You’re probably asking yourself why we’re talking about holidays and rebellion. You know that holidays may involve some whiskey and bourbon, but rebellion? Well, pour yourself a dram, kick back and let us take you back in time.
Holiday season is coming at us quickly, that period between the beginning of September all the way through to New Years Eve seems to pass by at a rate of knots and is sprinkled with holidays throughout. The first holiday, celebrated on the first Monday of September in the US is Labor Day.
Labor Day is a federal holiday in the US meaning it’s recognized in all states. It was created to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the contribution of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States. Oregan was the first state to recognise Labor Day in 1887. By 1894 while 30 states were already making the day an official holiday, Congress passed a bill making it an official federal holiday.
Canada also celebrates on the same day, whereas in other areas of the world, the focus remains more on 1st May, Mayday.
The US holiday falls midway between 4th July and Thanksgiving and marks going back to school and football season starting. With the weather more likely warmer for all, it’s a perfect time for BBQ’s, beers and bourbon!
Beers and bourbon? Oh yes. A perfect combination known in some parts as a “Boiler Maker” and in others as a “Hauf ‘n’ Hauf”. A very simple combination of a nice cold beer, followed by a chaser of your favorite dram.
While we’re talking about whiskey and bourbon, we’ll shift the focus to a time in US history that had a big impact on the industry, around 100 years earlier.
The Whiskey Rebellion
It’s the 1790’s and America is recovering from the Revolution. Many states are under financial strain with large debt. Alexander Hamilton (yes, he of the popular musical), suggested that the federal government should take on the debt. Then he suggested that whiskey should be taxed to help prevent further financial difficulty. George Washington, America’s first President then took this idea to the people (in Virginia and Pennsylvania) to see how it would be received. Well, the local government officials loved the idea and later in 1791 the bill was passed.
But like many taxes, this one was not met with countrywide approval. It was deemed unfair by many within the distilling industry. Smaller distilleries would need to pay 9 cents per gallon tax while larger distilleries were paying 6 cents per gallon, and the more whiskey they made, the more tax breaks they got. On top of this, the tax was demanded in cash form in a time where smaller distilleries run by farmers would still have been using a bartering system, i.e., exchange of goods with other farms and businesses.
Straight away, when excise officials were out collecting the tax, they were met with defiance, threats and in a few cases, violence. This was demonstrated on September 11, 1791, when Robert Johnson a tax collector was set upon by a mob of 11 men, dressed as women. He was stripped, tarred and feathered, had his horse stolen and was dumped in a forest. Not surprisingly, he resigned his post. In 1793 another officer had his house broken into twice and he and his family were assaulted.
Further violence and unrest continued, and ignited by further writs for non-payment of taxes a large and violent protest took place on Bower Hill from 15th – 17th July. A distiller, William Miller was shot and killed by John Neville a landowner who was helping a federal marshal, David Lenox. Neville had to call in soldiers to protect his home. While Neville escaped and hid, his home and outbuildings were burned to the ground. The leader of the 700 strong mob was killed and the soldiers hired to protect Neville and his home surrendered.
The threat of the mob was next focussed in Pittsburgh after finding out that dignitaries from the city had written to condemn the attacks on Nevilles property. 7000 people were incited to march on Braddocks Field. They were calmed by a gift of several barrels of whiskey and assurances that the letter writers had been expelled from the city, and instead of fighting, they marched peacefully through the city.
Soon enough the threat of conflict igniting across other states reached the higher echelons of government. Washington was granted permission to assemble over 12000 men as a federal militia. This well-armed militia marched on Pennsylvania to face the rebel army, which failed to turn up, fleeing the area and leaving angry citizens to face the militia instead. Although 2 people were arrested and tried for treason, both were pardoned by Washington.
The Whiskey Rebellion is of importance due to the fact it was the first big test of federal government vs the people. In this instance the government was successful. However, in 1802, the whiskey tax law was finally repealed by Thomas Jefferson as it continued to prove almost impossible to collect.
Of course, over the years taxes have been reapplied to whiskey and bourbon. Many distilleries will have a story attached to them, some recognize the events through name, like Bower Hill Bourbon or Rebel.
So next time you’re cracking open that bottle of bourbon, remember the history behind it.
Further information about Labor Day can be found here: Labor Day - Wikipedia
More reading on The Whiskey Rebellion can be found: Whiskey Rebellion: Definition, Causes & Flag (history.com) and Home - Rebellion (whiskeyrebelliontrail.com).
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