US History: The Whiskey Rebels’ Conception of Liberty
THE CURE for Indian troubles favored by the frontiersmen was extermination of the Indians, and from this policy they rarely deviated either in theory or practice. In their minds it was a simple problem of choosing which race should survive, and they did not hesitate to choose. There has never been a time in the westward advance when the pioneers ceased to echo the early cry of the Pennsylvania squatters that “it was against the laws of God and nature that so much land should lie idle while so many Christians [probably not really a religious reference, just shorthand for European pioneers — Ed.] wanted it to work on and to raise their bread.”
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The self-sufficient economy of the frontier simplified the functions of government and fostered within each district a political system that was in many respects a pure democracy. Nearly every man held land — with mortgages attached. Almost all men labored with their hands, and amongst the rank and file of the people there was very little difference in the standard of living. All were subject to the militia call, and the man who distinguished himself in war did not need wealth to bolster his social position. The scarcity of cash made it difficult to pay taxes; consequently, salaried offices were not looked upon with favor. Most westerners, moreover, had gained a poor impression of salaried officials in the East or in the old countries and considered them to be instruments of tyranny, and anyhow the duties of government in the West were rarely heavy enough to demand the full time attention of an official.
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If they interpreted “the people” to mean themselves gathered in their local election or militia districts rather than the people of Pennsylvania or of the United States, the mistake was natural. When had the state or the nation done anything decisive to help them or solve their problems, to exterminate the Indians, to open the navigation of the Mississippi, or to build good highways? When Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the Pittsburgh lawyer, complained that they seemed to think they could remain part of the government and yet wage war against it, and that they thought it was theirs to forgive the government rather than to be forgiven, the answer came readily. Were not those the selfsame ideas that had actuated the Continental Congress before the Declaration of Independence? Brackenridge, at the time that federal laws were being defied in western Pennsylvania, was approached by John Gaston, a client who had a case due to appear before a state court. Gaston asked when it would come up.
“Not at all,” said Brackenridge.
“How so?” asked Gaston in surprise.
“Why,” returned the lawyer, “the government is gone to the devil; the courts are overthrown; all law is at an end; there can be no justice now. The strong hand must manage all things. Is this McClure a stout fellow? Has he any sons? Cannot your sons beat him?”
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Of course the pioneers were lawless when judged by the standards of the older settlements, but when judged in the light of western conditions, as well as by what are now considered inherent human rights, this was far from being universally true. Westerners insisted upon the right of the White man to earn a living at least and to safeguard this right by sharing in government. They put into wider effect the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence, which were regarded by the ruling easterners merely as platitudes except as applied to the chosen few.
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— excerpted from Whiskey Rebels: The Story of a Frontier Uprising by Leland D. Baldwin (1939)