Public Banking and Taxing the Wild Frontier: Part Three

Much More than a Whiskey Bottle

The cannabis farmers who found the road to economic self-reliance in the redwood forests of northern California suddenly find the road closed. As the pioneers of the most lucrative industry in California and the first to take the risk nationwide, they are now being cast aside by entrepreneurs with plenty of start-up capital. Multilayered taxes, including a big excise, now threaten the small farmer haven that once was the emerald triangle. [East Bay Express: Nipped in the Bud]

When the back-to-the-land hippies fled a stultifying mainstream American culture, they discovered an older America: the Jeffersonian vision of the self-reliant yeoman farmer. They will likely share the fate of that vision however, trampled upon by industrial and efficient Hamiltonian businessman. Battles for a sustainable use of land and resources, as well as an equitable share in the industry, can and should be fought for. But the biggest battle will be fought over which version of the Hamiltonian vision will be instated in the aftermath. With the new tax and regulation of this massively lucrative industry will come the opportunity to revisit the better side of Hamilton’s legacy: his championing of public-oriented financing in the form of the first Bank of the United States.

Before we get to the first public bank in America, it’s worthwhile to explain the economic situation facing the frontier farmers of that time. Their plight at the hands of Hamilton mirrors the plight of the small cannabis farmer when you substitute weed for whiskey.

The aftermath of the revolutionary war saw a period of radical economic transformation, to say nothing of the unprecedented political innovations. Soon after the revolutionary war and the signing of constitution, congress approved of Alexander Hamilton’s funding scheme to assume all of the debts that the states had incurred and centralize them in the new United States government. This would result in a huge windfall for the bondholders of American war debt: over time they would received both the accrued interests and the principle of these bonds at face-value. Taking on this debt would be the engine that propelled the first Bank of the United States into working order and, in turn, set the country off on the right footing with respect to the rest of the world.

All seems well on the face of it, after all, ordinary farmer-soldiers bought paper war bonds too. But the economic conditions in the west were vastly different than those in the wealthier east. The long time that had elapsed since the issuance of the bonds rendered them useless to farmers in need of metal coins or specie to conduct trade. Years had gone by where nobody could be sure that these bonds would be paid back and people needed hard money to go about their lives. Most of the revolutionary war bonds ended up in the hands of the eastern merchants who could afford to hold onto them during the long wait before redemption. The lack of acceptable currency in the west convinced greedy speculators to scour the western lands and swoop them up on the cheap. Western farmers needed acceptable cash immediately and were desperate to sell these bonds and chits. This drove down the prices of to a fraction of their original worth. But when Hamilton’s financial plan was passed, the bonds suddenly gained their full value back and wealthy easterners reaped a huge windfall. Financiers of the east had swindled the frontiersmen of the west less than ten years after they had fought and defeated the British Empire.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The greatest change took place when the new invention of paper currency, called colonial scrip, was taken away after the establishment of Constitution in Congress. No longer could states issue their own currency and make it easier for average person to conduct business. Paper money was the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin and a huge hit with the poor western farmers that lacked specie. It was a totally new brand of finance that facilitated inclusive economic activity, one of the most revolutionary of innovations in a time of so much revolutionary activity. The only problem was that it created currency value inflation due the ease of printing more whenever the occasion arose. The real conflict came, however, from the depreciation of the bonds that wealthy merchants held. Increasing the money supply by printing of more paper money meant that the return on the bonds came back with weaker money than it was lent with. Creditors took a reduced return on their investment but everyone else (the vast majority of Americans) benefited from the ease of doing business. The more money available, the more poor farmers could conduct trade. It was a clear class conflict between debtors and creditors: creditors hated the uncertainty of price fluctuations and taking a bath on war bonds, debtors wanted more money in the economy at large and therefore more economic equality.

Populist finance in America has a long history that rarely makes its way into mainstream canon. A number of authors have written on the subject and deserve praise for their efforts. So much of the historical activity of a people that claims such a democratic heritage was directed at wealthy financiers who got rich at the expense of the vast majority. These democratic actors had potent critiques, alternative ideas that could work, and sound minds for political economy. They simply lost the important battles of history and history, as we all should know, is written by the victors. As William Hogeland put it (the first author who opened my eyes to the history of missed opportunities for American democratic finance in Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation): “It’s Hamilton’s America… we all just live in it.”

Summarizing the economic grievances of western Pennsylvanians, Terry Bouton writes,

“During the 1780s state leaders had eliminated paper money, which was the primary medium of exchange, especially in the back country, where gold and silver coins were always scarce. They had killed a government loan office that had offered long-term low-cost credit to small farmers and craftsmen – and replaced it with a private bank that offered loans only to merchants and land speculators. The state government had adopted a plan to repay the Revolutionary War debt that taxed the soldiers and farmers who had fought and supplied the war effort so that wealthy men who had speculated in once-worthless war bonds and IOUs could make a financial killing. Those new taxes were often to be paid in gold and silver. All of these policies stripped the countryside of cash and left thousands of farmers unable to pay debts, mortgages, or taxes. The result was waves of sheriff’s auctions that swept the state, a floodtide of misery that, in [William] Findley’s home county, foreclosed about 40 percent of the taxable population.

