“No taxation without representation” was a rallying cry in the American Revolution*, but taxation controversies didn’t go away after the United States was formed. The new government needed regular revenue. The average man on the street (or dirt road through the wilderness) was opposed to taxation and had his doubts about government in general. Some questioned the value of a revolution if all it did was replace British aristocrats with local elites.
In 1791, at the urging of Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton, Congress levied the new government’s first nationwide tax: an excise tax ** on distilled spirits produced in the United States. Large commercial distillers in the east grumbled, then raised their prices to pass on the cost of the “whiskey tax” to their customers. Small farmers in the west, many of whom distilled and sold whiskey because it was difficult to transport their grain over the mountains, did more than grumble.
The government had trouble collecting the tax almost immediately. Many western distillers simply didn’t pay. Others met the brand new “revenooers” with violence–not only beating tax officials but anyone who rented them housing or an office. In July, 1794, five years after the former colonies had adopted a new constition, opposition flamed into open rebellion when US Marshall David Lenox arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs against distillers who had failed to pay the tax. The so-called Whiskey Rebellion spread rapidly. By the end of the month, several thousand armed rebels had gathered in Braddock’s Field near Pittsburgh. The same leaders who cheered on the Boston Tea Party less than years before now had to contend with a tax protest of their own.
On August 7, President Washington alerted the state militias to stand by and sent in negotiators, but the whiskey rebels had no interest in negotiated. In September, Washington himself led 13,000 militiamen from Carlisle, Pennsylvania over the Alleghenies to the town of Bedford.*** In Bedford, Washington turned the command over to General Henry “Lighthorse” Lee, then governor of Virginia. By the time the federal forces arrived at Braddock’s Field, the rebellion had collapsed and most of the rebels had retreated to their farms.
The federal government had proven it could maintain order, but opposition to taxes and federal authority wasn’t at an end. Farmers in Pennsylvania rose in protest again in Fries’s Rebellion in 1799. A few veterans of the Whiskey Rebellion decided that it was more effective to fight from the inside and went into politics. Thanks to their efforts, the hated whiskey tax was repealed and replaced with duties on imported goods, something that would become an issue in the lead up to the War of 1812.
* I didn’t really need to tell you that, right?
** I realized I didn’t really know what an excise tax was. I looked it up, so you don’t have to. It’s a tax on a good produced inside the country.
***The only US president to personally lead armed forces while in office.
Last year, a couple of months before I launched History in the Margins, My Own True Love and I met up with one of my best history buddies to visit an exhibit at the New York Hall of Science: 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization.
Although the exhibit was obviously designed with children in mind, we found it utterly engaging, from the introductory film starring Ben Kingsley as 12th century engineering genius, al-Jazari, to the working scale models of medieval Islamic technology. The exhibit’s creators did an excellent job of bringing the medieval Islamic world, in all its diversity, to life for a western audience. This is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time on, and I still learned plenty of new things.
I hear some of you grumbling, “That was more than a year ago, why is she telling us about this now?”
Because, dear readers, 1001 Inventions is due to open for a six month run in Washington DC on August 12 at the National Geographic Museum. If you live anywhere nearby, or have a DC trip on the schedule, it’s well worth the visit.
America has always been a nation of immigrants, fueled by a constant stream of those with the energy and imagination to leave the familiar in search of something more. And it has always had people who wanted to keep out the immigrants who came a generation or two after they themselves arrived.
Between 1880 and 1923, America saw the greatest voluntary migration in human history. Twenty-one million people moved to the United States in search of a better life. By 1911, the United States Immigration Commission reported that three-fifths of American wage-earners were born somewhere else..
Not everyone was happy about the new arrivals. Many groups argued that Congress should shut down the flood of immigration, just as some people now argue for tighter control of immigration. Labor unions feared that the flood of immigrants would take American jobs and depress wages. (Sound familiar?) Many longtime Americans felt that newcomers from eastern and southern Europe were inherently inferior to earlier immigrants from northwestern Europe. Others disliked the fact that many of the new arrivals were Catholic or Jewish. (Members of the Ku Klux Klan were the most violent proponents of this position, but they weren’t alone.)
Responding to these pressures, Congress passed a new immigration law in 1924. In addition to limiting the total number of immigrants allowed into the country each year, the new law established immigration quotas for each country based on the proportion of each nationality in the United States in the 1890 census, effectively reducing immigration from central and southern Europe. Asian immigrants were excluded altogether, with these exception of those from Japan and the Philippines.* The quotas remained in place, largely unchanged, until 1965.
You’d think we’d learn.
*Japan kept tight control over the number of emigrants allowed to leave. The Philippines were a US possession.