Washington’s Folly

It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a Free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it. – GW

 As you can see from the quote above, George Washington was an angry white male.

 And for good reason.  It was for lack of funds to acquire necessary supplies that he had watched soldiers who fought for America’s independence suffer and die of exposure and malnutrition.  He had known wealthy men who craved a break with England, along with those pesky taxes her King demanded, but who refused to provide the funding necessary to achieve that end.  He was a man, not unlike the vast majority of Americans today, who fell into the trap of treating as axiomatic a rule of thumb learned in that most revered of educational institutions, the school of hard knocks.  Practical experience, these Americans would have said, is knowledge of the most reliable sort.

 (Unless it’s not.  Few of the citizens of the new US, after all, could have forgotten the very practical experience of paying the aforementioned taxes to the King.  This ordeal left them disenchanted, to say the least, with taxing authorities.  Here was an opportunity for the fledgling government to eschew taxation and offer methods of funding the war that did not require force.  Alas, they were men ahead their times, but not that far ahead.)

 Nearly as painful as Washington’s apparent ardor for taxation was the zeal with which the Constitution authors pressed the foul notion into government service.  The curse resides in Section 2 of Article 1: “…direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States…”[1]  

So, as one might have expected, the confrontation came quickly.   Seven years after the Constitutional Convention, President Washington had become annoyed with the pecuniary recalcitrance of a few tax-dodging farmers in Western Pennsylvania.  These gentlemen, when unfortunate enough to harvest a bumper crop of corn, had turned their overproduction into something that could be more easily shipped over the Appalachians to the east.  Indeed, they had produced the very best commodity that could be made of it: whiskey.  When Congress, at Hamilton’s urging, approved a tax on alcohol in 1791, these small farmers felt badly used.  (Thanks to exorbitant taxes on alcohol sales, those of us who care to imbibe today still feel their pain.)

 By 1794, they were in rebellion against the tax.  (Hooray!)  In response, Washington invoked martial law and led against them a militia force of nearly 13,000 men.  (Boo!)  When the dust cleared, the “rebellion” had dissolved ahead of the well-armed government surge.  Ultimately, only a few rebels were captured and punished, one man actually dying in prison.

 I don’t wish to seem ungrateful for Washington’s better efforts on my behalf.  For more comforting evidence of his humanity, one need only remember this observation attributed to him: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

 It’s unfortunate that this remarkably prescient viewpoint was not ruling his passions in 1794.  Imagine what a different country (world!) we might inhabit today had this universally admired figure gone to Hamilton’s home for the “chat heard round world.”  In this new and better reality, Washington convinces Hamilton that the problems in Western Pennsylvania would likely be repeated throughout the history of the nation, then asks that he join him in convincing the Congress to pass what at that time would have been the 11th amendment:  “Neither Congress nor any state or local government shall make a law establishing a tax.  Funding for all government entities shall be obtained entirely through voluntary action by the people, or not at all.”

 For whatever inane, bizarre or, in some cases, evil reasons, the vast majority of people – in millions of cases no doubt, otherwise judicious people – have supported mandated taxes as necessary to maintain a government.  But within the tortured reasoning for their approval can be found nothing more than banal avowals of unsubstantiated belief and affirmations of ill-placed faith.  Belief that nothing less than confiscation of money by force will suffice to fund their most coveted government ventures.  Faith in the assurances of the government jackals who avow the necessity of the ventures, their costs, and the attendant confiscation.

 Until a people acknowledge that neither murder, nor torture, nor enslavement, nor conscription, nor taxation, nor the initiation of any other form of force can be an implement of just governance, they must live in a constant state of subjugation.

 Sadly, so must those of us who know better.


– William McAtinney


[1] Only the 169th word of text in the document!

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