At the same time that ordinary Pennsylvanians were losing cows, tools, and farmland at auction, state leaders were making it increasingly hard for them or their children to acquire new land. Officials at the land office gave preferential treatment to big speculators (including themselves). Revenue officials refused to prosecute large speculators who had not paid their taxes at the same time that they pushed to foreclose ordinary taxpayers. Judges ruled in favor of wealthy speculators over settlers in nearly every land conflict. In 1792 the state supreme court turned a clear anti-land-speculation law into a pro-speculator one. The law had put caps on the amount of land anyone could purchase to limit speculation. Defying the law’s stated objectives, however, the supreme court ruled that the limits applied only to small farmers and that wealthy speculators could buy as much land as they could afford[.]” (Bouton, ‘William Findley, David Bradford, and the Pennsylvania regulation of 1794,’ in Revolutionary Founders, p.237-8)

With the war over, it seems that the Federalist who took charge of the new government felt the poor farmers of the west were expendable. The new measures crippled the financial base of the liberty-loving rabble-rousers and bolstered the already wealthy speculators that Hamilton championed, setting a precedent that has more-or-less held up throughout American history. Populist direct action had been the bread-and-butter of the movement for independence in the colonies and the new government now regarded them and their proponents as a threat to the new order. This was all very painful for untamed patriots, with this pattern of financier-oriented policy fostering two previous militia formations before the whiskey tax, but when the excise tax came it added insult to injury. The whiskey tax struck at the livelihoods of the very people who joined Hamilton in fighting the British and creating a new republic.

What makes the whiskey tax so hurtful is not that it kept uneducated farmers in the wilderness from getting drunk, distilling and selling whiskey (often to those with the money to buy it out east) was a cost-effective strategy for earning an income through trade. After all of the financial attacks that drained the economic base of the western farmers, now their last profitable trade was being hit by an excise tax. Whiskey distilling drastically reduced the transportation costs in comparison to other goods. It allowed subsistence tenant farmers and self-sufficient landowners alike to sell a valuable product from the periphery back to core market at a reasonable profit. Hogeland explains this dynamic the best: whiskey was exceptional,

“… for being a cash crop, with eager markers both within the region that produced it far away. A gallon of good rye whiskey might sell for only twenty-five cents in the west; easy of the mountains, it could bring from fifty cents to a dollar. Hauling twenty-four bushels of milled rye over the Alleghenies took three pack animals with projected revenues of a mere six dollars; costs outran revenues. Reducing those bushels, at home or at a community still, to two eight-gallon kegs of whiskey amplified their value almost three times while reducing transport requirements to a single animal.

So with a value nearing the absolute, whiskey became currency in places where coin wasn’t seen. Always exchangeable for cash somewhere down the line, whiskey maintained good value against metal. That tended to democratize western economies… The product gave cash-starved segments of society opportunities for small-scale commercial development that might begin freeing ordinary people from debt and dependency.” (Hogeland, p.178)

So whiskey distilling kept these humble farmers economically afloat. Distilling whiskey and selling it back east, just like growing cannabis from the 1970’s to the present, kept communities moderately prosperous without going big and corporate. Their distilleries were often used communally and seasonally. The excise tax on spirits disproportionately effected those smaller distillers because the larger distillers closer to the eastern core could pay a lower tax rate by keeping the stills churning out whiskey bottles all year long. The tax was calculated with an assumption that the stills would be used year-round: impossible for seasonal independent farmers but advantageous to business-oriented distillers seeking to maximize the profits from their investment in their distillery. Large distillers could lower their prices and push out the smaller ones hit harder by the excise. This was complicated macroeconomic tinkering and Hamilton was smart enough to understand the consequences of his legislation. Frontier farmers must have seen this move as yet another targeted attack by financial aristocrats.

