George Washington's Presidency

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Why it was important for George Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion?

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The Whiskey Rebellion was the first notable challenge to the newly laid out federalist system of the United States. Although it ostensibly began over a seemingly innocuous issue (a federal excise tax on spirits), it threatened to unravel the newly adopted Constitution. From the beginning, anti-Federalists opposed the tax as...

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The Whiskey Rebellion was the first notable challenge to the newly laid out federalist system of the United States. Although it ostensibly began over a seemingly innocuous issue (a federal excise tax on spirits), it threatened to unravel the newly adopted Constitution. From the beginning, anti-Federalists opposed the tax as an overstep of federal authority.

President George Washington tried from the beginning to end the dispute by peaceful means. In 1792, he issued a proclamation reprimanding the farmers who refused to pay the tax. This proclamation failed, and the "whiskey rebels" grew violent, burning the property of tax collectors. Washington was concerned that this rebellion against federal authority could spread. With the support of Alexander Hamilton, President Washington sought a quick end to the matter. Washington organized the militia to put down the rebellion, which quickly had the desired effect. The rebels disbanded before the militia could be fully mobilized. Only two men were convicted of treason in regards to the rebellion. Washington pardoned them. He wanted to make it clear that federal authority could not be challenged in such a manner but did not want to make martyrs out of the perpetrators.

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From Washington's point of view, the use of force to subdue the insurrection was important for a couple of reasons.  The most evident one was to settle the threat to federal power.  Washington and Hamilton both believed the national debt to be a problem and the "sin tax" on whiskey was seen as a good way to ensure that some revenue could be generated.  With the Constitution just having been ratified, the idea of the federal government being able to pass a law with the local governments complying was tested with the Whiskey Rebellion.  The use of force to subdue it was done in this light.  Washington understood that the infancy stages of the nation demanded quick and unilateral action to a problem that could swell as the framework for the new nation was itself new.  With the reality of Shays' Rebellion, and the destruction it wrought, still fresh in Washington's mind, avoiding this end at all costs was essential.

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