February 22, 2021


Washington's Rules for Rebellion (Richard Samuelson, 2/22/21, Law & Liberty)

If words and the threat of bringing in troops is insufficient to stop the violence, then it is time to bring troops in. And in late September 1794, Washington officially Proclaimed that the Counties of Western Pennsylvania were in open rebellion and he determined to use troops to end the uprising. At the start, Washington explains his thinking. "I thought it sufficient, in the first instance, rather to take measures for calling forth the Militia, than immediately to embody them." Yet that proved to be insufficient. Hence, he notes, that " the moment is now come, when the overtures of forgiveness with no other condition, than a submission to law, have been only partially accepted--when every form of conciliation, not inconsistent with the being of Government, has been adopted without effect." Note again the public reason. Washington is explaining that these attacks cannot be reconciled with the very "being of Government." That is why a military response is necessary. It was necessary to defend the republican experiment, "as the people of the United States have been permitted under the divine favor, in perfect freedom, after solemn deliberation, and in an enlightened age, to elect their own Government; so will their gratitude for this inestimable blessing be best distinguished by firm exertions to maintain the Constitution and the Laws."

When one does use force against one's own citizens, one has to be smart about it. That entails selecting the target well, and using the right amount of force.

To state the obvious, no one likes to be attacked, and no one likes to see their neighbors attacked. In our day, images of police or National Guard attacking citizens are often used by clever organizers as recruitment tools. And it is often a tactic of radicals to undertake attacks that seem, to the uninitiated, to be minimally provocative, but which, in fact, need a strong response (think of using fireworks, which can spark larger fires, and laser pointers, which can cause permanent blindness, in Portland. Ditto "doxing" police officers who work to stop riots.  To prevent that, governments send in officers in unmarked cars, and officers with no name tags). What's the goal? To make recruits by convincing people who might be somewhat sympathetic but disinclined to radicalism that the government is run by thugs who cannot be trusted. Hence sending in a small force, which is likely to result in pitched battles, is not usually a good idea. It is as likely to increase alienation from government as it is to restore lawful order. Curfews keeping everyone off the streets after dark seem to have worked much better this past summer.

Washington knew what he was doing. He gathered an overwhelming force of nearly 13,000 militia from New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Moreover, Washington selected his target well. Anger at the Whiskey Tax, and resistance against it, was pervasive in the backcountry. Yet Washington focused on the part of the rebellion that took place in Pennsylvania. That was, perhaps, the best place for the strategy to work.  One has to be careful with such a strategy. It can backfire. The British had tried to focus on the rebellion in Boston after the Tea Party with the Coercive Acts of 1774. Rather than subduing Boston, the acts united the backcountry of Massachusetts with Boston, and the other colonies with Massachusetts.

The Whiskey Rebels felt that they were not being represented. They sometimes pointed back to the resistance to the Stamp Tax. There was, of course, one significant difference: they were, in fact, represented.

Washington himself rode to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, demonstrating that he was in charge. Given Washington's fame, and the love so many Americans had for him, reviewing the troops was also a way to provide an additional shot of confidence that these measures were necessary. Washington's presence in Carlisle also allowed him to manage the troops himself, minimizing the chance that they would be zealous and abusive in their efforts to stop the rebels.  The troops went into the countryside, and the rebellion dispersed. It was ended more than it was actively put down. And that was a very important part of the success of Washington's strategy. No martyrs were made, and minimal actual attacks by the militia on civilians. Hamilton wanted to make an example of some of the men who were caught in the end, to try them and execute them. Washington, almost certainly correctly, realized that that was a bad idea. He pardoned those who had been sentenced to death for their part in the insurrection. They would not become fallen heroes for the next wave of rebels to honor. By singling out the part of the Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, Washington had, in fact, made an example of one group of rebels, even if he had also minimized actual violence. This was an important step. The U.S. was a new country. The nations of Europe were waiting for the republic to fail and/ or for the Union to break up. By ending the rebellion, Washington demonstrated that the government was capable of being a functioning government.

Step 4: Restoration

The problem was not yet solved. If people are disinclined to rebel in large numbers unless there are genuine injustices going on, one must address the underlying problems, even if one cannot be perceived to be doing so under duress. Aspirin alleviates fever, but does not end it until the disease has passed. Similarly, if a critical mass of people is angry enough to take up arms, they can, temporarily, be convinced to go back home.  But if the deeper problems that spurred the uprising remain, then it's just a matter of time till clever, ambitious, and designing men gin up another rebellion. It is, in other words, a bad idea not to remove the factors that made the region a tinderbox in the first place.

In some ways this is the most difficult step. Why? Partly due to our emotions. After a battle we are angry at the other side. Magnanimity after victory is difficult. And there are always men, like Hamilton, who are eager to punish those they blame for the rebellion. They cannot see past their anger at the attacks on the laws, and perhaps on members of their political tribe to see what is truly best for the republic. It's easy to dismiss their desires as wicked or misguided. Yet all governments rest on public opinion, a democratic republic more than any other. Public opinion is a political fact; it must be accommodated if there is to be no spiraling cycle of violence.

But the proximate cause of the rebellion and the deeper causes of the discontent are not always the same. To be sure, taxing whiskey was hard on people in the West because whiskey sometimes served as a medium of exchange in a region where coin was scarce. But there were deeper problems, and they could be addressed, and Washington ensured that they were addressed.

The Whiskey Rebels felt that they were not being represented. They sometimes pointed back to the resistance to the Stamp Tax. There was, of course, one significant difference: they were, in fact, represented.

Posted by at February 22, 2021 12:00 AM