It’s 1792. Ethan Saunders lives in Philadelphia and is a veteran of the American Revolution, living his life in increasing penury and drunkenness as a result of being falsely accused of treason during the war. He had been a spy, and very effective one, perhaps too effective. He had been falsely accused of treason, and not only was forced to resign but also lost the great love of his life.
Saunders is sinking deeper into dissolution when he learns that his old love has turned to him in desperation for help. Her husband is missing, she’s been threatened, and she doesn’t know what is happening. It’s something to do with the new National Bank created by Alexander Hamilton.
Joan Maycott lives in upstate New York. Her story begins in 1781. She falls in love with a younger son of a neighboring family, Andrew Maycott, a man wounded during the Revolution. They try their hand at running a carpentry business in New York City, but the work is a constant struggle. The Maycotts are offered a way out – in return for the IOU the federal government owes Maycott as a veteran (the Revolution veterans were still waiting to paid several years after the war), a business agent offers land in western Pennsylvania.
The exchange turns out to be something less than fair – forested land instead of cropland and a rapacious villain holding title to the land until it’s fully paid off. And the villain wants more than financial payment – he offers favorable terms in return for bedding Joan Maycott. Her husband refuses, and with help from other settlers, they begin to carve out a life. And it turns out that Andrew Maycott figures out how to make incredibly good whiskey. All is going well, until Alexander Hamilton convinces Congress to pay for the national bank with a tax on whiskey.
The stories of Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott eventually converge. Saunders gradually discovers a plot to take over the bank, a plot being used to disguise the real plot – destroy the bank and wreck the economy of the young nation.
The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, originally published in 2008, is the story of Saunders, Maycott, and the early days of the National Bank, when there actually was a plot to take over the bank. It is a story peopled with fictional and real characters, and fictional and real events, vividly combined into an exciting and riveting tale. (The actual Whiskey Rebellion occurred two years after the events told in the story, and the country witnessed the spectacle of the federal government sending troops to subdue its own citizens.)
Saunders and Maycott will find themselves allies – or perhaps opponents – as the conspirators and government agents race to outwit each other. At that point, the story becomes an edge-of-the-0seat account.
What Liss does, and does effectively, is to use historical research to color, shade, and shape his story. The reader gains a sense not only of the history unfolding but also what it was like to live in Philadelphia and New York as well as on what was then the frontier (Pittsburgh).
Liss is the author of several bestselling historical novels, including A Conspiracy of Paper (2000), The Coffee Trader (2003), A Spectacle of Corruption (2004), The Ethical Assassin (2006), The Devil’s Company (2009), The Twelfth Enchantment (2012), and The Day of Atonement (2014). He’s also published several children’s books. He lives in San Antonio.
The Whiskey Rebels is an outstanding historical novel.
Illustration: The National Bank in Philadelphia in the 1790s.