Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Whiskey Rebels

David Liss

This is my third review of a David Liss novel, my most recent literary enthusiasm. The title might lead you to think that this historical novel is about the 1794 western Pennsylvania insurrection, put down by George Washington with troops provided by Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In fact the action predates that rebellion by two years, although the whiskey tax, imposed by congress to raise funds for Alexander Hamilton's efforts to pay off the debt incurred during the revolution and finance the Bank of the United States, plays a big part in the story.

It was an undue burden on the farmers of the west, which means Pittsburgh in 1792, to pay a tax in cash on the production of whiskey. These farmers could not get their grain to market, due to a lack of roads to the east and the closure of the Mississippi river to American commerce by Spain. They made whiskey instead and bartered that whiskey for the necessities of life. Lack of access to markets also created a shortage of hard money, so whiskey became the currency of the west. Thus the farmers had no money to pay the tax.

Liss likes to use the financial sector of a society in his historical novels. In this case it is Hamilton's bank, the speculation in banking stocks and the panic of 1792 that he uses to create a plot,written like a crime novel, with lots of twists and mysteries. He writes the book from two points of view. One is a disgraced former spy, now a drunkard living in Philadelphia, who takes on the challenge of finding his ex-fiance's missing husband. The other is a woman who moved to the west with her revolutionary war veteran husband to homestead on land offered in exchange for his bounty warrant, promised by Congress but not delivered.

The action brings the two together in Philadelphia and New York working together, or perhaps against each other, as William Duer attempts to take over the Bank of the United States and causes a general economic collapse. Historical characters, like Duer and Hamilton and real events, particularly Duer's catastrophic attempt on the bank, are used in subtle ways, to move the plot forward to it's surprising conclusion. He weaves in the whiskey tax, the unmet promises to war veterans and the greed of speculators with their undue influence on the government. The Whiskey Rebels could be read as a metaphor for our current economic situation.

Liss is able to make banking and stock manipulation exiting, to mix historical fact with fantastic invention seamlessly. Chances are good that more of his novels will appear on this blog soon.


This post is in the 84th
Book Review Blog Carnival

Published at One Book Per Week.


  1. Hi Clark, Thanks for another push in Liss' direction. I'm deep into the Coffee Trader (since that was on the library shelf) and enjoying it. DeAne

  2. Readers should visit DeAne's blog DeAne's American Conversation and I'm not just saying that because she is my cousin.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Can I offer you a book? The Leftovers. It is a bit odd and I was not satisfied with the ending, but . . . the effort to reflect on how people respond to unexpected, and unexplained loss is worth considering.


  4. Interesting, I'll pick it up.


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