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Issue 55 - Rail splitter, emancipator, whiskey seller

Whisky Magazine Issue 55
April 2006


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Rail splitter, emancipator, whiskey seller

Charles Cowdery looks at how Abraham Lincoln's time in the whiskey trade could have cost him his political career

Bill Clinton's carefully constructed confession that he tried marijuana while a post-graduate student in England, but “didn't inhale,” dogged him throughout his presidency. So has George W. Bush's youthful reputation as a goof-off and party animal.

For Abraham Lincoln, America's 16th president and one of its most iconic, his youthful indiscretion was the brief period during which he sold whiskey in the frontier hamlet of New Salem, Illinois.

For several years early in his 20s, Lincoln was in the retail liquor business, first as a hired clerk, then as a store owner. The stores all failed and left him burdened with debt.

After that he took a government job, studied law and entered politics.

The rest is history with a capital “H.”

Lincoln, like many politicians, was a victim of changing times and attitudes. What he and the community in which he lived considered a respectable and useful occupation in the 1830s was made to appear scandalous just a few years later.

Political spin is nothing new. Lincoln's partisans in his day, as well as many later chroniclers, tried to downplay or obscure the fact that Lincoln sold whiskey, just as his enemies tried to spin the facts the other way.

Most accounts of Lincoln's early life describe his stores as ‘groceries,' a term that sounds innocent enough to us now, but which at the time was also a euphemism for a makeshift rural saloon.

The scene is not difficult to imagine. New Salem is tiny, a handful of log cabins on the edg...

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