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ITPL Ep 028 featured image

Episode 028 The Crises of the 1790s and the Making of US National Identity


In this episode, we dive into the tumultuous and critically important years of the 1790s, a time when the very fate of the new republic hung in the balance.

subscribe-buttonFirst, I’ll do a short set-up segment on the really perilous political scene in the United States in the 1790s. It’s a lively period when many of the key Founders like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson clashed bitterly over foreign and domestic policy, so much so that many people feared civil war was imminent.

Second, I’ll sit down with historian Carol Berkin to talk about her new book, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism. She focuses on four major crises that threatened the young nation: the Whiskey Rebellion, the Genet Affair, the XYZ Affair, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Historians have long discussed these controversies as crises that ultimately doomed the Federalist Party. But the real story of the crises of the 1790s, says Berkin, is the way that these four crises all contributed to the formation of American national identity. The US at this time was a new and fragile nation, made up of people who more often than not, identified with their states rather than their nation. So while these crises were divisive and controversial, they also led more and more Americans to see themselves as Americans, and to defend national institutions like the Presidency and the Constitution. My conversation with Carol is fun and deeply interesting and I think you’re going to love it.

Among the things Carol Berkin discusses:ITPL Ep 028 Berkin book cover
* How the crises of the 1790s helped forge U.S. national identity.
* How Americans in the fractious 1790s came to respect not just Washington, but the office of the president.
* How the Whiskey Rebellion threatened the legitimacy of the federal government and how George Washington used a combination of firmness and leniency to defuse it.
* How the Genet Affair threatened US sovereignty in the 1790s.
* How John Adams bungled the XYZ Affair but ultimately benefitted from the nationalist outrage it produced.
* Why the Alien and Sedition Acts were not very repressive in practice.
* How the Federalists deserve credit for guiding the fragile American republic through the tumultuous 1790s.
* How the brutal partisan media and fake news shaped the politics of the 1790s.
* What we in 2017 can learn from the fractious politics of the 1790s.

About Carol Berkin website

Further Reading

Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (Basic Books, 2017)

Ronald Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (2004)

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000)

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating The Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (2015)

William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

The Womb, “I Hope It Hurts” (Free Music Archive)

Scott Holmes, “The Light Between Us” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Associate Producer: Devyn McHugh

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Darrell Darnell of Pro Podcast Solutions

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Social Media management: The Pony Express

Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight

© Snoring Beagle International, 2017

Wash-Ham

Episode 023 Alexander Hamilton: The Man, The Myth, and, Yes, The Musical!

subscribe-buttonIn this episode of ITPL, we focus on Alexander Hamilton. You may have noticed that Hamilton has become the hottest Founder in recent years – and it’s all due to the smash Broadway hit, “Hamilton: The Musical.”
So here’s the lineup:
1. First, I provide a brief backgrounder on the remarkable life of Alexander Hamilton. 2. Second, I sit down with historian Stephen F. Knott to discuss his book, Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Sourcebooks, 2015). He and his co-author Tony Williams argue that the relationship between Washington and Hamilton had a major impact on the outcome of the American Revolution and the subsequent creation of the American republic.
3. Finally, I drop by the one permanent site in Manhattan that’s dedicated to the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. It’s the Hamilton Grange in Harlem. I speak with National Park Service ranger Liam Strain about the site’s history and how “Hamilton: The Musical” has dramatically increased visitor traffic at the site. You can find show notes for this episode and more information about the podcast at www.InThePastLane.com
In The Past Lane is a production of Snoring Beagle International, Ltd.

About Stephen F. Knottwebsite

About the Hamilton Grangewebsite

Further Reading

ITPL Ep 023 Knott book coverStephen F. Knott and Tony Williams, Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America (Sourcebooks, 2015)

Ronald Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2004)

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (2015)

Thomas Fleming, The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation (2015)

Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (2005)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (2016)

John Sedgwick, War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel that Stunned the Nation (2015)

The historic home of Alexander Hamilton, "The Grange," in Harlem, NYC.

