This is a very compelling book by a very talented writer who is able to explain complicated issues and historically distant attitudes with grace and concision. It is also at times riddled with errors; tendentious beyond belief; and written more for the sake of "story" than for historical understanding. But I'll get to that later.
THE WHISKEY REBELLION: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty
by William Hogeland
William Hogeland chose to focus his undeniably keen eye on the Whiskey Rebellion, which as he observes is a much discussed but little understood event in early American history, at least so far as a popular audience is concerned. In all the door-stop biographies of Founding Fathers that have come out of late, the Whiskey Rebellion features as an episode of a few pages, more or less; and since those biographies deal with the men who put down the rebellion, Hogeland observes, they tend to give the Pennsylvania rebels the short end of the stick, if indeed they give them any stick at all. For biographers of Hamilton or Washington or chroniclers of the rise of American government, the rebels are speed bumps on the highway from Confederation to Union.
Hogeland sees them as much more than that. For him, the Whiskey rebels are Americans worthy of respect and understanding. Thus, as he draws the strands of the story together, he introduces such a long list of players that I wish he'd included a dramatis personae just after the Table of Contents. Some of these personae, like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, need little introduction. But there are a host of others who are undoubtedly new to the reader and indeed to the scholar, and just about all of them are unique personalities in American history.
Tremendously important to Hogeland's story, not least because of the detailed memoirs he left to posterity, is Henry Brackenridge. A College of New Jersey graduate, in the same class and clubs as James Madison, Brackenridge was by 1794 a lawyer perpetually on the make. He had moved to Pittsburgh, then hardly more than a village, because he thought that in the west lay the future of the American Republic, and that Pittsburgh was that future's gateway. Though Hogeland does his best to mitigate this feeling, Brackenridge comes across the reader as an arch, ironic, occasionally smug, out-of-his-depth, Princetonian smart-ass. Brackenridge could find, and advocate, the unpopular side of any issue. As Albert Gallatin (a financial whiz and Geneva native once dandled on Voltaire's knee who emigrated and settled on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border; how did these guys get there?) said of Brackenridge, "He laughs alone." Oh, and did I mention that Brackenridge was endlessly writing the great American novel? (Like most since then, it was published but not really finished.)
Also important to Hogeland's story is Herman Husband, who makes Brackenridge seem a sensible conformist. Born in the Maryland tidewater and raised a semi-devout Anglican slaveowner, Husband had a conversion experience under the preaching of George Whitefield that led him into Presbyterianism and then into the Society of Friends. He was also, it seems, an inveterate buyer of real estate. Husband moved to North Carolina in 1762, where he was soon expelled from the Quaker meeting for advocating the right of members to prophesy. After the expulsion, he turned with deeper attention to the interpretation of biblical writings, particularly the Book of Daniel, which he read as foretelling the founding of an ideal government . . . in North America. These biblical musings were interruptedor, perhaps, enhancedby the Regulator revolt in North Carolina. Husband pled for his backcountry neighbors to the wealthy Whig planters of the Carolina coast, begging for a system of justice, fair taxation, and competent administration. In short, as Hogeland remarks, "Regulators wanted more government, not less." Whatever they wanted, their actions looked like rebellion to the Royal Governor and the Colonial Assembly, and the Regulators were defeated in open battle.
In the aftermaththe ruling order having been unmistakably assertedmany of the protestors' demands were actually met, but by then Herman Husband was on the run, a notorious and very much wanted insurrectionist. He fled to south-central Pennsylvania, soon calling his family to him. There he once again engaged in his familiar avocations: buying land and meditating on the Bible. As the Revolution came and went, Husband became convinced of two things. One, the new United States was nothing other than the New Jerusalem prophesied in the Book of Ezekiel; this he based on both biblical interpretations and measurements made on long surveying trips up and down the Appalachians. Two, by buying up as much land as he could in this new west, the seat of a future divinely ordained empire, Herman Husband could make a lot of money.
Well, something like that; Hogeland usually isn't so crass as to accuse historical characters he likes of actually wanting to make money. Moneymaking is an activity engaged in by the élite or would-be élite. Nice chaps like Herman Husband invest in real estate; nasty old patriarchs like, say, George Washington, speculate in land.
Another old patriarch, who was definitely speculating, as well as trying to make money on just about any other scheme he could conceive, was General John Neville. He was a Virginian, a veteran of the Revolution. After the war, he moved to southwestern Pennsylvania. There he farmed land with slaves (unusual in that part of the world); built a very fine home and furnished it appropriately; and set up a syndicate of relatives and friends equally determined to make money in the frontier economy.
