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A Novel

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On Sale: September 30, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-730-3
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America, 1787. Ethan Saunders, once among General Washington’s most valued spies, is living in disgrace after an accusation of treason cost him his reputation. But an opportunity for redemption comes calling when Saunders’s old enemy, Alexander Hamilton, draws him into a struggle with bitter rival Thomas Jefferson over the creation of the Bank of the United States.

Meanwhile, on the western Pennsylvania frontier, Joan Maycott and her husband, a Revolutionary War veteran, hope for a better life and a chance for prosperity. But the Maycotts’ success on an isolated frontier attracts the brutal attention of men who threaten to destroy them.

As their causes intertwine, Joan and Saunders–both patriots in their own way–find themselves on opposing sides of a plot that could tear apart a fragile new nation.


Chapter One

Ethan Saunders

It was rainy and cold outside, miserable weather, and though I had not left my boardinghouse determined to die, things were now different. After consuming far more than my share of that frontier delicacy Monongahela rye, a calm resolution had come over me. A very angry man named Nathan Dorland was looking for me, asking for me at every inn, chophouse, and tavern in the city and making no secret of his intention to murder me. Perhaps he would find me tonight and, if not, tomorrow or the next day. Not any later than that. It was inevitable only because I was determined not to fight against the tide of popular

opinion—which is to say, that I ought to be killed. It was my decision to submit, and I have long believed in keeping true to a plan once it has been cast in earnest.

It is a principle I cultivated during the war—indeed, one I learned from observing General Washington himself. This was in the early days of the Revolution, when His Excellency still believed he might defeat the British in pitched battle, Continental style, with our ill- disciplined and badly equipped militias set against the might of British regulars. It was the decisive military victory he wanted; indeed, in those early days it was the only sort he believed worth having. He would invite the officers to dine with him, and we would drink claret and eat roast chicken and sip our turtle soup and he would tell us how we were going to drive the Redcoats back at Brooklyn, and the unfortunate affair would be over before winter.

That was during the war. Now it was early in 1792, and I sat at the bar of the Lion and Bell in that part of Philadelphia euphemistically called Helltown. In that unsavory scene, I drank my whiskey with hot water while I waited for death to find me. I kept my back to the door, having no wish to see my enemy coming and because the Lion and Bell was as unlovely a place as Helltown offered—and those were mighty unlovely. The air was thick with smoke from pipes plugged full of cheap tobacco, and the floor, naught but dirt, had turned to mud with the icy rain outside and the spills and spitting and tobacco juice. The benches lay lopsided in the newly made hummocks and ruts of the ground, and the drunken patrons would, from time to time, topple over and tumble like felled timber into the muck. Perhaps a drinker might take the trouble to roll a friend over to keep him from drowning, though there could be no certainty. Helltown friends were none the best.

It was a curious mix there: the poor, the whores, the desperate, the servants run off for the night or the month or forever. And alongside them, throwing dice upon uneven surfaces or hunched over a hand of cards spread across ripped velvet, were the gentlemen in their fine woolen suits and white stockings and shimmering silver buckles. They’d come to gawk and to rub elbows with the colorful filth, and most of all they’d come to game. It was the spirit of the city, now that Alexander Hamilton, that astonishing buffoon, had launched his great project, the Bank of the United States. As Secretary of the Treasury, he had single-handedly transformed the country from a republican beacon for mankind into a paradise for speculators. Ten years earlier, with a single stroke, he had transformed me from patriot to outcast.

I removed from my pocket a watch, currently my only possession of value if one did not account my slave, Leonidas. I had, despite the decisions that had prevailed among the wise drafters of our Constitution, never quite learned to think of Leonidas as property. He was a man, and as good a man as any I’d known. It sat ill with me to keep a slave, particularly in a city like Philadelphia, whose small population of owned blacks numbered in the dozens, and one could find fifty free blacks for each bondsman. I could never sell Leonidas, no matter how dire my need, because I did not think it right to buy and sell men. On the other hand, though it was no fault of his, Leonidas would fetch at auction as much as fifty or sixty pounds’ worth of dollars, and it had always seemed to me madness to emancipate such a sum.

