Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion: The History and Legacy of Early America’s Domestic Insurrections
Date: March 2020
Duration: 2 hours 18 minutes
Even as the young United States successfully secured its independence, the new nation was beset by problems. The drafters of the Articles of Confederation had deliberately avoided giving the national legislature the power to tax, because Parliament had so abused that authority against the colonies, but this proved to be a severe limitation on the national government. Besides hampering the Continental Army, the inability of the national government to raise revenue made foreign policy difficult. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress was also completely unable to pay any of the debts it incurred to foreign powers during the Revolutionary War. Though allied powers had lent to the American government on favorable terms and no repayment was expected until the end of hostilities, the hope of ever paying national debts without a national government that could tax was slim. In particular, the prospect of the new nation defaulting on its loans from France led to the end of the Articles of Confederation. To top it all off, the Articles of Confederation also had no judiciary or executive branch. Therefore, laws passed by the Congress could not be enforced by the national government: the enforcement of laws was left to the mercy of the states. Likewise, there was no national judiciary to decide disputes over national law.
In 1794, violence actually broke out, and with the tax opponents numbering in the thousands, President Washington himself felt compelled to raise a militia force and personally lead it to deal with the rebels, the only time an American president actually led soldiers in the field. Ultimately, no pitched battle took place once the militia was marched into western Pennsylvania, but dozens were arrested and tried for treason in the wake of the episode.