HAMILTON, Alexander (1757-1804). Circular letter signed ("Alexander Hamilton"), with flourish, as Treasury Secretary, to Collectors of the Custom, [Philadelphia], Treasury Department 26 May 1791. 1 page, 4to, tipped at corners to a matt, matted and framed with engraved portrait of Hamilton.
HAMILTON'S OPENING SALVO IN THE WHISKEY REBELLION
"Inclosed," Hamilton writes (but not included with the lot) "you will find your information, generally, and Government, in certain particulars, certain explanations & instructions concerning the two Acts, severally entitled, 'An Act repealing after the last day of June next, the duties heretofore laid upon distilled spirits imported from abroad, and laying others in their stead; and also upon spirits distilled within the United States and for appropriating the same,' and 'An Act making further provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on Teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of duties on Wines.'" The circular enclosed a detailed and aggressive set of instructions for collectors about how to extract this unpopular tax. As Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow writes, "He wanted inspectors to visit all distilleries 'at least twice a day' and file weekly reports, 'specifying in these returns the name of each owner or manager of a distillery, the city, town or village...and the county in which such distillery is situated, the number of stills at each, and their capacity in gallons...the materials from which they usually distill, and the time for which they are usually employed'" (Chernow, 343).
Hamilton wanted to achieve several aims with these new taxes, primarily to raise revenue and help strengthen the public credit--a major concern after taking on the whopping obligations of all the States' debts as part of his assumption plan. He also wanted to strengthen the Federal government at the expense of the States. He revealed this somewhat Machiavellian motive in a letter to Washington in which he explained that he hoped his measures would allow the federal government to get "hold of so valuable a resource of revenue before it was generally preoccupied by the state governments" (quoted in Chernow, 342). This was sure to appeal to Washington's animus against state power--a resentment sharpened to a fine edge during the long, bitter winters of Valley Forge and Morristown, when the Commander-in-Chief's pleas to state governments for more men and supplies usually went unheeded.
Not surprisingly, Hamilton's intrusive measures provoked protests that steadily gathered strength to become the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Isolated instances of beating or tarring and feathering collectors escalated into large armed bands (sometimes 1,000 or more) laying siege to the homes of collectors until they fled the district. Washington and Hamilton led a militia of some 12,000 men to the region, but met no resistance and easily arrested the ringleaders, two of whom were eventually tried and convicted for treason only to receive Washington's pardon. To opponents like Thomas Jefferson "Hamilton's insurrection" was an absurd overreaction. "An insurrection was announced and proclaimed and armed against," Jefferson wrote to Madison, "but could never be found" (quoted in Malone 3:189).