So the timepiece, in practical terms, was currently my only thing of worth—a sad fact, given that I had removed it from its rightful owner only a few hours earlier. Its glittering face told me it was now half past eight. Dorland would have eaten his fashionably late dinner well over two hours ago, giving him ample time to collect his friends and come in search of me. It could be any minute now.

I slid back into my pocket the timepiece I’d taken on Chestnut Street. The owner had been a fat jackanapes, a self-important merchant. He’d been talking to another fat jackanapes and had paid no mind while I brushed past him. I’d not planned to take the watch, nor did I make a habit of such things as common theft, but it had been so tempting, and there seemed to be no reason not to claim it and then disappear in that crowded street, clacking with the walking sticks of bankers and brokers and merchants. I saw the watch, saw it might be taken, and saw how I might take it.

Even then, if that had been all, I would have let it go, but then I heard the man speak. It was his words, not my need, that drove me to take what was not mine. This man, this lump of a man, who resembled a great and corpulent bottom-heavy bear, forced into a crushed-velvet blue suit, had been invited to a gathering the next week at the house of Mr. William Bingham. That was all I knew of him, that he, a mere maker of money, nothing more than a glorified storekeeper, had been invited to partake of the finest society in Philadelphia—indeed, in the nation. I, who had sacrificed all for the Revolution, a man who had risked life in return for less than nothing, was little more than a beggar. So I took his watch, and I defy anyone to blame me.

Now that it was mine, I examined the painting in the inside cover, a young lady of not twenty, plump of face, like the watch’s owner, with a bundle of yellow hair and eyes far apart and open wide, as though she’d been in perpetual astonishment while she sat for the portrait. A daughter? A wife? It hardly mattered. I had taken from a stranger a thing he loved, and now Nathan Dorland was coming to avenge such wrongs, too innumerable to catalogue.

“Handsome timepiece,” said Owen, standing behind the bar. He was a tall man with a head long and narrow, shaped like one of the pewter mugs into which he poured his ales, with wheat-colored hair that curled up like foam. “Timepiece like that might go a way toward paying a debt.” He held out one of his meaty hands, covered with oil and filth and blood from a fresh cut on his palm to which he paid no mind.

I shrugged. “With all my heart, but you must know the watch is newly thieved.”

He withdrew the hand and wiped it on his filthy apron. “Don’t need the trouble, but I ought to send you to fence it now, before you lose it at game.”

“Should I turn the watch to ready, I would not use it for something so ephemeral as a tavern debt.” I pushed my empty mug toward him. “Another, if you please, my good man.”

Owen stared for a moment, his tankard of a face collapsed in purse- lipped indecision. He was a young man, not two-and-twenty, and he had a profound, nearly religious reverence for those who had fought in the war. Living, as he did, in such a place as Helltown, and moving through indifferent social circles, he had never heard how my military career had met its conclusion, and I saw no advantage in sharing information that would lead to his disillusionment.

Instead, I favored other details. Owen’s father died in the fighting at Brooklyn Heights, and more than once had I treated Owen to the tale of how I had met his father that bloody day, when I was captain of a New York regiment, before my true skills were discovered and I was no longer to be found upon the battlefield. That day I led men, and when I told Owen the tale, my voice grew thick with cannon fire and death screams and the wet crunch of British bayonet against patriot flesh. I would recount how I had given Owen’s honored father powder during the chaos of the ignominious retreat. With blood and limbs and musket balls flying about us, the air acrid with smoke, the British slaughtering us with imperial fury, I had taken the time to aid a militia volunteer, for we had shared a moment of revolutionary comradeship that defied our differences in rank and station. The tale kept the drinks flowing.

Owen took my mug, poured in some whiskey from an unstoppered bottle and hot water from a pitcher near the stove. He set it down before me with a considerable thud.

“Some would say you’ve had your fill,” he told me.

