The Whiskey Rebels review

The Whiskey Rebels
David Liss
Random House
$26.00; Hardcover; 544 pages
Release date: Sept. 30, 2008
For many Americans, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War is a blur. General U.S. history classes in school paid the period little mind except brief mentions of westward expansion and the presidents between Washington and Lincoln. Americans may recognize most of the currency presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson and Grant) and figure Franklin deserves his spot on the $100, but when it comes to the $10 bill, why Alexander Hamilton?

Modern readers may not fully understand Hamilton’s prominence in history, the Bank of the United States or how close a young nation came to falling apart before 1800. At the same time, they view westward expansion as the nation’s spread west of the Mississippi, when, around Hamilton’s time, westward expansion meant settling in Pittsburgh.

The Whiskey Rebels takes a closer look at this time, focusing on 1789-1791. The story follows two main characters. Captain Ethan Saunders left the Army of the Potomac in disgrace and, in 1791, finds himself caught up in intrigue swirling around his former fiance, Alexander Hamilton and the Bank of the United States. Joan Maycott and her husband leave Philadelphia for the wilderness around Pittsburgh in 1789 and become heavily involved in distilling whiskey.

Whiskey, at that time, was the easiest way for western farmers to get their surplus grain to market. The lack of infrastructure made it difficult to transport wagons of grain but transporting casks of whiskey was easier. At least until Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton taxes whiskey distillers in part to pay down the national debt incurred when the new country assumed the individual colonies’ war debt.

Liss does an excellent job putting the reader in the time and locales. Readers appreciate the access to historical figures like Hamilton. Liss paints a vivid picture of everyday life for the wealthy, the would-be wealthy, the poor and the desperate.

Chapters alternate between Maycott and Saunders. It’s a common enough device, but hits some rough patches here. Saunders’ story takes place during the latter half of 1791, while Maycott’s begins 3 years earlier. As their stories involve some of the same characters, it’s difficult at times to keep track of what a supporting character has and hasn’t done yet. At the same time, Maycott’s struggle to establish a life in the west is often more interesting than Saunders’ daily activities.

There’s a reason for that. Saunders and Maycott eventually meet in 1791, but to keep the chapter sequence going, it may seem that Saunders is killing time until the other character shows up. His story is told on an almost daily basis, while weeks or months go by between Maycott’s chapters. The Saunders sequences, however, could not be combined into a long expository meeting between him and Maycott as much of what he does explains to the reader the intricacies of bank speculation at the end of the 18th century. It’s necessary, but readers may find themselves preferring one of the two plot lines more than the other until they come together.

Saunders and Maycott find themselves on opposing sides of the financial and political future of the country, although Maycott is the only one who knows that until the last few chapters of the novel. Until this point, the reader has been rooting for each character to succeed in his or her private missions. Then it feel necessary to choose a side between two people the reader has come to care about. And Maycott doesn’t seem at all like the woman we met in the early pages. The signs and reason for her changing personality are clear in the book, but the positions she and Saunders stand for require a choice between them. 

A quick perusal of Wikipedia entries on Hamilton, Maria Reynolds, Whiskey Rebellion and William Duer can tell you how history worked itself out without the intervention of the fictional characters. Liss doesn’t create an alternate history by changing the outcomes, but presents an alternate catalyst that ties together some of history’s disparate threads. By the end of the novel, the reader comes away with a better sense of why Hamilton mattered in the early government.


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