I have been a fan of David Liss’ historical novels since they first appeared. THE CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, THE COFFEE TRADER, AND THE DEVIL’S COMPANY all possessed a historical flair that drew in the reader in a rather plausible plot line. Liss’ THE WHISKEY REBELS, though a good read, falls short of the quality of his first three efforts. The narrative of this somewhat light historical novel centers around two characters Ethan Saunders, and Joan Claybrook, who become involved in a plot to either save or destroy the Hamiltonian system of finance during the administration of George Washington. Other fictional characters abound and they are integrated with the likes of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, William Duer, James and Marie Reynolds, Phillip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and of course George Washington. The plot rests on events that preceded the actual Whiskey Rebellion that took place during this period and portends to present some of the causes of the revolt of western Pennsylvania farmers, angered by a federal excise tax on whiskey in 1794, whose cause was eventually crushed by an army of 13,000 men led by Alexander Hamilton.
After presenting the background narrative of the story concerning the plight of western farmers through through the eyes of the two main characters, Ethan Saunders and Mary Maycock, Liss then goes on to develop the financial schemes that are the heart of the novel. Liss fictionalizes a plot to destroy the heart of the Hamiltonian system, the National Bank of the United States, and the events leading up to the actual the Panic of 1792. The reader is presented with enough financial chicanery that would even bring a smile to the likes Bernie Maddoff. Though there are no credit default swaps, bundling of real estate assets, derivatives or under water housing bringing about the phrase, “too big to fail,” the author does explores “the machinations in government securities, the attempt to overtake the Million Bank, and Duer’s bankruptcy-all of [which] are a matter of record.” (522). To Liss’ credit accurate historical themes are weaved into the narrative. The reader witnesses the hatred between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian factions that existed at the time. The fight by western agrarian interests against eastern capitalist forces plays out and will remain part of the American political landscape through the twentieth century. The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton is “dually executed,” as is the burgeoning conflict that will ultimately lead to the actual Whiskey Rebellion. Some of the characters are a bit difficult to accept, especially the battle hardened Jewish banker and former Revolutionary War spy, among others. Overall it is an interesting tale chocked full of twists and turns but I recommend would Thomas Slaughter and William Hoagland’s monographs on the Whiskey Rebellion as a more accurate representation of what actually took place.