“Some would,” I agreed.

“Some would say you’re abusing my generosity.”

“Impertinent bastards.”

Owen turned away and I opened the watch once more, setting it upon the counter, where I might stare at the tick of its hands and the girl who had meant so much to the merchant. To my right sat an animated skeleton of a man in a ragged coat that covered remarkably unclean linen. His face was unshaved, and his nasty eyes, lodged between the thinning brown hair of his crown and the thickening brown hair of his cheeks, stole glances at my prize. I’d seen him come in an hour earlier and slide a few coins across the bar to Owen, who had, in exchange, handed a small parchment sack to the ragged man. Owen did a brisk trade in that greenish powder called Spanish fly, though this man, his magic dust in hand, seemed content to sit at the bar and cast glances at me and my timepiece.

“I say, fellow, you are looking upon my watch.”

He shook his head. “Wasn’t.”

“Why, I saw it, fellow. I saw you setting larcenous eyes upon my watch. This very one.”

“Ain’t,” he said, looking closely at his drink.

“Don’t you speechify at me, fellow. You were coveting my timepiece.” I held it up by the chain. “Take it if you have the courage. Take it from my hands while I observe you rather than skulking in the dark like a sneak thief.”

He continued to gaze inside his pewter mug as though it were a seeing crystal and he a wizard. Owen whispered a word or two to him, and the skinny gawker moved farther down the bar, leaving me alone. It was what I liked best.

The hands of the watch moved. It was strange how a man could find himself in so morose a state. Only a few days before I had considered Dorland’s pursuit of revenge as a vague amusement. Now I was content to let him kill me. What had changed? I could point to so many things, so many disappointments and failures and struggles, but I knew better. It was that morning, coming from my rooms and seeing the back of a woman half a block ahead of me, walking quickly away. From a great distance, through the tangle of pedestrians, I had seen a honey-brown coat and, above it, a mass of golden-blond hair upon which sat a prim if impractical wide-brimmed hat. For a moment, from nothing more than the color of her hair, from the way her coat hung upon her frame, from the way her feet struck the stones, I had convinced myself that it was Cynthia. I believed, if only for an instant, that after so many years and married though she was to a man of great consequence, Cynthia Pearson knew I now lived in Philadelphia, knew where I lived, and had come to see me. Perhaps, at the last moment, recognizing the impropriety, she lost her courage and scurried away, but she had wanted to see me. She still longed for me the way I longed for her.

It lasted but an instant, this utter, unassailable conviction that it was Cynthia, and then disappointment and humiliation struck me just as hard and just as quickly. Of course it had not been she. Of course Cynthia Pearson had not come to knock upon my door. The idea was absurd, and that I should, after ten years, be so quick to believe otherwise testified to how empty was my sad existence.

When Owen returned, I closed the watch and put it away, and then I drained my drink. “Be so good as to pour another.”

Owen hovered before me, shaking his head, his mug handle of a nose blurring in the light of the oil lamps. “You can hardly keep yourself sitting. Go home, Captain Saunders.”

“Another. I am to die tonight, and I wish to do it good and drunk.”

“I daresay he is already quite drunk,” said a voice from behind me, “but give him another if he likes.”

It was Nathan Dorland. I needn’t look, for I knew the voice.

Owen’s eyes narrowed with contempt, for Dorland was not an imposing figure. Not tall, not broad, not confident or commanding “Unless you’re a friend of Captain Saunders, and from the look of you, I’m guessing you ain’t, I’d say this is none of your concern.”

“It’s my concern, because when this wretch is done with his drink, I mean to take him outside and introduce him to a concept called justice, with which he has been all too unfamiliar.”

“And yet,” I said, “I am familiar with injustice. Such irony.”

“I don’t know your complaint,” said Owen, “and I know the captain well enough to trust you’ve got your cause. Even so, you’ll not harm him. Not here. If you’ve a grievance with him, you must challenge him to a duel, like a gentleman.”

“I have done so, and he has refused my challenge,” Dorland said, sounding very much like a whining child.

