From Compliance to Defiance: America’s Lockdown Rebellion

We’re two months into our national coronavirus lockdown. And from coast to coast, people have begun the transition from compliance to defiance.

It brings to mind the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791–94, which is half the basis for our newsletter’s name.

In that case, a newly formed federal government imposed an unfair tax that many people could not pay. So they rebelled.

Basically, people pushed back against an out of touch, overbearing government.

Now once again, we’re nearing a “rebellion” moment. Yet some political bosses breezily dismiss the motives — and even the fundamental human worth — of large numbers of people who just won’t do as they are damn well told.

This is a political wildfire, sweeping across mountains and prairies.

Let’s look at what’s happening, and look back at the Whiskey Rebellion for some lessons…

Rick Savage owns a family business in rural Maine.

His restaurant is called the Sunday River Brewing Company, located in Bethel, about 75 miles north of Portland as the crow flies. It’s on a road that cuts through the near-endless tree-scape east of White Mountain National Forest. If you’ve been up there, you know that it’s remote.

The restaurant seems very nice. Its web site describes “a fun, casual atmosphere with an eclectic mix of locals, tourists and craft beer drinkers. (The) menu offers a wide variety of sandwiches, salads and pasta favorites, all served in a family friendly atmosphere.”

Works for me… But Savage’s restaurant had been closed for over seven weeks due to Maine’s coronavirus shutdown. Naturally the owner is worried about “losing the beginning of the tourist season,” a limited time frame when his restaurant breaks even for the year.

In other words, it’s make-or-break for Mr. Savage. So not long ago, he announced that he’d reopen on Friday, May 1… and that’s exactly what he did. In fact, by mid-afternoon on the appointed day, a line of over 150 people showed up to dine and/or quaff a libation.

Then around 4 p.m., per, state enforcement officers showed up to revoke the restaurant’s liquor and health licenses.

Mr. Savage had defied the shutdown order of Maine governor Janet Mills. She and her administration brook no dissent, although the governor — a former criminal prosecutor — doesn’t quite come out and say it in such blunt terms…

According to the governor: “This virus is testing the limits of our patience, the limits of our economic stability, the limits of our state’s health and endurance. Let us stand up to show the world that, no matter the challenge, no matter the difficulty, we will persevere.”

Notice the collectivist rhetoric… “Our patience.”  “Our economic stability.” “Let us stand up to show the world.” “We will persevere.”

And note the cheap, maudlin paean to unity against the viral foe. That is, “we” are all in this together, according to the lady whose taxpayer-funded paycheck shows up on time.

Meanwhile, the numbers tell a story, too. Maine’s population is 1.35 million, give or take. The state has about 1,185 reported cases of coronavirus, with over 700 patients recovered and 57 deaths. Oxford County, where Bethel is located, has 15 reported cases of virus, of whom 12 are recovered with zero deaths.

Statistically, Maine is in good shape when it comes to coronavirus. And rural Main is in great shape.

It’s also fair to say, based on statistics from the Maine Department of Transportation, that there’s a far higher probability of being seriously injured or killed in a car crash in Oxford County, Maine, than getting sick with coronavirus.

So why can’t willing patrons stop at Mr. Savage’s restaurant to order a cheeseburger and beer? Or in larger perspective, how did a medical-related, public health shutdown transform into this national economic mess that we see today?

Think back to mid-March when the virus became a matter of widespread public understanding. Authorities pleaded to “flatten the curve.” We heard that from top to bottom: Social distance! Break those nasty human contacts that allow people to transmit bugs and infect each other!

The original idea was to prevent the spread of coronavirus, lest “we” collectively wind up in a mass casualty situation and swamp the health care system. The remedy was ready-made, per eminent immunologists…

Close down businesses. Close schools and churches. Close offices, shops, malls, factories, parks and even beaches. Everybody stay home. No congregating. People should only leave their abode for “essential” things like food and medical care, or to work at a job that’s critical to keeping other people alive.

Governors issued sweeping orders. And there’s no arguing with the power of a state governor to deal with public health issues like mass-plague. It’s a fundamental power with ancient legal roots.

Okay, fine… “We” all did our patriotic duty. Across the nation, people followed tight rules and oft-draconian policies. Tens of millions of Americans answered the call and stayed home, didn’t drive, didn’t fly, “worked remotely” if possible.

And yes, “we” flattened that damn curve! Squashed it like a bug, in many areas; some more than others, to be sure. But still… In many parts of the country, the curve is flatter than a pancake.

So here we are, early May. “Spring is popping now,” writes old friend Jim Kunstler. “With a ferocious energy that can only remind the sullenly sequestered masses that life is going on without them. Every living thing is busy making-and-doing out there, except the poor humans, idled without work or purpose.”

And what’s the reward?

Well, if you’re Mr. Savage and open your restaurant in the middle of the Maine woods, with no evidence of a virus molecule for many miles an any direction, the governor’s people will yank your liquor and health licenses. You’re out of business.