Resistance to the first excise taxes in Britain, as Thomas Slaughter describes early on in his The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, was one of the quickest and angriest responses ever engendered by a government’s tax scheme. Excise taxes are also called “inland taxes” or “internal taxes” and levy a percentage of the value of a commodity at the point of production. High war costs during the English Civil War forced seventeenth century British governments to seek more revenue. “Opposition was immediate, violent, and persisted in some regions for over a century thereafter… a mob burned down the London excise house during the 1650’s.” (p.12) The core-periphery dynamic was at play here, with London and other central regions of the empire being easier to administer than the farther reaches. “Resistance was always greatest in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and the outlying rural parts of England.” (p.12) Yet, despite their unpopularity, excise taxes remained a feature of life in the empire. “Indeed, despite pockets of resistance, the excise surpassed the land tax and customs duties to become the single most lucrative source of government income between the years 1713 and 1799. For much of that period it constituted over 40 percent of all Treasury receipts”. (p.13) American farmers no doubt had a collective memory of these tax measures and did not wish to see a repeat in their new country. To add on top of the financial hardship and pro-speculator policies drying up their wealth an excise tax that disproportionately affected their most lucrative business would have seemed like a declaration of war. After all, the impulse to independence and revolution in 1776 was summed up by the slogan “no taxation without representation.” Thousands of farmers did not wish to see the same enemy that they had fought so hard against suddenly reappear under a different guise.

Somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 men descended upon Braddock’s Field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1794 to formulate a response to the excise tax. (Slaughter, p.234) These regulators came from all over the peripheral lands in an orderly and deliberate fashion. Similar actions had occurred recently in the Newburg Crisis and Shay’s Rebellion (or the Massachusetts Regulation) and they drew from a history of populist tax and creditor resistance from the traditional Anglo-Saxon past. The Whiskey Rebellion was a series of mass actions that sprang up all across the countryside – sympathy demonstrations even took place in the big eastern cities. Debt courts were shut down, road blocks were created to stall property foreclosures, and tax collectors were tarred and feathered. (Bouton, p.241) Resistance was a widespread phenomenon that a great deal of the western culture took part in. Though mostly peaceful, tarring and feathering is no benign action – these people were serious about protecting their participation in a trade that became essential to their livelihoods.

Though mass assemblies brought some orderliness to the tax-resistors, they remained divided on how to continue in the face of the impending military campaign to round them up. Some wanted to meet Hamilton’s volunteer/mercenary militia head on or even secede from the republic and found their own nation. Others like William Findley wanted to organize the people into a new party and win seats in congress. There inability to unite, together with the presence of Hamilton’s army enforcing official national law, caused them to disintegrate. Added to this were reports coming in of the atrocities committed by liberty-loving revolutionaries in France, souring the public opinion of widespread disorder and generating well-founded anxiety. The private army raised to put down the rebellion arrested what regulators they could, sometimes indiscriminately seizing individuals at will. To his credit, president Washington pardoned every person imprisoned for their seditious activity, the damage to the movement having been done. Memories of this event and other events like it led to the political collapse of the Federalist party in just a few years. The excise tax followed them out the door when Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party repealed it.

As Hamilton’s army approached, thousands could see the writing on the wall and fled farther west into the wilderness. Resistance to rich eastern elites would thereafter be fractured or be duped into picking the wrong targets. The coalition that got Thomas Jefferson elected and shook up the electoral shape of America understandably reviled Hamilton’s bank and the means he used to establish it. As prominent figures like James Madison learned of the financial might of villainous speculators, he too turned on his Federalist ally. Madison tried to distinguish between rightful or original owners of government bonds so as not reward rich speculators, but Hamilton’s plan was complete and Madison’s plan infeasible. No records were kept for the sale of these bonds that had changed hands many times. Such was the double-edged genius of Alexander Hamilton: his mastery of finance came at the cost of alienating those around him. He could personally rout the frontiersmen and create many enemies in Washington yet still be revered for the extreme utility of his public bank.

Much to their frustration, neither Jefferson nor Madison could deny the utility of a public bank. Jefferson never understood how debt kept the money system stable and acquiesced to his Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin’s level-headed advice. The agrarian sentimentality cultivated in Virginia and reflected in much of the population of America left Jefferson unable to shape the economic future of the country he did so much to inaugurate. Madison chartered a new Bank of the United States himself to handle the debts from the War of 1812. When that bank was up for recharter, Andrew Jackson, swept into office on popular anger against the financial elite, vetoed it. It would take another 50 years or so for populist agrarian crusaders to realize that government/state owned banks were viable institutions that could protect their interests.

The scars left by rich speculators lingered on for some time after whiskey tax and subsequent repression. From then on, distrust of banks would be a feature of oppositional political thinking in America. Banks would win the future however and without a public option in the banking sector, wealthy businessmen could simply charter their own private versions. For the better part of the nineteenth century, all banks would be viewed by farmers as monstrosities that use a baffling magic trick to mess with their fortunes. But banks are not necessarily evil institutions, the measure of their social utility depend on who is in control of them. Today banks are mostly private corporations with shareholders that demand the maximization of profits as a matter of principle. It need not be this way though and, ironically, Hamilton himself illustrated the best populist alternative to the machinations of the wealthy 1% of today with the Bank of the United States.

The next piece will examine this functioning of this bank and public banking more generally.