The Whiskey Rebels
Dark undercurrents in the new American republic course through this tale of greed, ambition, and an untamed frontier bursting with opportunities and dangerous pitfalls. The novel reeks of gritty realism as it moves between cosmopolitan Philadelphia and trans-Appalachian Pennsylvania. Larger-than-life characters spar over ferocious conflicts in the early Federal period between Jeffersonian democracy and Hamiltonian federalism. The intricate plot is driven by the machinations of infamous New York speculator William Duer and his role in the 1792 financial crash. The author’s expertise in economic history shows in his detailed picture of the shaky financial structure of the United States in the 1790s.
Appropriately, the protagonist is an alcoholic: Ethan Saunders, embittered Revolutionary War veteran and former spy, who opens the book drowning his sorrows in Monongahela whiskey in Helltown, federal Philadelphia’s Skid Row. When half-sober, Saunders is a charming rogue who uses double-talk like a sword. An appeal to help his former fiancée brings him out of the shadows into a dangerous investigation involving Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the First Bank of the United States. Hamilton’s ruinous excise tax aimed at the frontier whiskey distilleries, which were the only hope of subsistence farmers to make a transportable cash product, sparks the violence in western Pennsylvania that would lead to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Paralleling Saunders’s story, whiskey distiller’s widow Joan Maycott tells a tragic tale of following her husband from New York to the barbaric wilds of western Pennsylvania.
Fans of economic history will enjoy the abundance of detailed research evident here, though at times the research slows down the plot. For my own taste I would have liked more emotional depth and credibility in the fictional characters. Includes historical note.