The Republicans and Federalists in Pennsylvania, 1790-1801: A Study in National Stimulus and Local Response

By Harry Marlin Tinkcom | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
WHISKEY AND POLITICS

AFTER DEVELOPING his funding and assumption plans, Alexander Hamilton sought some means to increase governmental income. The measure eventually proposed was an excise tax. Never a popular revenueraising device, the proposal met with considerable opposition in the national legislature. When the House of Representatives passed an excise bill on January 27, 1791, by a vote of thirty-five to twenty-one, the Pennsylvania delegation divided three to three.1 The only Pennsylvanians who spoke for the bill were George Clymer and Thomas Fitzsimons. None spoke against it.

Two years before the bill became law, at least one Pennsylvanian had seen it coming. While Congress was debating a tariff measure in June, 1789, Senator Maclay suspected a design on the part of some men (including his colleague Morris) to lower tariff rates to such a point that a revenue deficiency would necessitate an excise.2

When the excise law was in its final stages in February, 1791, prophet Maclay, already justified in one prediction, made some others. He told the Senate that Pennsylvania's excise laws had been totally ineffective and that the Assembly "had been obliged to wink" at their violation in the western counties. Moreover, the United States would be able to enforce this Pandora's box, this "most execrable system" only by means of "a permanent military force."3

Maclay was not speaking for himself alone. While Congress was wrangling over the troublesome bill, the lower house of the Pennsylvania legislature, in resolutions of January 22, 1791, requested its United States Senators to "oppose any part of the excise bill . . . which shall militate against the just rights and liberties of the people."4 Although the lower house passed its resolutions by a vote of forty-one to eighteen, the upper house refused to concur by one vote. This vote was not an expression of party opinion, said Brackenridge, for many of the strongest Federalists favored the resolution.5 Eight months after Congress passed the excise law, the Pennsylvania legislature, responding to a disapproval of the measure which had already manifested itself, repealed all its own excise taxes on spirituous liquors.6

The national excise law, providing for the collection of a tax on whiskey, was a source of immediate dissatisfaction in western Pennsylvania.

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