24 September 2010

The 'Whiskey Rebellion of 2010' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

The Tea Partiers of 2010 are not revolutionaries, whether they claim to be or not, writes Michael Lind, an apostate from conservatism, at Slate. In his opinion, they are a "mob" and not even a proper Tea Party. In his column Lind equates them with the aroused rabble of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against excise taxes that had to be put down (albeit peacefully) by President George Washington at the head of a militia. Lind's comments, of course, won't persuade a single TP of the error of his ways. Once Lind writes that TPs, like the Whiskey Rebels, "do not understand their own interests," he can be dismissed as another of those know-it-all elitists. For the rest of us, the question is whether Lind's analogy fits.

Lind characterizes the Whiskey Rebellion as a knee-jerk anti-tax uprising motivated primarily by anger over the perceived purpose of the excise tax: to pay off the national debt created by the federal government's assumption of state debts. He argues that the Rebels did not understand their own interests because the alternative to the excise tax would have been higher state taxes had each state been obliged to pay its own debts on its own. By analogy, the Tea Partiers don't understand their own interest in the bailouts and stimulus spending of 2008-9. He doesn't mince words, either; to Lind, the TPs are "ignorant fools" for opposing those steps that "most credible Republican and conservative economists supported."

I'm not here to challenge Lind's characterization of the Tea Parties. I want to question his characterization of the Whiskey Rebellion. The Wikipedia article on the Rebellion (the accuracy and objectivity of which are apparently unchallenged) is a starting point for those who want to explore the subject further. Perhaps significantly, it doesn't portray the Rebels as objecting to taxation as such. Instead, they objected to an excise tax because local economies depended heavily upon distilling grains to make them easier to ship. Whiskey, the article contends, was practically currency in some western districts, and westerners complained that excise taxes impacted them disproportionately and unfair, while the taxation system allegedly favored larger distillers at the expense of small farmers. Rather than being anti-government types, as Lind claims, the Rebels also felt that they weren't getting their whiskey's worth out of government when it came to protecting them from Indians or dealing with foreigners who controlled the Mississippi River.

Lind's larger argument against the Rebels, that they were better off paying the excise than presumably higher state taxes, may still be valid. But the moment we get to a historical rather than a polemical account of the Rebellion a more nuanced portrait of the Rebels' grievances emerges than can be seen in Lind's caricature. You don't have to agree with the Rebels and my point hasn't been to defend them from any historian's verdict against them. My real point, based only on a superficial re-examination of facts learned in school, is that equating today's Tea Partiers to the Whiskey Rebels is unfair to the Whiskey Rebellion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I finally had a chance to read the article mentioned. It is very illuminating, at the same time agrees with what I've pretty much been saying all along. The tea bagger movement is made up mostly of dirtclods who are convinced that what is in their best interest is what is in the national interest. I also ran across an interesting article about some of the candidates running on the GOP here.