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The attacks begin as a trickle, then intensify to include torture and mutilation. The anonymous assailants lack centralized leadership or an overarching plan, but the strikes are effective. The region is a powder keg, largely uninhabitable terrain rich with natural resources but home for a century to a strange blend of sloppy imperialism, sporadic tribal uprisings, and inept nationalism. The war is engineered by a dumbfoundingly ideological cabinet committed to “securing” narrowly defined national interests. A moderate secretary of state is marginalized, then forced to resign. The political opposition has no choice but to cheer. Even opposition papers support the war. Whatever William Hogeland’s intentions, his The Whiskey Rebellion, an exploration of the 1790s western Pennsylvania conflict that represented the first use of federal troops against U.S. citizens, is fraught with parallels to America’s current wars. The uprising, which set the “Forks of the Ohio [River]” region aflame literally and figuratively for three years, stemmed from an early American partisanship so intense that it makes today’s squabblers look like the Partridge Family. And it doesn’t hurt that Hogeland, a veteran feature journalist, infuses his debut with a uniquely contemporary agon. If the oppressively unfair whiskey tax inspired the violence in the Forks, it was also part of a “culture war” of sorts: Western debtors against their East Coast creditors, one side screaming, “tyrants,” the other, “squatters.” But the most engaging conflict in Whiskey is within its characters, not between them. Hogeland’s George Washington is torn between duty to the nascent country and a desire to build his land holdings into an empire. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the lawyer and politician who despises the tax but wants a strong, sovereign U.S. even more, almost loses his mind, then his life, because of that paradox. Herman Husband, a rich, batty Quaker and beloved radical, believes the conflict is the final battle between Christ’s army in the Forks and “Satan’s Horn” in the East yet urges nonviolence. But Hogeland’s Alexander Hamilton lacks any such humanizing doubts: He knows what he wants—wealth—and he gets it. He purposefully crafts, lobbies for, and enforces the whiskey tax—the first federal tax on a domestic product—claiming it will cover Revolutionary War debt and keep the nation together, not to mention enrich himself and his mercantile cronies. He correctly guesses that a strong, imposing national government and a steady cash flow from the West would propel the United States into an industrial era, making him a rich man along the way. Our current national consciousness seems at times obsessed with the “framers’ intent,” as if Hamilton & Co.’s ethics should have any bearing on how we interpret our own laws. Hogeland makes a good case that the framers intended, Hamilton especially, simply to keep their pockets full. Sometimes, however, Hogeland gets so far inside Brackenridge’s head that readers have no idea what it all means to the fledgling nation. Other times, months pass with no clue what Washington knows about the tensions. But the book treats his ambivalence about the conflict and that of his fellow moderates brilliantly. Hamilton’s minions and some Forks radicals aside, every major character rejects both sides’ all-or-nothing rhetoric, often at great personal peril. Brackenridge, for instance, dooms his Pennsylvania political career because he’s willing to compromise with Eastern conservatives. “Mr. Brackenridge had never claimed to be consistent,” Hogeland writes. “He wanted to learn and think.” The moderate voices spoke out not for ideals or even ideas but solely to minimize the damage. Still, the rebellion was ultimately resolved through brute force, not learning and thinking. That Americans are still here to read about it shows, at least, that we’ve survived periods of greed, idiocy, and extremism in leadership before.—Ian Martinez