Given the behavior of our current cast of colorful presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail and their constantly morphing positions, no one could blame you for pining for the candor and character of a founding father—particularly Abraham Lincoln.
But while Honest Abe, whose 207th birthday was on Friday, had the moral conviction to abolish slavery and enter into a bloody civil war, the success of his own campaign hinged on his purposely vague stance on one key issue of the time: alcohol consumption.
Amazingly enough, his status as a drinker—or as a teetotaler—would help decide the 1860 election and, of course, shape the future of America.
At the time, alcohol was a very contentious issue and the temperance movement was gathering steam. Highly motivated and organized teetotalers were an effective voting block that was known to decide some local elections. (In that regard, the teetotalers of yore weren’t that different than the tea party members of today.)
But temperance was a tricky tightrope for Lincoln to walk since he was literally born into the liquor industry.
During his childhood in Kentucky, his father worked part time at a distillery that most likely made bourbon. “They lived along Knob Creek,” says James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “You know that name.”
Lincoln’s father’s profession wasn’t unusual. Farm work was seasonal and “people did a multitude of jobs,” says Cornelius. In fact, even Lincoln’s elementary school teacher was a part-time distiller. But the political ambitions of the future 16th president of the United States forced him to distance himself from his spirited past.
In the first of a series of legendary debates with the democrat Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s history of co-owning a grocery in Salem, Illinois, in the 1830s was mentioned by his opponent as a way to tie him to the alcohol trade. “I was a school teacher in the town of Winchester, and he a flourishing grocery-keeper in the town of Salem,” accused Douglas.
The audience would have understood that calling Lincoln “a flourishing grocery keeper,” meant that he essentially ran a popular bar. And at the time, these types of establishments were blamed for causing all kinds of disorderly conduct and encouraging a range of sinful behaviors.
Lincoln staunchly denied Douglas’ accusation and always claimed that people could purchase liquor at his store but not consume it there. During the debate he was, however, careful not to condemn those grocery store owners that did sell liquor by the glass: “The Judge is wofully [sic] at fault about his early friend Lincoln being a “grocery keeper.” I don’t know as it would be a great sin, if I had been, but he is mistaken. Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world.”
Similarly, in an 1842 speech to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society, he showed great sympathy and empathy for people suffering from alcoholism. That was quite a change given the movement’s “previous approach was one of shame and sin,” says Cornelius.
Despite Lincoln’s assurances that he never operated a grocery/bar, a document has surfaced which shows that Lincoln and his partner William Berry had the necessary paperwork to sell booze for immediate consumption. (If only Douglas had gotten his hands on it!)
It’s a particularly interesting exchange between the two debaters given that Lincoln wasn’t a heavy drinker and, according to Cornelius, Douglas not only drank heavily but also smoked. Clearly, for many voters being associated with the increasing chaos of the barroom was a major problem.
While there is a myth that Lincoln didn’t drink and swore not to, what he actually said was that he didn’t care for it, since it left him feeling “flabby and undone.” (Given the quality of whiskey available at the time, I don’t doubt it.)
Later, during his presidency, at White House celebrations or dinners he would take a small sip of wine or Champagne, “so he wouldn’t look like a stick in the mud,” says Cornelius.
Looking back it’s clear that it became increasingly difficult for Honest Abe to be, well, honest about the subject of alcohol. While almost a century earlier Washington was expected to buy voters rum on Election Day and later owned a distillery himself after leaving office, by the middle of the 19th century it was a liability for a politician to have public ties to the production and consumption of alcohol.
Lincoln was more than up to the challenge of navigating this potential minefield and was able to exercise his political dexterity by convincing the teetotalers that he supported their quest without alienating his core constituents of voters.
His strategic diplomacy helped paved the way for his election and allowed him to make the sweeping changes to American society that were close to his heart.
It is a feat that today’s presidential wannabes could certainly benefit from studying this holiday weekend.