THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 610, March 13, 2011
"Much food for thought"
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
The nullification of the whiskey tax by Pennsylvania farmers was a key event in the history of the United States. It seems to me, based on my limited reading of the events surrounding the "Whiskey Rebellion" that Alexander Hamilton deliberately pushed to have the writs of summons issued to distillers just before the Congress voted to make the tax much less onerous because he wanted to provoke violence. Some authors think Hamilton had been working towards this moment since the Newburgh Crisis in 1783, where he conceived of using military force to crush popular resistance to direct taxation, for the purpose of promoting national unity and enriching the creditor class at the expense of common taxpayers.
A large number of militia including many revolutionary war veterans participated in the "rebellion." At its height, 1 August 1794, about 7,000 participated in a rally against the whiskey tax in Pittsburgh. So one could say that the tax did not have popular support.
The federal response included the conscription of about 13,000 troops. Draft riots in Hagerstown and elsewhere resulted in about 150 arrests, with over 800 troops deployed to force the issue of the draft. During the march to Western Pennsylvania, at least 12 of these conscripts died. Several people were put to death by the army for acts such as raising liberty poles in towns like Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
None of these events seem like a controlled government recognising the right of people to petition for redress. Basic freedoms were trampled in the effort to force the tax down the throats of the people. So, I find the contention that the government was really under control, or limited, at any time, to be a bit hard to support.
Nullification is a dangerous project. It is something the states have power to do, under the constitution, because nothing in the constitution denies them this power, and the tenth amendment reserves this power, and the power to secede, to the several states. When I say it is dangerous, I do not mean that it should be done. Many worthwhile things are dangerous.
I do mean that you should go into it with your eyes open. And that you should consider other alternatives, such as agorism, as part of a strategy for success.