Presidential Campaign

Clinton, whiskey and George Washington: You won’t believe what they have in common

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Many around the world are shocked and mystified by the last week’s events, just as they remain shocked and mystified by the Brexit vote. The leader of the free world was decided by about 110,000 voters in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, whom nobody had seen at the polls in years and whom no pollster considered significant.

Donald Trump’s victory, however, is easily understood in the context of American history. Those same forces that fomented the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and the subsequent triumph of Jefferson’s Republican Party in 1800 over George Washington’s Federalist Party have now elected a Republican president 216 years later.

{mosads}Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin had been considered reliable territory for Democrats, with locked-in majorities in the metropolitan areas. Although Ohio voted for George W. Bush and went on to vote twice for Barack Obama, Pennsylvania had not swung Republican since 1988 (Bush ’41) and Wisconsin hadn’t voted for a Republican since 1984 (Reagan).

I campaigned for George W. Bush in this region in 2004 and personally warned Mitt Romney that his election could not be won without these counties in 2008 (I was not invited to another campaign strategy meeting). And this week, unexpected turnout in these rural counties elected Trump.

Those voters are American workers left behind by the knowledge economy, who see the American dream slipping from their grasp. Hillary Clinton not only ignored their pain, she galvanized their anger by labeling them “deplorables.”

The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was waged by their grandparents. But as American history is increasingly ignored as a subject of serious study, the Whiskey Rebellion has become a faded memory rather than an invaluable lesson in political humility.

Washington and his Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, assumed leadership of the first presidential administration under the new U.S. Constitution. In doing so, they assumed leadership of a government crippled by the unpaid debt of the American War of Independence. The bonds sold to finance the war were due and there was no federal revenue with which to pay the obligation.

Washington made the tragic mistake of enacting a federal tax on whiskey — a seemingly innocuous move. 

Most of those subjected to the tax viewed whiskey as a beverage and viewed the tax as an annoyance. However, for the farmers of Western frontier, whiskey was a form of currency and its taxation was an unprecedented confiscation of their wealth.

Those farmers were mostly war veterans who had been enticed to move West by the prospect of free land and economic opportunity. In a young country with few roads, no canals and railroads not yet invented, field crops could not be transported to market by wagon. Therefore, the only alternative was to distill grain into whiskey. Sixty pounds (1 bushel) of grain distills to 16 pounds (2 gallons) of whiskey. Moreover, the whiskey doesn’t spoil on the way to market and is worth more than 10 times the market value of the grain that was used to manufacture it.

It’s likely that Hamilton knew what he was doing but simply considered the frontier farmers “deplorables,” who lacked the political clout to get in his way. He and Washington miscalculated, however, and the rebels of 1794 mounted an armed resistance against the newly appointed federal revenue officers.

When Washington attempted to salvage his stature by personally leading the first U.S. Army against the rebels as the nation’s last active commander in chief, the rebels faded into the landscape, leaving Washington looking stupidly around the Western frontier for someone to fight. His party was ultimately defeated by Jefferson’s newly formed Republican Party in 1800, partly over Jefferson’s pledge to protect the rural American from economic predation of the federal government.

The descendants of those who repudiated Washington and Hamilton have just repudiated Clinton for essentially the same reasons. A smug establishment has just learned about the political power of a disenfranchised middle class. People in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin have made a living, paid their taxes, educated their children and built their communities in large measure through the industrial output of the now-defunct American Rust Belt. The economy has left them behind.

The Obama administration has systematically dismantled the coal industry. Manufacturing jobs have moved to Mexico and Asia at the same time a flood of undocumented workers have driven down the wages available for less skilled work. These workers often lack the education to compete in the new knowledge economy and their children don’t receive the science, technology and mathematics education to compete in world marketplace where an information technology company can hire a programmer in Jerusalem, Israel as readily as in New Jerusalem, Pa. Rather than understand the pain of these voters and promise them a better future, Clinton ignored them, didn’t think of going to see them, and demeaned them in her pitch to the urban elites and inner city constituencies upon whom she relied.

In her quest to become America’s 45th president, Clinton forgot the lessons learned by America’s first president and led her party into the political wilderness. Now it’s up to Trump to keep his promise to those whose children rank 20th in math and 24th in science on a world stage and to deliver that constituency a future that, in the process, makes America great again.


Jonathan Javitt, MD, MPH, was appointed by Bill Clinton to serve in the Executive Office of the President and commissioned by George W. Bush to lead the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee on Healthcare. He was appointed by Bush to serve in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense. He is a senior fellow of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 presidential election Alexander Hamilton Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Federalist Party Hillary Clinton history Republican Party Whiskey Rebellion

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