For there was indeed a frontier economy, and Hogeland is very good at depicting it: "The Mingo Creek area," south of Pittsburgh, "was a four-county hub: The rivers divided the area in discrete sections; along the rivers were strung boat works, mills, tanneries, iron furnaces and artisan shops. Eastern visitors, overawed by mountain outcroppings and virgin timber, could mistake this area for howling wilderness and miss the fact that it was also a complex of neighborhoods and industries." These settlers along Mingo Creek and elsewhere were more than subsistence farmers. They were also artisans and small-time (so far) manufacturers. General Neville and his "Neville Connection" were a threat to them; and to make matters worse, these small manufacturers saw the Neville Connection as a repudiation of the radicalism of the War for Independence.
The artisans and manufacturers who opposed Neville (and eventually General George Washington, too) were men like the brothers John and Daniel Hamilton. Originally from York, Pennsylvania (and no relation to the St. Croix-born Secretary of the Treasury), they had both fought in the Revolution and then moved west, settling along Mingo Creek near a new town named Washingtonso named because the general himself was reputed to own much of the acreage in what would become his epynonymous county and city. Like the Hamilton brothers, numerous Revolutionary war veterans squatted on land that wasn't theirs but which they regarded as their own by right of occupation, use, and service to America.
When the narrative turns to whiskey, Hogeland makes the distillation process sound more interesting and poetic than just about anything you can imagine. Fermentation, he observes, is a natural process of rot; "When controlled and treated right, good things come from what would otherwise be rot." Distillation is man's contrivance to take fermentation further. While "fermentation makes a virtue of spoilage," distillation makes a product that won't spoil. "Monongahela Rye" was more portable and of higher value than the grain that produced it. Twenty-four bushels of rye required three pack horses to carry and fetched just $6 in eastern Pennsylvania; but that rye could be first fermented and then distilled into sixteen gallons of whiskey, easily carried by one animal, and sold for $16.
Hogeland describes whiskey as the way the small landholders and entrepreneurs of western Pennsylvania could earn cash and escape from the paralysis of the frontier's barter economy. Regardless of whether it was truly a barter economy of the Schlesingerian yeoman variety (as Hogeland sometimes likes to imagine) or a much more historically interesting and plausible credit economy, it seems clear from what Hogeland writes that the men at the Forks were less interested in moving whiskey over the mountains than shipping it down the rivers. The water-accessible markets seemed much more lucrative, with ideal consumers in place: the newly created "Legion of the West," the United States Army, fighting Indians in the Ohio Territory. Given the daily 18th-century liquor ration to fighting men, government contracts to supply the Army seemed a thrilling prospect indeed. And off in the distance, both geographically and in entrepreneurial dreams, lay the port of New Orleans. If only the American government would open up the west, thought the men of the Forks, their economic opportunities would be truly great.
Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, however, held a very different view of economic opportunities in the new United States. He dreamed of a trustworthy system of national credit that would yield industry and financial networks. He thus decided to finance the American government via an excise tax on distilled spirits. Since Hamilton favored industry, his tax structure meant that it was easier for larger producers to pay than smaller ones; thus the Neville Connection would prosper, whereas the Hamilton brothers of Washington, Pennsylvania, and others like them would not. To add extreme insult to the small manufacturers' economic injury, Hamilton appointed their nemesis, General Neville, to collect the excise in southwest Pennsylvania.
The resulting rebellion was thus not merely about whiskey taxation; it was about the nature of American government, what that government could do, for whom, and by whose authority. In western Pennsylvania, and in other parts of the then-American west, the Hamilton brothers would rather separate from the United States than submit to Hamilton's vision of American governance. Thus, after tarring and feathering various tax collectors, burning down General Neville's mansion, taking soldiers of the United States Army prisoner, and threatening the destruction of Pittsburgh, they for a little while raised a flag in a meadow above the Ohio River indicating themselves a separate nation.
When they did that, the radicals had gone too far. Moderates like Albert Gallatin and Henry Brackenridge opposed the excise tax, but they would not separate from the United States. By the time army of militia was mustered in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to cross the mountains and suppress the rebellion, the rebellion was really over.
If the army succeeding in cowing the rebels of the Forks of the Ohio, it did so despiteor perhaps because ofits own thoroughly undisciplined behavior. When Treasury Secretary Hamilton interrogated various moderates like Breckenridge (true radicals like the Hamilton brothers had all floated to safety down the Ohio on flatboats), he, to his credit, declined further investigation and referring to General Neville, who seems to have sought Brackenridge's death as a consolation prize for his burnt mansionsaid that "Had we listened to some people, I do not know what we might have done."