“Duels are fought so early in the morning,” I said to Owen. “It’s barbarous.”

Owen looked over at Dorland. “You’ve heard it. He has no interest in fighting you, and you must respect that. This man is a hero of the Revolution, and I owe him a debt for my father’s sake. I’ll defend his right to fight or not fight whom he wishes.”
David Liss|Author Q&A

About David Liss

David Liss - The Whiskey Rebels

Photo © Trishi Monite

David Liss is the author of The Whiskey Rebels ,The Ethical Assassin, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader,and A Conspiracy of Paper. He is also winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with David Liss

David Anthony Durham: This is your first historical novel to be set in the United States. Was it a difficult transition to make from Europe? 

David Liss:
It was difficult in a number of ways for a number of reasons. My other books have been set in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and this one was set in the late eighteenth century. Historians mark the dividing line between the early modern period and the modern period as 1750. Although it’s a fairly arbitrary line, I do feel that people are much more modern at the end of the eighteenth century than they were at the beginning. Then of course there is the issue of writing about people and events with which many readers will already be familiar. And certainly American culture is very different from even English culture. So, yes, there was an enormous amount of research to do and an awful lot I had to learn. 

DAD: Some of your previous books were populated with with lesserknown figures from history, such as Jonathan Wild in A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption, but in The Whiskey Rebels you have a large cast of canonical figures, including Hamilton and Washington. What was that like? 

I tend not to like to write novels that are overpowered by names, places, and events with which a reasonably knowledgeable reader is likely already familiar. I’ve always been interested in trying to get inside a time and understand and express what it would have been like to be alive during a significant or transformative historical moment. I’m less interested in recasting the historical record in fictional form. I have nothing against that sort of historical fiction, and there are many fine examples of it, but I just don’t like to write it. In my other books, I’ve written about moments in time that are largely populated by figures with whom most modern readers will be unfamiliar. With this book, it would have been disingenuous to write out figures like Hamilton, Burr, Washington, and William Duer. If you were involved in the world of finance in New York or Philadelphia in the early 1790s, you would come across these people. The early American republic was a small world by today’s standards. 

As for what it was like, I have to say I prefer to write about purely fictional figures or at least very minor historical figures. It always felt to me disrespectful in some way to write about people such as Hamilton, to manipulate them as though they were completely made up. Also, I like having the freedom to take a story or character in any direction I want it or him to go. If I suddenly decide that the best way to make the story work would be for Hamilton to shave his head and grow a beard, I don’t have the freedom to make him do that. 

DAD: Can you say more about recreating a historical moment, and how you accomplished this in The Whiskey Rebels? 

When I think about the function of the historical novel, I tend to think about what it can do that history cannot. I think if you want simply to learn about the root causes of the Whiskey Rebellion or the Panic of 1792, there are numerous excellent works of history that you can reference that can provide all the important information you need. On the other hand, fiction can attempt to recreate the human experience of these events, the emotional context and specific subjectivity of living through such pivotal moments. It is all guesswork, of course. We can never really know how people in the past experienced their lives, but it is great fun, and interesting to try. 

DAD: Your books generally have a crime or thriller or mystery aspect to them. Is that an integral part of the storytelling process for you? 

I think it is an integral part of the storytelling process for all traditional, narrative- driven fiction. I don’t like to think of myself as being limited to one particular genre, but I do employ many elements from mysteries and thrillers. I think those elements have been around as long as the novel has been around. When you think of the great early examples of the novel, you will find there is mystery and suspense in them, even if these are not what you would think of as mystery or suspense novels. Tom Jones is driven by the central mystery of the identity of Tom’s mother. Pride and Prejudice is driven by the suspense of who Elizabeth will marry. Narrative plots thrive on mystery, tension, and uncertainty. In my case, I often write about financial history, and so I tend to use these techniques because people are trained to believe they find finance dull, and I need to show in bold strokes what is at stake for the characters and their world if things go wrong for them. 

DAD: What is it about financial history that so appeals to you? 