The historic home of Alexander Hamilton, “The Grange,” in Harlem, NYC.

Jim Beckerman, “Hamilton Tourist Sites in New Jersey Ride the Wave of the Hit Musical,” Associated Press, Jun 12, 2016

Linda Flanagan, “How Teachers Are Using ‘Hamilton’ the Musical in the Classroom,” KQED.org

Valerie Strauss, “The unusual way Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ is teaching U.S. history to kids,” Washington Post, June 28, 2016

Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Doctor Turtle, “Often Outmumbled Never Outpunned” (Free Music Archive)

Lee Rosevere, “Going Home” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, ”On The Street,” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Associate Producer, Devyn McHugh

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Darrell Darnell of Pro Podcast Solutions

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Social Media management: The Pony Express

Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight

© Snoring Beagle International, 2017

WhiskeyRebellion1

The Young Republic in Peril: The Whiskey Rebellion

InThePastLane.com                                                                              By Edward T. O’Donnell

On August 7, 1794 President George Washington decided the time had come for action.  Popular protest by farmers in western Pennsylvania against a new federal excise tax on whiskey had recently turned into an armed insurrection.  Recognizing the threat this “Whiskey Rebellion” posed to the new constitutional government established only a few years earlier, Washington mobilized a force of federal soldiers and personally led them to confront the rebels.

The men and women who settled on the colonial frontier in the 17th and 18th centuries were in many ways the ultimate risk takers. They were also more often than not poor.  With the best land near the coastal cities and waterways (vital to transporting agricultural produce) taken by earlier arrivals and the wealthy, those who wanted to own land headed for the interior where both opportunity and peril (in the form of hostile Indians, economic isolation, and lawlessness) abounded.  Colonial governments welcomed these risk takers because they expanded the line of settlement westward and acted as a buffer against Indian attacks.  But these same officials were also leery of the colonial frontiersmen’s fiercely guarded independence and resistance to government authority—especially taxes. Colonial history includes many episodes of rebellion by discontented frontier settlers, including Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), the Paxton Boys (1763), and the Regulators (1760s).

So the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 fits into a larger tradition of frontier discontent in early American history.  But why all the fuss about a tax on whiskey?

The answer lies with the important role that whiskey played in frontier society.  Whiskey became a vital part of everyday frontier life, perhaps because it was so tough, lonely, and devoid of diversion.   Many family farms maintained a still for producing whiskey and the average adult male on the frontier consumed prodigious amounts of the stuff each year.  Observers of frontier gatherings such as weddings and harvest festivals were often shocked by the amount of whiskey consumed and the violent games and wrestling matches that followed. This explains why easterners generally viewed frontier inhabitants as backward, violent, and crude.

But whiskey also played an essential role in the local economy as a form of currency.  This was especially true when it came to obtaining important goods from frontier market towns like Pittsburgh.  Primitive roads and difficult terrain on the frontier made it prohibitively expensive to transport heavy barrels of grain to market. But a farmer could distill one hundred pounds of grain into one gallon of whiskey that weighed a little more than eight pounds and fetched a price of 25 cents in Lancaster or Pittsburgh. That money allowed a family to purchase necessities like tools and guns, as well as a few luxuries such as coffee and sugar.

Alexander Hamilton

Given how central it was to his everyday life and livelihood, the typical frontier farmer reacted angrily to any perceived threat to his whiskey.  Imagine, then, his reaction to the news in 1791 that the new federal government had, at the behest of the Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, enacted a new excise tax on whiskey.  Similar taxes on liquor had been on the books since the 1690s, but they applied only to rum.  The 1791 tax on whiskey (seven cents per gallon) was intended to raise much needed revenue for the federal government to pay off its huge debt (much of it being state debts run up during the Revolution).  It also contained a provision that taxed large distillers at a lower rate, putting a greater burden on the small-scale distillers.

