Musings on presidents, whiskey and the second amendment

TOMORROW IS Presidents Day, the day set aside to honor two of our greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I am old enough to remember when there were two separate days, one to honor each. But then I remember when only old men drank rye whiskey, too.

There has been a lot in the news recently about the Second Amendment, especially “the right to bear arms” part. The Second Amendment reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The amendment itself is a poorly constructed sentence. The second comma is a “comma splice” essentially combining two separate clauses into one sentence. Bad enough so as to get a D-minus in almost any English class.

But, more interesting is the “well regulated Militia” part, and that is where our beloved George Washington comes in.

After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, both the Continental Army and the Continental Navy were disbanded with one small regiment, the First American Regiment, being retained in order to deal with continued Indian clashes in what later became Kentucky. The new nation believed a standing army didn’t mix well with democracy. This new united States (note the lowercase “u,” which was used in the Declaration of Independence) wouldn’t become a United States until the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. During this time the states were to provide militias in times of crisis. One such crisis happened in 1791 when an armed rebellion started in western Pennsylvania after officials of the new government decided to tax whiskey. The purpose of the tax was to help repay the war debt of the Revolutionary War (including the expenses of the decommissioned Continental Army).

Whiskey was a means of commerce in many rural areas, and it was a lot easier to transport than the grain that made it. It could take several wagonloads of rye to make one barrel of whiskey, so one wagonload of whiskey represented quite a bit of wealth.

It wasn’t the tax on whiskey that caused the problem; it was the way the tax was applied that resulted in the upset. The powers that be decided that smaller producers such as rural farmers were to be taxed at a higher rate than larger producers. The rural farmers took exception and rose up in armed rebellion.

The new president arranged for militias from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to be organized. (Remember that Second Amendment?) With him in command they marched into western Pennsylvania in 1794, 13,000 strong. The rebels simply vanished at the sight of the large army (ironically about the same size as the entire Continental Army of the previous war). A few men were tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Eventually they were pardoned, with most of the rebels suffering only minor convictions for disturbing the peace by local officials.

At around the same time, the First American Regiment suffered a series of disastrous defeats by the Native Americans. In 1794 a new U.S. military force, called the Legion of the United States, was organized and finally subdued the Native Americans. After which the Legion retired to its new home base, Legionville, just a few miles from the site of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. The Legion eventually formed the first regiments of the United States Army in 1796.

Several things happened as a result of these events:

• People became confused about the wording of the Second Amendment and its meaning.

• Washington bought huge tracts of land in western Pennsylvania that he later sold for enormous profits, making him, in historian Howard Zinn’s words, “not one of the richest men in the United States, but the richest.”

• Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon became the largest in the country producing an estimated 40,000 liters in 1799, all subject to the lower tax rate he had “fought” so valiantly for.

• One of the first acts of Thomas Jefferson was to repeal the whiskey tax in 1800.

All of which just goes to show that blatant self-interest is a presidential tradition. And before anyone says, “What do you know, you’re just a bartender?” I might remind him that Lincoln started out as a bartender.