The Whiskey Rebels

If you like historical fiction, you’ll like David Liss. Most of his books have focused on Great Britain, but this one tackles the US during George Washington’s presidency and focuses on the rise of Alexander Hamilton as a political game-changer. It’s rich in history and has two great fictional main characters who share scenes in an alternating manner, both from the first person perspective.

I’m not as familiar as I want to be with Alexander Hamilton. He seems to get the “most influential guy you don’t know about” treatment a lot. He was in the mix with those who shaped our nation, but doesn’t seem to get the same notoriety as Washington, Jefferson, or Adams. I almost bought the Ron Chernow authored bio on Hamilton but I’m not in the mood for 800 plus pages of history right now. It just seems a little daunting.

I did, however, get The Federalist Papers, which Hamilton authored along with John Jay and James Madison. I got it for free on my Kindle. I’m going to try and plow through it casually by the end of this year, but it won’t be a priority. Somewhere in these writings are the roots of how Hamilton justified creating a central bank, which allowed the government to take on debt. This debt would then be paid off by taxes and tariffs that he instituted (since he was the first Secretary of the Treasury), the most famous of which being his tax on whiskey producers in the western United States.

This book tells two sides of the story of the (real) Panic of 1792 using a fictional woman named Joan Maycott and a fictional man named Ethan Saunders. Maycott is a western farmer who’s husband has figured out how to make some very flavorful whiskey and Saunders is a disgraced, ex-Revolutionary War spy who is recruited by Alexander Hamilton to ferret out some financial hijinks happening in the newly-created American financial community.

The Maycott character is serious and dramatic, while the Saunders character is crass and hilarious. This contrast breaks up the book nicely and makes for an enjoyable, fast read. It’s also thought-provoking, especially in this day and age of conservative/liberal polarization, our recent financial crisis, and the 99% camping out in downtown. There’s a point in here somewhere. I think one thing Liss is trying to say is that government corruption and cronyism and their inextricable links to the financial community are nothing new; that we should have seen this crisis coming because it happened from the beginning – in the earliest days of the central bank.

Political positions aside, Liss creates fun, likable characters and fictional plot elements that make it feel like a thriller. I’ve read A Spectacle of Corruption and A Conspiracy of Paper and loved them both. In fact, like clockwork, I’ve read a David Liss book in Jan/Feb every three years starting in 2006. He has four more books so I’m looking forward to getting started on the next one in 2015.

That’s idiotic. I’m especially discouraged by my lack of follow-up. I said back in 2009 that I wanted to dig up more stuff on Alexander Hamilton and I haven’t done anything, save for reading this book. This website does bear the ugly truth at times. I didn’t even remember making a tacit commitment to expand my knowledge of Hamilton, but upon re-reading my thoughts from three years ago, my procrastination and lack of follow-up are laid bare.

I gotta get to work.