Rail splitter, emancipator, whiskey seller

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

Production 14 Apr 2006 | Interviews | By Charles Cowdery

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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 edge of civilisation. It has one or two poor stores that sell a variety of necessities, of which whiskey is invariably one.Customers, male ones at least, use the store as a gathering spot. Some, while socialising, partake of whiskey they have just purchased.This was life in 1830s New Salem and many other towns. Whiskey was a necessity and one of the few commodities most people did not make for themselves, so they bought it. Consequently, just about any establishment that sold anything sold whiskey, the principal distinction between a grocery and a tavern, for example, being in what else they sold.Lincoln and William Berry, his business partner, are reported to have also sold lard, bacon, firearms, beeswax, and honey at their groceries. James Rutledge, who operated the local tavern, was primarily in the lodging business. A retail liquor license was issued to the Lincoln-Berry partnership. Lincoln, however, never signed it and there is some doubt it was ever used. The partnership’s enterprises quickly fizzled, Berry left town, then died, leaving Lincoln with nothing but debt.Much as in the cases of Clinton and Bush, when these facts came out during Lincoln’s political campaigns they were embarrassing but didn’t gain much traction with voters.Few minds were changed. For one thing, Lincoln had made many friends in New Salem, in part from chatting people up in his stores. Even in his first, unsuccessful try at elective office he swept the local precinct.After his businesses failed, Lincoln got himself a federal government paycheck as the local postmaster. He worked other jobs too, such as surveying, and began to pay off those debts. He studied law, got married, and began a legal practice in Springfield, the nearby state capital.Meanwhile, the forces that eventually brought nationwide Prohibition to America early in the 20th century were gathering strength. In 1842, Lincoln was invited to speak to the local Temperance society. In his address, he may have been thinking about his own background when he said:“I have not enquired at what period of time the use of intoxicating drinks commenced; nor is it important to know. It is sufficient that to all of us who now inhabit the world, the practice of drinking them, is just as old as the world itself,— that is, we have seen the one, just as long as we have seen the other. When all such of us, as have now reached the years of maturity, first opened our eyes upon the stage of existence, we found intoxicating liquor, recognized by every body, used by every body, and repudiated by nobody…” So too, it was every where a respectable article of manufacture and of merchandise… merchants bought and sold it, by wholesale and by retail, with precisely the same feelings, on the part of seller, buyer, and bystander, as are felt at the selling and buying of flour, beef, bacon, or any other of the real necessaries of life. Universal public opinion not only tolerated, but recognised and adopted its use.But Lincoln was an ambitious politician. The gist of his message was, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” He praised the good work of the good folks in his audience and advocated voluntary abstinence. He practiced it too, according to all accounts.So the inuendos about Lincoln’s ‘grocery-keeping’ never really hurt him, but it is good he didn’t live in our time.On the second day of the news cycle, it would be revealed that Lincoln, at least for part of his shop-keeping career, lived in the store’s back room. The next day it would come out that when he wasn’t sleeping at the store he was sleeping at Rutledge’s Tavern.Then it would be learned that Rutledge had a daughter about Lincoln’s age, a beautiful girl, and they were ‘close friends.’ The next bombshell would be that at a very young age Lincoln had been employed in transporting barrels of whiskey downriver for sale in New Orleans.Then just as the story seemed to fade, this blockbuster: “Lincoln’s Pop Made Hooch, Even Traded Family Farm for Whiskey!” What politician could live that down?In reality, the elder Lincoln was a struggling farmer who did odd jobs at a nearby distillery when the family lived in Kentucky during Abe’s childhood. Thomas Lincoln was not a distiller, nor was he a drunkard who squandered away the family homestead. Whiskey was used as currency on the American frontier and was part of the farm’s sale price. Probably Lincoln swiftly bartered it away for the other goods his family needed for their move to Indiana. In those days, whiskey was sometimes too valuable to drink.But that wouldn’t matter to the talking heads on television. The word ‘cover-up’ would be used.But none of that happened to Lincoln. Instead he became president, saved the Union, freed the slaves, was assassinated, and entered the national mythology as one of America’s greatest statesmen.After that, everything he had touched was cool. In Kentucky the Boone family, who had owned the distillery where Thomas Lincoln worked, reported that their forefathers had been so impressed by the lad (he was all of seven when the family split) that they declared, “that boy is bound to make a great man no matter what trade he follows and if he goes into the whiskey business, he will be the best distiller in the land.” The Lincoln farm and Boone distillery were both located on Knob Creek. The place is called Athertonville on maps today Distilleries operated there until 1972. Today’s Knob Creek Bourbon is made at a different distillery a few miles up the road.Lincoln died in 1865. During the next 50 years, the Temperance movement he supported would morph into the Prohibition movement that eventually shut down America’s distilleries for 13 years.Today you can visit the Lincoln family’s Knob Creek farm. The visitor centre is an old roadhouse whose patrons once included workers from the nearby distillery. You can visit the Lincoln-Berry stores too, the whole town of New Salem is a state park.To toast Lincoln with some good American whiskey, you’ll have to go to Springfield, about 25 miles southeast of New Salem, where Lincoln lived until he became president. The new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is located there, and as the seat of state government, it has plenty of bars.
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