In 1790, President Washington implemented an excise tax on spirits distilled within the United States. A bold move for the Federalists, who were seeking to create a more assertive, more organized, more cohesive federal government. The maverick states did not take kindly to it, nor did the citizens affected by this newly created tax.
What was their reaction? Seek secession. The Federalists, including Washington and his Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton, had a dilemma on their hands. The federal government needed legitimacy, but it also needed to maintain the peace amongst the ever-expanding states and their differing populations. It seems to be forgotten in modern discourse that there were more fractures in American history than just North versus South in the Civil War era. In the early 1790s, the fracture split East between West, as the Eastern aristocrats and monied individuals sought to impose taxes and other restrictions on the Western settlers.
Washington and Alexander had differing views. Hamilton advocated for an immediate use of force by a militia, while Washington sent a peace commission, hoping to resolve the rebellion in the West without force. Ultimately, the peace commission failed, and a force of 15,000 men quelled the rebellion with only a few arrests and presidential pardons of those convicted of treason. John C. Miller, The Federalist Era, (New York, 1960), 158; Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, (New York, 2009), 138.
Ultimately, the rebellion, now known as the Whiskey Rebellion, was perhaps the first test of the federal government’s role. The states had become accustomed to policing themselves, free of interference, and Washington’s action of assembling a militia and sending the militia to Western Pennsylvania set the clear, stern tone of the federal government.
It is tempting to speculate what could have happened had Washington not taken such decisive action to quell the rebellion. Would there have been a secession? Was the Western economy sufficient to sustain itself? Would it have led to a first Civil War, only to be followed by a second? Less dramatically, would not taking decisive action have led to a weak federal government, similar to the one that prompted the drafting and adoption of the Constitution in the first place?
Setting aside the potentials and the speculation, the Whiskey Rebellion foreshadowed the problems to come for the United States and set the stage for the role of the federal government. Even now, Americans debate how involved the federal government should be in the individual affairs of states, but by setting an early example, Washington and Hamilton made it more likely than not that the federal government would take decisive action when necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of the Union.