Hogeland, however, has his goodies and baddies selected for the story, and Alexander Hamilton is definitely a villain. This illustrates the central problem with The Whiskey Rebellion. There are goodies, like Brackenridge and Husband, and because they are good they are modern; Husband, Hogeland suggests, envisioned nothing less than the modern welfare state. General Washington and Secretary Hamilton and General Neville, on the other hand, are ruthless, money-grubbing, would-be killers. Secretary Hamilton, furthermore, is depicted as a man with a vision of credit and a financial élite that would build all America, a vision he would protect against anyone or anything that threatened it. All the characters are described, at various times, as having moods of anger, of frustration, pain, rageall discerned through some capability hitherto unknown to scholarship. This is not history. It is melodrama. When Hogeland is at his most breathless, he creates the most debased form of historical fiction, the "fictionalized recreation" of the past.
So narrative and characterization drive Hogeland's book at the expense of historical plausibility and recovery. Brackenridge is central to Hogeland's story because he left a very good narrative of his own actionswhich, however implausible, Hogeland accepts because it is lively and colorful; to use it more carefully would damage the story. Herman Husband is also good copy, but he drops out of the story and reappears at the end, arrested and taken to Philadelphia for trial. From this one might conclude that Husband's millenarian preaching might have terrified the government and engendered his arrest, but exerted little influence on the rebellion itself. In fact, the rebellion does not seem to have demanded anything like Husband's plan for a millenarian government of the United States. But like any good writer, Hogeland finds it is impossible to ignore such a splendid character.
At other times, Hogeland manages to avoid melodrama but effectively displays his ignorance. He knows an amazing amount about the rebellion and about southeast Pennsylvania in the late 18th century, but he is oblivious to the wider context of history, life, and literature of the period. For those in on the joke, this can be pretty funny when it doesn't make you reach for the red pen. Example? Hogeland innocently believes Alexander Hamilton was proud of his large nose. But Hamilton's boast to his Army buddy John Laurens about the length and size of his nose doesn't refer to his nose. When the "Monitor" in the very first issue of the Virginia Gazette of 1736, wrote "The other Night, as I was lolling my Elbow-Chair, in my Study, I was contriving some Method to give our Fair Letitia Tattle a View of my long Nose," he, too, wasn't talking about his nose. This is a bawdy 18th-century euphemism, OK?
I offer such detail about noses because Hogeland's naïveté led me to realize that experts are sometimes actually expert. And once in a while, it pays to read the experts. Historians are, in this age, lamentably bad at expressing what we know. But we aren't completely ignorant. It is a strange situation in which modern historians now find ourselves. We have written ourselves into a corner, so that it is a rare and gifted historian who can talk to people outside the historical guild. But at the same time there seems to be abroad the notion that experts aren't really expert. That if a historian has something to say about history, it probably isn't worth hearing, even if you could understand it.
Well, let me defend the guild to this extent: go ahead and read Hogeland's story; but if you do so, then read the two dissertations that he uses very heavily throughout his book. Dorothy Fennell's, written in 1981, is a rather romantic neo-progressive appreciation of the Whiskey Rebellion, but she was the first to emphasize Herman Husband and his unique biography. Terry Bouton's more recent study is a delight, elegantly written and chock-full of historical evidence, painstakingly sifted. Sure, it takes a bit of work to get hold of these things; it helps if you're near a university or college library so that you can use of their library computers to order up the files from ProQuest, and you'll have to pay something for the pleasure of downloading the pdfs of these two dissertations. But they will provide, I think, a necessary corrective of historical judiciousness to a work of historical imagination gone tendentiously wild.
Al Zambone is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University. His thesis is entitled "Anglican Enlightenment: Intellectual Culture in Virginia, 1690-1750."
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The Ties That Bind | Anne Tyler's new novel centers on two very different families brought together when they both adopt Korean girls (Aug. 22, 2006)
Live Like You Are Dying | Finding wisdom in wilderness. (Aug. 15, 2006)
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Incorrigibly Bookish | Michael Dirda on reading and life. (June 20, 2006)
The Not-So-Evil Empire | A report on The Historical Society's conference earlier this month. (June 13, 2006)
Very Important Fiction | The Gospel according to The New York Times Book Review. (May 23, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
Words Made Flesh | Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing. (April 25, 2006)
Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)
American Theocrat | Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic political ambitions, and the evangelical pawns. (April 11, 2006)
Was George Washington a Christian? | A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (April 4, 2006)
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