Bedford Springs and the Whiskey Rebellion

We like the Bedford Springs Hotel. It is a 19th century resort…with class. It was in ruins in the ’80s, then bought by investors…who spent $120 million restoring it. They went broke 18 months later.

Not hard to see why. When we were there the place was almost empty. Still, it had a full staff…and beautiful appointments.

“Hey…this is pretty nice,” we said to the desk clerk. “No one is here.”

“They come on the weekends. We have a full house this weekend…and a full house in October, when the fall foliage is at its peak.”

“Oh…well…it looks kind of quiet now…”

“Yeah, it is quiet most of the time.”

“It is such a nice place, I think I might want to live here. I know you’ll take care of me. I could live quite well here.”

“Maybe you could give me a good price…and I’ll move in.”

“You need to talk to the management…”

On the wall of the Bedford Springs hotel is a short note telling us that George Washington stayed there when he put down the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.

In fact, Bedford was his Western headquarters. But the real action was farther to the West. Bedford was more like a staging area, as near as we can figure.

The Whiskey Rebellion is a worthy subject for recollection, though a sordid chapter in American history. Accounts of it vary, depending on which history book you read. It is usually seen as a test of the new country…a test which Washington and Alexander Hamilton met with vigor and resolve. But by our reading of the history, the new republic failed on every count.

After the war against England, the federal government was in debt. It needed money. Hamilton saw an opportunity to raise money by taxing the small distillers out on the frontier. They were too far from Philadelphia to cause trouble. He figured they would resist. But this would give him an opportunity to march out at the head of an army, assert the power of the central government over the riff raff, and gain for himself a marshal victory that might elevate his stature closer to that of his boss, George Washington.

Washington himself may have had mixed feelings. He certainly had mixed interests. The tax was set up so to force small distillers to pay 50% more tax than large distillers. Washington was one of the largest whiskey makers in the country. He might be happy to see the small fry pushed out of business. On the other hand, he had spent much of his life out on the frontier. He knew how tough the frontiersmen could be; he probably wasn’t eager to tangle with them.

But the tax was proclaimed throughout the land, and the whiskey distillers took offense. After the war against Britain they had gotten the idea that they lived in a free country. Certainly, out on the banks of the Monongahela there was little to make them think otherwise. They were used to doing what they wanted, free from any sort of authority. So the sight of tax collectors trying to take their money (of which they had little…it was still a subsistence/barter economy out in the woods) probably set them off. At least one of the federales was attacked by a mob of them; his hair was shorn and he was tarred and feathered.

Then, Hamilton called up the New Jersey and Maryland militia…and set out for the West. He forgot, however, to provide sufficient victuals for his men…and soon the soldiers were cold and hungry. Naturally, they did what soldiers do under the circumstances; the robbed the locals. Thus did Hamilton’s army continue its march – in disorder, disgrace and larceny…stealing provisions from the people it was meant to protect from the scofflaw distillers.

Once on the field of battle, the whiskey men were ready for a fight. But cool heads prevailed. After a pow-wow, the feds arrested a handful of men…of whom two – a “simpleton” and an “insane” person, according to Washington – were charged with treason. Washington pardoned them, seeing no profit in hanging mental defectives. The rest paid a fine and were let off. One man died in jail. The rest went on their way.

Thus was the rebellion brought to a close. The distillers moved their stills out to Kentucky and Tennessee, where the feds couldn’t get at them. And the feds went back to doing what they always do – making a mess of things.

Until next time,

Bill Bonner
for Markets and Money

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.
Bill Bonner

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…by the dawn’s early light, under a star-spangled sky, George Washington shall stain the sky blue with his brand of justice rather than spill american blood over moonshine…

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