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Why George Washington Would Crush the Oregon Protesters

The armed protesters in Oregon say they are occupying federal property, and defying federal authority, in the name of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.

But 225 years ago, America's most famous Founding Father was faced with a similar situation. And when President George Washington was faced with armed rebellion against the federal government, what did he do?

He called in the U.S. Army.

It was 1791, just a decade after the British had surrendered at Yorktown and four years after the Constitution had been signed. The newborn federal government of the United States of America was strapped for cash, so Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton decided to levy a luxury tax on whiskey.

This didn't go down well with the hardy, independent farmers living on what was then considered the wide-open American frontier, including Pennsylvania west of the Appalachian Mountains, as well as parts of Virginia and the Carolinas. Converting grain into whiskey was easier for them than hauling it across the mountains to the East Coast markets. The frontiersmen, many of whom had fought in the Revolutionary War, also resented what they saw as taxation without representation by a central government. Wasn't that why they had fought the British in the first place?

As rebellions go, it wasn't much by today's standards. No massacres, no bombed cities, just a few tax collectors tarred and feathered and some local officials intimidated. For a while, the government took a soft response by lowering the whiskey tax rate and sending a commission to negotiate. But the rebellion only spread as protesters formed their own local governments, courts and militia. In July 1794, a rebel militia surrounded and captured a small force of federal marshals and soldiers. Soon after, thousands of protesters assembled near Pittsburgh, amid mutterings of secession.

Enough was enough. Urged on by Hamilton, President Washington raised a force of 13,000 federalized militia, though volunteers were so few that conscription was used, provoking more riots. But the majority of the American people supported the government's response. For the first and only time, a sitting U.S. president led an army into the field.

Again, by today's standards the suppression of the rebellion was bloodless.  There were a handful of deaths—mostly accidental—and a few arrests. By October 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion had collapsed.

Was George Washington right? Like many taxes, the whiskey tax probably did hurt the poor more than the wealthy. But reluctant as he was to use the military against fellow Americans, Washington was no fool. He knew the fledgling United States could only survive if it had a central government strong enough to maintain sovereignty, in a dangerous world where European powers such as Britain still coveted North America. With domestic law enforcement weak in the early days of the Republic, the only means of putting down mass rebellion was the army.

How would George Washington handle the Oregon protesters? He would probably try to negotiate first. As a rugged individualist, he might even be sympathetic to some of their demands. But when it comes to preserving federal authority, he would not back down. If an armed mob can compel the government to relinquish control of federal lands, or release convicted prisoners, then what demands would be next? Had Washington knuckled under in 1791, the United States as a unified nation might not even exist.

The real issue in Oregon isn't the rights to grazing land, anymore than the real issue two centuries ago was whiskey. The heart of the matter is power and sovereignty. If the federal government retreats under threat of force, or fear of using its own force, then it has no power. A government with power can be dangerous, but a government without power—like a law without the ability to enforce it—is worse than dangerous. It is useless.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.