My daddy, he made whiskey; my granddaddy, he did too.
We ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1792.
-- Albert Frank Bedoe
This week the nation's last illegal whiskey unit was shut down due to budget cuts. The team was based out of Franklin County, Virginia, long known as the "moonshine capital of the world." So proud are the locals that the slogan can be seen everywhere, emblazoned on T-shirts and roadside billboards and in the moonshine museum on the campus of a local Methodist college.
Some might be surprised to learn that folks are still cooking up white lightning in the Blue Ridge Mountains of ole Virginny, but the fact is they are induced by a powerful economic incentive. After all, more than half the retail price of a bottle of distilled spirits consists of taxes, and with legislators constantly seeking new forms of revenue, that percentage is expected to rise.
Moonshining has a long, proud history in Virginia. The original Celtic inhabitants of the Appalachians brought with them the practice of distilling alcohol. It might have died out had whiskey been freely available in the south, like it was elsewhere. However, Methodist and Baptists preachers were busy at their work, and the south was soon largely dry. Where it wasn't dry -- as in Tennessee -- the locals had another incentive to distill their own "white mule" or "stump whiskey" when the federal government slapped a tax on distilled spirits in the 1790s. The southerners were so put out by the tax that they started an insurrection, which was eventually put down when President George Washington strapped on his sword and a led a large militia force against the whiskey rebels.
The Whiskey Rebellion began when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton convinced Congress to tax whiskey and carriages to pay off the Revolutionary War debt. Because of the way the tax was set up, small whiskey producers were more adversely affected than were large producers. (Washington, it should be noted, ran a large distillery.) Hamilton, a New York banker, had little idea that the hardscrabble "cohee" farmers had built their entire existence around whiskey, and probably wouldn't have cared anyway. In the western Appalachians, whiskey was bartered like any other form of currency. More important, there were few if any mountain roads to drive the grain to eastern markets, therefore excess grain was distilled into the more portable whiskey.
The tax was a failure in every way. It encouraged the distillation of corn liquor (or Bourbon) in the lawless frontier states of Tennessee and Kentucky. It also succeeded in driving supporters from Washington and Hamilton's Federalist Party to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's Democratic-Republican Party. The tax was repealed in 1803 under the Jefferson Administration.
FROM ITS VERY beginning, the federal government seemed intent on manipulating the actions of its citizenry to fit its own moral specifications. Like today's sin-taxers and junk food banners, "Nanny" Hamilton was more interested in social engineering than in paying down the debt, or, as he put it, his tax was "more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue."
To Hamilton, the federal government's enforcement of social discipline was a religious matter, but to today's über-paternalists it is disguised as a health matter. Individual citizens must be protected from their own choices. Education is not enough. The government demands legislation. Today 40 states tax soda or junk food. New York City will soon join Los Angeles, Chicago and cities and counties in California, Utah, Louisiana, and Maine in banning smoking in most outdoor parks and beaches (though short of banning automobiles, it is unclear how they are going to prevent people from breathing in auto emissions.) In a recent essay, Slate's William Saletan asked how far one's right to clean air extends:
[D]oesn't that justify a ban on smoking absolutely anywhere? Forget parks and beaches. If you smoke in your backyard, aren't you violating my airspace? In fact, aren't you violating my airspace by lighting your grill or driving your car down my street?
Meanwhile, Louisville's new anti-littering law is so strict newspapers can no longer be tossed out onto your lawn in the morning. (Newspapers must be placed in a "designated area" like a mail slot.)
For the first time since the Whiskey Tax of 1790, Virginia's moonshiners can relax a little, at least until the economy picks up. But elsewhere the revenuers and cigarette cops will be out in full force, taxing soda pop and candy bars and writing up tickets for outdoor smoking and unlawful newspaper delivery. One way or another, the government is determined to save us from ourselves. The question now is, who will save us from the government?
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