George Washington’s Tenderness

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The New York Sun

With the approach of the first anniversary of the January 6 protests, we find ourselves thinking of Daniel Shays, James McFarlane, and John Fries. They were the leaders of three of the most famous — and serious — rebellions in American history. These were the Shays, the Whiskey, and the Fries. The charges that came out of them included, in sharp contradistinction to January 6, capital crimes. Yet they had surprise endings.

It’s not our purpose in this editorial to make excuses for anyone, neither those who breached the American capitol on January 6 and interrupted the counting of the presidential vote nor the rebellions that took place in the early years of our republic. It is our purpose, though, to remark upon the tricks that history can play — and the startling fate the rebels eventually met. They offer a note of caution in respect of the current crisis.

The first and most famous of the early rebellions were the armed attacks that erupted in 1786 at Western Massachusetts as farmers protested higher taxes levied by the state to pay its Revolutionary War debts, as well as a related wave of farm mortgage foreclosures. The farmers, led by Revolutionary War veteran Shays, shut down local courts, stopping foreclosure proceedings. They attempted to seize the federal arsenal at Springfield, only to be met by stiff resistance. Four rebels died.

State militiamen mopped up the revolt. Shays fled to Vermont. Many rebels were charged with treason. Five were sentenced to hang, but were reprieved by Governor Hancock. That Shay’s Rebellion was confined to Massachusetts doesn’t diminish its historical import. It precipitated the formation of a stronger federal government. “The rebellion in Massachusetts is a warning, gentlemen,” James Madison would say at Philadelphia.

The Whiskey rebellion was sparked, in 1791, by the new federal government’s tax on distilled spirits. That levy was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, though where he came to the notion that the burden of our Revolutionary War debts should fall on backwoods distillers is beyond us. (Next thing you know they’ll try taxing cigarettes.) The distillers refused to pay, despite a warning from President Washington.

In the event, one tax official was set upon by a mob of men wearing women’s clothing, then tarred and feathered. The leader of the revolt, McFarlane — another Revolutionary veteran — was killed in a struggle outside a federal tax collector’s house; the rebels subsequently burned it down. Urged on by Hamilton, Washington assembled a force of militiamen to vanquish the challenge to federal authority.

By the time the army neared Pittsburgh, the rebels had fled and couldn’t be found. Two ringleaders were later found guilty of treason and sentenced to hang. Washington pardoned them. President Jefferson eventually dropped the excise tax. Another revolt arose in 1799 during John Adams’ presidency, again in the Keystone State. The impetus was a land tax imposed by the Congress in preparation for an expected war with France.

A hero of the Revolutionary War, Fries mobilized opposition to the measure among hundreds of farmers in Eastern Pennsylvania, the first attempt by the federal government to impose a direct tax on citizens. Unlike in the prior rebellions, Fries and his farmers used nonviolent measures. That didn’t stop the Adams administration from suppressing the revolt with an armed force comprising federal soldiers and state militia.

Many protesting farmers were arrested and brought up for treason and sedition. Fries himself was sentenced to death by hanging. Adams, despite deeming the rebellion “wicked and treasonable,” acknowledged that “the ignorant, misguided, and misinformed in the counties have returned to a proper sense of their duty.” So he turned around and pardoned the rebellious farmers, along with Fries.

Shays, McFarlane, and Fries were rebelling against taxes, the tinder of our Revolution itself. It would be a stretch to describe the January 6 attack on Congress as a tax revolt — though it aimed to thwart the election of a president who had promised substantial tax increases. In any event, news reports reckon that January 6 prosecutors have charged more than 725 individuals. Not a single person has been charged with a capital crime.

Not that they should be, but what a contrast between the prosecutors of today and the giants of the Founding era. “The misled have abandoned their errors,” Washington said after pardoning the doomed Whiskey rebels. He spoke of “a sacred duty” not only to exercise his powers “with firmness and energy,” but “to mingle in the operations of Government every degree of moderation and tenderness which the national justice, dignity, and safety may permit.”


Image: Drawing of the Whiskey Rebellion via Wikimedia Commons

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