“The Whiskey Rebels”

One night we sat with Mr. Richmond and Mr. Dalton, this time joined by Mr. Skye, the five of us enjoying some precious tea and sweet corn bread following a meal. Skye happened to glance over to a little round table next to our rocker upon which sat my copy of Postlethwayt. This interested him at once, and after rising to inspect its edition and condition, he inquired of Andrew what he did with such a book.“’Tis not mine,” he said. “In truth, it’s too dull for me.”

“You, madam?” asked Skye. “You have an interest in finance and economical matters?”

“I do,” I said, feeling myself redden. I was not quite ready to reveal myself to be a budding authoress.

It was fortunate that he spared me a request for further explication. “Then perhaps you have some thoughts upon the latest news, just arrived in a mule train from the East this very day?” His gray eyebrows raised in amusement, or perhaps anticipation. “I spent the afternoon reading through the newspapers, and I cannot credit what I have discovered.”

“Then tell us,” said Andrew.

He smiled, clearly pleased to be the one to relate it, yet I could see it troubled him too. “The new treasury minister, Alexander Hamilton, has appointed an immediate assistant, the second most powerful man at the Treasury. With the influence that department is gaining over George Washington and the federal government as a whole, it makes him well near one of the most powerful men in the entire country. Can you guess of whom I speak, for he is known to us all?”

Dalton snorted. “We have no idea, so out with it, man.”

Andrew smiled. “I have no idea, but look at Joan. I think she knows.”

I had opened my mouth, but I had not yet spoken. It seemed to me Skye had outlined, and I could not, at first, bring myself to say his name out loud. “No,” I managed at last. “Not William Duer?”

Skye nodded. “How ever did you guess it?”

“She didn’t guess it,” said Andrew. “She merely drew the only logical conclusion. I did not myself, but now I see how she did so. He is, after all, the only man known to us all, and he did speak of his close ties to Hamilton when we met him.”

Dalton actually snarled in disgust. “It makes me ill to think that a man like Duer, who has made his living by cozening patriots, should be rewarded with such power and influence.”

“He shall do well for himself,” said Skye. “It seems that his good friend Hamilton has convinced Congress to pay in full the states’ debts from the war. All our promissory notes that Duer got in exchange for land are now to be paid at full face value.”

“He knew!” I cried. “He and Hamilton must have plotted it out all along. They would trick patriots into surrendering their debt, and when they had enough they would get the American people, through their taxes, to pay off that debt, enriching themselves. It is the most monstrous abuse of power imaginable.”

“That is how things are done in England,” said Dalton, “but it is not how they are supposed to happen here.”

“No, but it is the way of things,” said Skye. “It hardly matters what principles are foremost in men’s minds. Those men are still men, and they will either be too idealistic to maintain power or too corruptible not to seize it.”

“You judge human nature too harshly,” said Andrew. “For what did we fight if this country is doomed to be no better than the one from which we won our independence?”

Dalton regarded him with the greatest seriousness. It seemed his orange whiskers stiffened, like the ears of a cat going back. “You do not submit to a harsh master because the next master may, for all you know, be no better. You fight, and that is what we did. We fought for the chance, lad.”

“And do we fight now?” I asked, looking up from my needlework. “Is the fighting all done? We fight against England for oppressing us, but when we do it to ourselves, when our own government places men like Hamilton and Duer in a position to destroy the soul of the nation, do we take our ease and do nothing?”

“There is nothing to do,” said Skye.

I was not so certain. I could not think what we might to do to push back against the interests of greed and cruelty that had so clearly gained ground, but that did not mean I could do nothing. I thought of my book once more and considered that perhaps this novel, this first American novel — could I but write it — might be an instrument of change, or at least part of a movement for change, a movement of sincere citizens hoping to keep their government free of corruption. If this news about Duer so troubled me, it would trouble others. All over the country, honest men and women must be looking on with horror as corruption wound its way into the hearts of the political men in Philadelphia. Alexander Hamilton, once Washington’s trusted aide, had turned the nation in the direction of British-style corruption. I knew I must find my voice, and soon.

David Liss