I wrote about finance in my first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, because the transformation of the British economy in the early eighteenth century was a large part of my graduate school work at the time. I had no idea that I would keep writing about finance in other times and places. I think what I like about it is that how major financial endeavors are managed and mismanaged tells us so much about the times. The Panic of 1792, for example, is entirely different from the South Sea Bubble. The early United States was, despite covering a lot of space, a small world economically. It made it easy for a small group of bad actors to wield undue influence in the market. I am drawn to showing how in each unique time and place people tend to make the same sort of overreaching errors, though the nature of those errors and how they play out are always very different. 

DAD: Is it a coincidence that your novel about a major American financial panic was published during a major American financial panic? 

No coincidence. I crashed the economy in the hopes it would help me sell books. Does that make me greedy or simply aggressive? I just don’t know.

DAD: Your novel suggests that the events you write about had the power to destroy the early United States. Is that an exaggeration? 

I don’t think so. We tend to see the history of this country in progressive terms. There was the triumph of the Revolution, the triumph of the Constitution, the slight hiccup of the Civil War, but that was good because it ended slavery, and now here we are. The truth is so much more complicated and treacherous. One of the things that really drew me to write about the early republic was the tentative, fragile, and paranoid feelings of the time. Many people genuinely believed the country could never survive after Washington died or stepped down. Others were already horribly disillusioned with the Constitution, which they thought was oppressive and established a new kind of federal tyranny to replace the one they’d defeated in the Revolution. There was talk in New England about succeeding over slavery, and the South was, of course, twitchy whenever the issue of slavery was raised. The Westerners, whom I write about in this book, experienced firsthand the consequences of the centralization of government. The ideology of the Revolution was that the people have the right to direct access to those who govern them, but they were finding the government in Philadelphia no more responsive than the government had been in London. The right blow in the right place could have ended everything. 

DAD: Joan Maycott suggests at one point that it would be better to destroy the early American republic than let it continue in a flawed state: “Is that [destruction] not preferable to permitting something rotten and insidious to dress itself up as glorious and just? If we do nothing, if we take our little share of wealth and turn our backs now, in future generations, when rank corruption masquerades as liberty, it will be upon our shoulders. True patriots will then ask why we who were there to witness this nation at the crossroads did nothing.” This is strong stuff, and she is a sympathetic character. You wrote those words, but do you agree with them? 

There are so many things I find brilliant and inspiring about the founders and the Enlightenment ideals they managed to crystallize into a working government. I continually marvel at the intelligence and flexibility built into the Constitution. On the other hand, all these things in all their greatness has tended to produce a kind of reflexive posture of rectitude in American culture. America is a shining beacon of freedom, and therefore if America does it, it must be good. Of course, no country is right all the time, and this one, like all others, makes mistakes. The principles upon which it was founded can’t be used as a shield to ward off selfreflection. I think Joan’s anger is just and her desire to strike back reasonable, but I don’t think she was right. It is hard not to wish that the founders would have had the courage to push back against slavery, or would have been more modern on issues of gender equity, but that is simply not the world they lived in. I think it much more healthy to see our country as a work in progress rather than as something that was cast in stone at the beginning. That is, after all, how the Constitution was designed. 

DAD: Why did you choose to write the novel from two first-person perspectives? Was it hard for you to write from the perspective of a woman? 

For me, the hardest thing about getting a new novel under way is figuring out the right voice for the book. I played around with a lot of ways to tell this story before deciding on the two first-person voices. It was the one that felt most comfortable. 

As far as writing a woman goes, I don’t think I would have the courage to write a story from the perspective of a contemporary woman, but I took shelter in the murkiness of the past. I did lots of reading on what life was like for women at the time. I read as many journals and letters as I could to get a feel for a woman’s perspective on early American politics and on life in the western frontier. I don’t know if I got it right, but it is an honest effort, and once I did the background work, those chapters were comfortable for me to write. 

DAD: Ethan Saunders, like many of your characters, has a number of unlikable qualities. Why do you often write about flawed protagonists? 

