The Oregon Wingnut Army isn't the 2nd Whiskey Rebellion

January 7, 2016 14 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ammon Bundy (center), one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, walks off after speaking with reporters during a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. | AP Photo

As the “occupation” of the abandoned headquarters of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has unfolded over the last day or so (See the Oregonian for regularly-updated coverage), there have been a number of attempts to place the self-styled “militia” into larger context. The long-standing debate over public lands and their usage in the Mountain West,seems to drive some elements of the armed men that seized the building. Some of their rhetoric has also focused on the conviction of two ranchers for setting fires that burned out hundreds of acres of public land, though the convicted ranchers themselves have disavowed the actions of the terrorists*. At root, a potent and heavily-armed brew of white power, anti-government, conspiracy-theorist and vigilante group impulses has produced this latest attempt of self-proclaimed “oppressed patriots” to “reclaim their constitutional rights,” which apparently involve grabbing publicly-owned land, owning many guns, and not paying any taxes forever and ever.

Given the dramatic nature of this insurrection, it’s only natural that these efforts at contextualization look to the past to make sense of the present events. The terrorists themselves have laid claim to their version of the American past, comparing themselves to some mythic amalgam of patriotic-revolutionary-founding father-esque freedom fighters who threw off tyranny and oppression in the 18th century. Other observers have pointed to incidents like Waco and Ruby Ridge to explain the power of this fringe ideology and its brinkmanship fetish. And still others have looked to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, a crucial event in the formative years of the American republic, because it seems to have embodied the same issues of local versus national sovereignty, and because “militias” are the key players in the confrontation.

At first blush, the comparison seems apropos. The Whiskey Rebellion was an uprising of farmers–most of them in precarious socioeconomic circumstances–in western Pennsylvania (as well as some counties in western Virginia, the Maryland panhandle, and even further southwest into eastern Kentucky) that was prompted by the 1791 excise tax passed by the first Federal Congress. The tax was on distilled spirits, which hit these western farmers particularly hard–their usual practice with the grains they cultivated was to distill much of the harvest into whiskey, which was far cheaper to transport over the Appalachian mountains to eastern markets. Indeed, such was the value and utility of whiskey that it served in many of these western areas as a de facto currency. The 1791 tax, associated with Alexander Hamilton’s controversial economic program, mandated a tax on each gallon of distilled spirits, vigorously enforced by federal excise agents who had been granted a broad range of powers, including the ability to seize illegal stills and their produce. For the westerners, this legislation struck at their very livelihood, as most of them were small-scale distillers who did so out of economic necessity.

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