This week’s reading of Slaughter’s The Whiskey Rebellion– to paraphrase the thoughts of several of my colleagues – was undoubtedly a work marked by thorough research and writing. While I agree with Ian, AJ, and CT in saying that Part II of The Whiskey Rebellion was indeed dense, I think Slaughter did this intentionally to demonstrate the complex narrative that culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion. This way he forces us to realize that the rebellion was not a mere short-lived affair often written off as an honorable mention in a list of the historical turning points of the United States. Rather, he argues that the Whiskey Rebellion was the product of continued and escalated tensions between various groups of people throughout the young nation, and – at least through the first two sections – that it was nothing short of a miracle that the country did not split amidst the conflict. This collectively contributes to his broader argument that the Whiskey Rebellion, particularly because of the conflicts harbored within the affair, should be thought about as a defining moment in the course of American history.
With that being said, I think Slaughter’s attempt to provide such a vivid, detailed account of the events preceding the Whiskey Rebellion ultimately leaves his work vulnerable to several criticisms. His writing, especially so in Part II, seems to become a pattern. As Slaughter begins to place every group, ideology, or concern into a contest with a conflicting group, ideology, or concern, the work quickly became monotonous for me and lost some persuasive value. His constant pitting of East vs. West, rich vs. poor, big business vs. small business, educated vs. uneducated, liberty vs. order, Federalist vs. Antifederalist, etc. dilutes the effectiveness of his argument. While revealing that the origin of the Whiskey Rebellion cannot be neatly pointed to a single cause, Slaughter’s constant pairings lead to a superficial understanding of each of the potential causes he emphasizes.
Moreover, the strategy pursued by Slaughter has made his narrative very dry, thereby losing some his argument’s persuasiveness. There are times when Slaughter hints at aligning with the frontiersmen at the time, as on page 112 when he writes “The excise constituted a unique threat because it embodied in one law so many evils.” However, instead of continuing this narrative and emphasizing the abuses the national government were making upon the West, Slaughter quickly turns away from this argument to present an objective account of what transpired leading up to the Whiskey Rebellion. I believe Slaughter’s book would have become more persuasive had he chose a side in his monograph. Rather, he leaves us with what might amount to an almanac of events and conflicts leading up to the rebellion with commentary, but no adamant opinions or analyses. His constant back and forth with pairings, people, and occasional scholarly interpretation only leads – as many of my colleagues are likely willing to agree – to confusion among his readers.
My last point of contention with Slaughter is that he seems to have a faint idea of the image he wants to portray of Alexander Hamilton. While Hamilton was one of the key figures of the Whiskey Rebellion, Slaughter fails to characterize Hamilton with respect to the context of his book. At times, Hamilton appears to be a man looking out for the best interest of the United States – a mediator of sorts – trying, as seen on page 145 “to avoid conflict between collectors and distillers who honestly misunderstood the law.” However, only pages earlier, Slaughter appears to write about Hamilton as something of an antagonist, a man who “In every respect…defined his views on taxation in opposition to the ideology shared by friends of liberty” (140). This is only exacerbated by the point made by Ian that men like Washington and Hamilton believed 80 percent of frontiersmen were disloyal to the American government. This leads me to question whether Slaughter intends to depict Hamilton as a hero, a villain, or perhaps if Slaughter even thought about how he to represent Hamilton at all. While I do not have the answers to these questions, I do think that in Part II of The Whiskey Rebellion Slaughter took on a project much too vast for the 81 pages he allotted for it.