It’s exactly the kind of situation that created the Whiskey Rebellion.

In 1791, the newly formed U.S. federal government needed money to pay Revolutionary War debt. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed to tax farmers on the capacity of their stills, used to boil grain into whiskey.

In the 1790s, farmers grew field crops — much as they do now. But most roads were poor, and it was tough to move raw, bulky output to market. So instead, they distilled surplus grain into spirits, and then sold the booze for a higher price. In this respect, most farmers had stills. And a still was the farmer’s cash register.

rye whiskey

Western Pennsylvania “rye whiskey;” yes, it’s still being made. BWK photo.

It didn’t help that, at the time, the fledgling U.S. had no currency of its own. There was no U.S. Mint, and no national coinage. To conduct commerce, people in large cities and port towns used British, Spanish, Dutch and French coins. Or they used “grains” of raw silver, or the occasional bit of gold dust. Point is, coins and metal specie were rare in rural areas. Alternatively, whiskey was a form of currency.

Then along came the federal “whiskey tax,” which the government wanted paid… in precious metal or coin no less. Since few farmers had that just lying around, the government was demanding the near-impossible of the people.

Stated another way, the government was misaligned and out of touch with the day-to-day reality of people in the hinterlands, far from the offices of power.

Whiskey Rebellion reenactors

“No Excise Tax,” demand Whiskey Rebellion reenactors in Washington, PA. BWK photo.

In July 1794, a U.S. marshal arrived in Western Pennsylvania to serve papers on farmers who had failed to pay any tax. The government planned to seize their land.

Angry locals assembled and marched on the house of the regional federal tax collector, an old Revolutionary War general named John Neville. One of Neville’s guards shot a protester, and the protesters proceeded to burn Neville’s place to the ground.

President George Washington was no fool. He saw the Whiskey rebels as a challenge to federal sovereignty. Indeed, some rebels began negotiating with Spain and Britain for Pennsylvania west of the Appalachians to secede from the U.S.!

To put down the insurrection, Washington called up state militias: Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey. Not Pennsylvania militia though, because Washington didn’t trust them to act against fellow citizens.

Washington led the combined force west from Philadelphia towards Pittsburgh. Of interest, this was the first, last and only time a U.S. President ever led troops into the field in the role as Commander in Chief.

militia army

Reenactors portray Washington’s militia army, sent to put down rebellion. BWK photo.

As Washington’s troops marched across Pennsylvania, cooler heads prevailed. The Whiskey Rebellion died down, and President Washington showed a prudent sense of magnanimity. The federal players cut deals, and all but a small number of Whiskey participants were eventually pardoned.

Meanwhile, in recognition of the monetary issue, Congress had already passed the “Coinage Act of 1792,” establishing the first U.S. currency along with a mint in Philadelphia.

And today we live in a nation whose laws and traditions of governance carry more than a few Whiskey legacies. Here are some key points:

  • Whiskey rebels established the principle that the people possess “collective sovereignty” that can challenge the established government when it acts illegitimately.
  • A competent government must understand what’s happening in the hinterlands of the republic, then be responsive and effective.
  • When all else fails, “the people” have guns and know how to use them.

All of which brings us back to the coronavirus lockdown.

Perhaps you’re among those fortunate 30% or so of workers who, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, can perform their job at home — “working remotely,” as the saying goes.

You’re okay in terms of an income. If so, enjoy it while it lasts.

But then there’s the other 70%… those whose income depends on showing up somewhere and doing something.

Now, after two months of compliance across the nation, many governors wish to continue the lockdown. Some state leaders want to order everyone who is not “essential” just to sit tight and await the magic $1,200 check. (Unless that person earned too much last year, and now there’s no check.)

Meanwhile, government has moved the goalposts. The original idea was to shut things down for a month, perhaps a bit longer. Now, some states (Virginia comes to mind) plan to keep the doors locked well into June. And it’s fair to ask, then what?

It’s one thing to work towards what the doctors call “herd immunity.” Then again, it seems that many politicians are demanding something more akin to herd mentality.

Thing is, people everywhere are seeing core truths. The “curve” that government used to justify a massive lockdown has begun to flatten in many places; certainly in many counties within many states.

On any given day in the U.S., about 7,800 people die of all causes, per the Census Bureau. That includes cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, accidents, etc. And now we seem to be at a point where, outside of a handful of clusters here and there, coronavirus deaths are not moving the statistical needle.

There’s a growing perception that the lockdown is no longer about “flattening the curve.”  It’s about government keeping people under control indefinitely. Indeed, more than a few governors appear to enjoy their Gauleiter-like powers way too much.

It’s time for these power-loving politicians to take a page from the Whiskey Rebellion and ease back. Allow people to make their own decisions and begin rebuilding their life.

Indeed, why shouldn’t a restaurant in the middle of the Maine woods, far from the nearest virus case, be able to serve meals to people who want to buy them?

There’s a time when government control may be the prudent thing. But eventually, there comes a point when it all begins to look like just another Big Lie.

We’re there now.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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