsing their acts of rebellion.

Gallatin was a moderating presence in Pennsylvania, always denouncing the scattered calls for violence, but relentlessly attacking the policies of Hamilton and the administration. Gallatin explained to the frustrated westerners that the danger to their liberties was not as extreme as 1776 when they had no representation in official elected bodies and “that illegal opposition, when reduced, has a tendency to make people abject and the government tyrannic.”

However, Federalists made Gallatin out to be a wild-eyed rebel, a rabble rouser and fomenter of violence who wanted to bring down the government. The Federalist-backed Gazette of the United States caustically wrote that western Pennsylvania had become known as “a center of terrorism under the guiding hand of Albert Gallatin.”

These attacks were assuredly misguided. Thomas Slaughter wrote in The Whiskey Rebellion, that despite Gallatin’s “dedication to Revolutionary principles,” he “strongly recommended adherence to the law.” The protest leaders such as Gallatin, “sought to communicate their loyalty to the principles under which the Revolution was fought, even while questioning the dedication to liberty of those who now ruled the land.”

From the scattered protests of leaders like Jefferson and Gallatin, a new party was formed to oppose the administration. Panicked Federalists, sensing the rise in support for “Republican” opposition, started to become more repressive in their tactics. Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 under President John Adams in response to the Republican protest during the short “Quasi War” with France, which severely curtailed civil liberties. The acts targeted Jefferson’s supporters, specifically Gallatin. The political storm was growing, and Jefferson and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling out the laws as unconstitutional and repressive.

The Resolutions became a kind of political platform for the new party, and a massive wave of supporters was swept into office in 1798. That year’s wave election became known as the “Revolution of ‘98” and marked a major change in American politics. Jefferson was elected president in 1800 and appointed and Gallatin as his treasury secretary.

Jefferson’s administration eliminated the hated excise tax and all domestic taxation. On top of that, they established a political dynasty that lasted over two decades and completely demolished the Federalists. The Jeffersonians tapped into the passion of the democratic-republican societies and listened to the frustration of the whisky rebels; by giving a voice to these people, they built a lasting political coalition. “Federalist” became a dirty word to call political opponents in the following era and the party became associated with oppression and elitism.

The disproportionate response to an agitated farmer makes the federal government appear overbearing, especially when a lien on his property and cattle would have likely sufficed to uphold the law. Leaders such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have channeled the Tea Party and the protests against the BLM to effectively oppose the policies of the administration much the way Jefferson and Gallatin did.

Supporters of the government’s policies have tried to discredit opposition by targeting Bundy’s specific statements, radical tactics, and racial views, which were mostly denounced by serious conservative and libertarian leaders. However, the administration’s supporters will struggle to bottle up the very real frustration with overbearing and intrusive governmental policies that are at the heart of the issue.

Opponents of BLM land and bureaucratic environmental policies may be relentlessly attacked and dismissed by political opponents, but their willingness to enter the political arena and stand against the government taps into a rich vein in American politics. Like Thomas Jefferson’s party that started out with western discontent and scattered civic societies, those that tap into current opponents of government overreach may be able to create a lasting, powerful coalition for 2014 and beyond.


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