I find flawed characters so much more interesting than squarejawed superhero types who always know the right thing to do and then do it without hesitation. I’m not entirely sure why, but I knew almost from the beginning that I wanted his story to be one of redemption, and for that to be possible, Ethan needed to be in a bad state at the beginning of the story. It is also fun to write about a character who is a drunk, womanizing, self- aggrandizing social misfit. I know in my own reading that it is often much easier to identify with and root for a flawed character so long as there is some basic human element to sympathize with and latch on to. 

DAD: We began by asking you about the shift to an American setting. Do you plan to return to this period or these characters?

 DL: I would say that it is a possibility but not a certainty. I feel that if I were to bring some of these characters back, I know exactly the story I’d like to bring them back into, and I think it would be something I’d very much enjoy writing. On the other hand, this book took me longer to write than anything I’ve ever done, and I’ll need some time off before I even consider such an undertaking again. 



“A gripping, visceral adventure of revenge, ambition, and romance filled with surprising twists and insights.”—Matthew Pearl, author of The Last Dickens

“A breathtaking, breakneck tale told from the interwoven viewpoints of a top Revolutionary spy and a brilliant and cunning woman who becomes both his ally and his nemesis.”—Katherine Neville, author of The Fire and The Eight

“What a wonderful book! An absorbing and entertaining novel of the American Revolution.”—Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Andrew Maycott believes “The American novel, if it is to be honest, must be about money, not property. Money alone– base, unremarkable, corrupting money” (page 30). Do you agree? By his definition, is The Whiskey Rebels an American novel? Why or why not?

 2. Captain Ethan Saunders implores us, “Look beneath and you may find several things that surprise you” (page 63). If we take Ethan’s advice and look beneath or past his scheming, his impropriety, and his status as a “ruin of a man,” what do we find? How and why are honor and reputation intertwined? 

3. Through her reading, Joan Maycott discovers: “When my empathy for a character led me to weep or laugh or fear for her safety, I spent hours determining by what means the novelist had effected this magic. When I cared nothing for suffering and loss, I dissected the want of craft that engendered such apathy” (page 23). How does David Liss engender empathy or apathy for his characters? Did you sometimes feel both empathy and apathy for the same character? 

4. En route to the Pennsylvania frontier, Phineas tells Joan “The West changes you. . . . I’m what the West made me, and you’ll be what it makes you” (page 84). Is this true? If so, how does the frontier change Joan? Phineas? What does this say about free will and choice in relation to place and circumstance? 

5. Examine the characterizations and the roles of women in The Whiskey Rebels. What similarities do you find? What differences? Are they victims? 

6. Mr. Brackenridge defines himself as a patriot– one who “does not make the principles of his country conform to his own ideas” (page 188). How else is patriotism defined or demonstrated in this book? How would you define patriotism? Who else in The Whiskey Rebels is then a patriot? 

7. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, William Duer, and Joan Maycott have varied theories on the American economy, the Bank of the United States, and the excise tax. For instance, the Bank is either a great boon for the nation, a terrible disaster for the nation, or an opportunity to be exploited. Talk about their differing perspectives in relation to the events of The Whiskey Rebels. Who do you think is right? Do these debates continue today? 

8. Discuss the principle of justice and its relation to revenge, integrity, inequality, and the law in The Whiskey Rebels. How does Joan Maycott justify her revenge against Alexander Hamilton? 

9. Why does Captain Saunders not allow his slave, Leonidas, to purchase his freedom and later “simply neglect[s] to inform” him that he is a free man? What does liberty mean to Captain Saunders? Joan Maycott? Leonidas? Cynthia Pearson? The newly formed United States? 

10. Lavien believes “It is only in the eyes of one another that inequality lies” (page 94). Who else, besides Lavien, serves as a moral arbiter in the novel? What examples of presumed superiority and/or civility can be found in The Whiskey Rebels? What examples can you find of an impossible tension between greed and civility, wealth and humanity? 

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