As tax day approaches for individuals in the U.S., it is always fun to think about the integral part that tax has played in forming our nation’s identity and its laws, particularly where alcohol has been involved.

The first source of income tax for our new Republic was an excise tax on distilled spirits levied in 1791. These taxes under the Washington presidency, as called for by Alexander Hamilton, paid off our nation’s debt in the Revolutionary War. However, the tax caused some uproar (I’m looking at you, Pennsylvania) and the Treasury Department found itself in the middle of the Whiskey Rebellion, an event that would come to stand as the first true test of our Federal government’s legitimacy. During the events of the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington sent militia troops into Pennsylvania with instructions to protect the judicial courts, assist the civil magistrates in executing the laws, and aid them in suppressing the disturbers of peace. These instructions would later be cited as one piece of historical evidence behind the Supreme Court’s ruling that military tribunals could not sentence civilians to prison in Hawaii in 1945. See Duncan v. Kahanamoku, 327 U.S. 304, 321 (1946). The events of the Whiskey Rebellion also contributed to the formation of political parties in the United States, a process already underway. The whiskey tax was repealed after Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party, which opposed Hamilton’s Federalist Party, came to power in 1801.

Later, the U.S. Treasury collected taxes and issued stamps for alcohol and tobacco products in order to finance the Civil War. And during the early part of the twentieth century, the Treasury Department used agents like Eliot Ness to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment (while certain moon shiners who escaped the law began stock car racing). The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or “TTB”) is the bureau that collects excise taxes on alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and ammunition today. TTB was created in January of 2003, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was reorganized under the provisions of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Although the levying and filing of taxes can seem mundane, like most things, when alcohol is mixed in, the results have been tumultuous in U.S. history.


Duncan v. Kahanamoku, 327 U.S. 304, 321 (1946).


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