Outraged, frontier farmers took a page from the Revolutionary era and like their patriotic brethren during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66, formed a resistance movement.  From Pennsylvania to Georgia, distillers refused to register their stills with their local country tax office.  Farmers charged with failure to pay the whiskey tax refused to travel to Philadelphia to stand trial.  And federal revenue collectors who ventured to the frontier were beaten, tarred and feathered, and otherwise harassed to the point where they feared for their lives.

Washington and Hamilton initially opted for a wait and see approach, hoping the resistance would died down.  But from 1791 when the tax took effect, to the summer of 1794, defiance only grew stronger and President George Washington was concerned for the future of the country.

Protests and attacks on tax collectors occurred all across the frontier, but the most intense spirit of rebellion was found in Pennsylvania. One particularly notable incident involved farmer and distiller William Miller. In mid-July 1794, he was served a summons by a local politician named John Neville to appear before a judge in Philadelphia to answer charges of tax evasion. Miller refused and sent Neville packing. “I felt my blood boil,” he later recounted.

Neville returned to his large manor home and soon found it surrounded by a force of 50 armed men. He and his family and slaves managed to drive them off, killing one of the rebel farmers. Neville then asked for military protection and received a contingent of 12 soldiers under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick from a fort near Pittsburgh. The next morning a larger rebel force arrived under the command of Major James McFarlane, a local farmer and Revolutionary War veteran. In the ensuing fight, McFarlane was shot and killed — some say after he was lured toward Neville’s house by a flag of surrender. The rebels then stormed the house and forced the surrender of Kirkpatrick and his soldiers (they were released on condition that they leave the area). Finding that Neville had escaped earlier, the rebels then burned his house and outbuildings.

Thousands turned out for the funeral of Major McFarlane and it soon turned into a giant recruiting rally for the rebel farmer cause. Within weeks a large rebel force of some 5,000 to 7,000 had gathered near Pittsburgh and begun to drill. On Aug. 1 a contingent marched to Pittsburgh, where they were met by a nervous reception committee eager to avoid any violence. They plied the rebels with food and whiskey and agreed to banish certain citizens of questionable loyalty.

While this maneuver seemed innocent enough, the prospect of Pittsburgh being overrun and occupied by a larger rebel force terrified the Washington administration. Clearly, if the new federal government was to have any credibility, Washington and his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, would have to make a stand. On Aug. 7, 1794 Washington issued a proclamation, requisitioning 13,000 militiamen from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia and ordering the frontier rebels to return to their homes. Federal and state commissioners were sent to the frontier with offers of amnesty to all who would quit the rebellion. When they received a weak response to this overture, the decision was made to send the army to the frontier.
Commanded by Revolutionary War hero and current governor of Virginia Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the force contained many other notables, including five of Washington’s nephews, two other state governors, and a young soldier named Meriwether Lewis (of future Lewis and Clark fame). Gathering near Harrisburg in October 1794, they were reviewed by President Washington, who arrived to boost their spirits and to remind them of their loyalty to the federal government.

All was in order except for one thing: the rebellion had begun to fizzle in the face of the federal threat. Most rebel farmers slipped away and returned to their farms and stills. With no rebel army to disperse, Hamilton ordered the militia to fan out and arrest any suspected ringleaders. Hundreds were taken and questioned and eventually 20 were sent to Philadelphia for prosecution. They were paraded through the streets with “Insurrection” inscribed on their hats and thrown in jail to await trial. Two were eventually convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. But Washington decided that leniency was in order and pardoned both men.

Hamilton likewise played a role in defusing the crisis by having his tax collectors also act as purchasing agents for the federal army. Now the despised collectors became customers who purchased at top dollar vast quantities of whiskey to satisfy the weekly ration owed each soldier. The hated excise tax was repealed a few years later during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.
Although comical in some respects, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 represented the first great challenge to the new federal government established under the Constitution in 1788. Washington’s forceful response legitimized federal authority and went a long way toward securing future generations of stable government. And the frontier farmers who led the revolt learned to channel their anger into politics as a more effective way to get the justice they sought.

Sources and Further Reading:

William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (2006)

Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (1988)