Ending the Revolution

The 4th of July is the primary patriotic holiday of our country, and yet the event it commemorates (the publication of the Declaration of Independence) was just the first step on our road to nationhood. Although the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation were not adopted until November of 1777 and were not ratified until March of 1781 — the year that the Revolutionary War was finally won, with the surrender of General Cornwallis in Yorktown. Yet the Articles turned out to be a fairly unworkable practical form of government, and Shay’s Rebellion of 1786-1787 demonstrated that to many of the new country’s citizens, armed revolt was still a standard form of political expression.

The ratification of the US Constitution in March of 1789 represented a significant step, creating a stronger central government with more clearly defined powers, and a model for federal constitutions to this day. Yet, whether the words on paper could be translated into a lasting and stable government remained yet to be seen.

To my mind, one of the major milestones was reached in 1794, when President Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

The origins of the conflict rested in 1791, when the federal government, having assumed the states debts that had resulted from fighting the Revolutionary War, levied a tax on distilled spirits. In a move that was arguably quite unjust, the tax was $0.06/gal for large producers, but $0.08/gal for small producers, many of whom were small farmers in the far western areas of the 13 states for whom distilling grain into spirits was the only practical way to get their produce to market — given the lack of transportation for getting grain to the eastern cities. The taxes stood a good change of putting many small farmers under, and loosely organized groups of revolutionaries first mounted protests, then began to rob the US Mail, disrupt federal courts, harass or attack tax collectors and even threatened to attack Pittsburgh, which was the westernmost big city in the area of the uprising.

On August 7th 1794, President Washington invoked the Militia Act to call up an army composed of state militias. He personally took command of this force of 13,000 along with Alexander Hamilton and General Henry Lee. With this force (nearly as large as the entire continental army during the Revolutionary War) they quickly suppressed the revolt. Several ringleaders were sentenced to death for treason, but Washington pardoned them. Many of the small distillers moved out to Kentucky and Tennessee, which were essentially outside of federal jurisdiction, and settled down to become the most famous US distilling region. The tax on spirits was repealed in 1802.

In acting forcefully and bringing an end to trend towards local insurrections, Washington made it clear that politics, not armed rebellion would be the driving force in American history. In order for the rule of law to take root, the government must have a monopoly on organized military force — a lesson that the fledgling Palestinian state has yet to learn. The events of 1794 put our country well on the road to political stability and lasting peace.

In this light, it is perhaps also particularly appropriate to offer a prayer for the citizens of Honduras today, as they struggle with a situation in which they find themselves caught between a president who clearly wants to subvert their constitution, and the inherent dangers of using military intervention to preserve their political order.

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