Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lincoln, A Politician, Played Both Sides Of Alcohol Issue

Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago tomorrow, was an abolitionist and most abolitionists were prohibitionists too.

But Lincoln, who was also a masterful politician, had it both ways on alcohol. (Truth be told, he had it both ways on slavery too and was not, technically, an abolitionist.)

As a young man, Lincoln had been a licensed whiskey retailer, first as a hired clerk, then as a business owner, in the tiny frontier hamlet of New Salem, Illinois. The stores all failed and left him burdened with debt, so he found a government job, studied law, and got into politics.

Times and attitudes were changing, and what was considered a respectable and useful occupation in the 1830s was made to appear scandalous just a few years later, just as today selling whiskey is respectable but being an Illinois politician is not.

Lincoln’s roots in the whiskey trade were deep. His father had been a distillery hand in Kentucky and when Thomas Lincoln sold his farm there, part of the payment was in whiskey, a common occurrence. Before New Salem, Abe had worked as a flat boat hand, transporting whiskey to New Orleans for sale.

In Lincoln’s campaigns, both sides spun the facts. Lincoln partisans downplayed that he ever sold whiskey. Most accounts describe his stores as "groceries," a term that sounds innocent enough unless you know that, at the time, it was a common euphemism for a makeshift rural saloon.

Though embarrassing, these facts about Lincoln’s past did not gain much traction with voters. For one thing, Lincoln had made many friends in New Salem, in part from chatting people up in his ‘groceries.’ Even in his first, unsuccessful try at elective office he swept the local precinct.

Meanwhile, the forces that eventually brought nationwide Prohibition to America early in the 20th century were gathering steam. In 1842, Lincoln spoke to the local Temperance Society. In his address, he noted that the use of intoxicating drinks was "as old as the world itself," "used by every body, and repudiated by nobody," and "a respectable article of manufacture and of merchandize."

But he also praised the Temperance Society for its good and valuable work.

The gist of his message was love the sinner, hate the sin, and don’t blame the inanimate object.

After Lincoln’s heroic presidency, Kentucky’s whiskey makers were anxious to claim him as their own, even though he was only seven when his family left for Indiana. The Boone family, who had owned the distillery where Thomas Lincoln worked, reported that their forefathers had been so impressed by the lad 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 today. Distilleries operated there until 1972. Today’s Knob Creek Bourbon is made at a different distillery a few miles up the road.

You can visit the Lincoln family’s Knob Creek farm. Within living memory, the log building that is now the park’s visitor’s center was a roadhouse whose patrons included workers from the nearby distilleries. It was notorious in part because jazz was played there and it was racially integrated, which makes a certain kind of sense on ground where Lincoln once walked.

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