Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln and liquor

There's lots of talk today--online as well as in the real world--about Abraham Lincoln. Given that today is the bicentennial of his birth (and that our current president seems almost unhealthily obsessed with Lincoln and his legacy), this makes sense.

One of the best pieces on Lincoln and his relationship to the current political scene that I've seen so far can be found here. Taking a figure out of one temporal context and putting them into another is always problematic (at least for historians). But because so many contemporary Americans remain convinced that Lincoln stands for something close to them (one reason he is always near the top of the list of the greatest presidents), it's a worthwhile exercise.

All this Lincoln-talk got me thinking. Where did Lincoln stand on the question of drinking rye?

Well, he had fast friends in the world of activists fighting for temperance. In mid-19th century America, the temperance movement greeted naysayers with passionate critiques of the dissolute activities resulting from drink. Many white, middle-class women found their voice in this movement. Rooted in Protestant visions of the world, the push to make America dry took on sacred overtones.

In rural, mostly Protestant, Illinois, the young Lincoln cocked his eye towards the political future--which meant taking a clear stand on alcohol and its consumption. As the son of a former seasonal distillery worker (on Knob Creek in bourbon-making Kentucky--yes, that Knob Creek) and a former tavern owner himself (in New Salem, IL), he possessed a complicated understanding of the issue.

Nonetheless, a famous 1842 speech in front of the Springfield, IL Washington Temperance Society (apparently, the organizers conveniently forgot that George Washington became one of the largest producers of rye whiskey in the last years of the eighteenth century) made it clear that Lincoln did not support the indulgent use of drink.

But neither did he damn those who drank. Instead, he noted that "they know they are not demons, nor even the worst of men. They know that generally, they are kind, generous, and charitable, even beyond the example of their more staid and sober neighbors. They are practical philanthropists; and they glow with a generous and brotherly zeal, that mere theorizers are incapable of feeling. Benevolence and charity possess their hearts entirely; and out of the abundance of their hearts, their tongues give utterance." Furthermore, in years past, alcohol was "a respectable article of manufacture and merchandise. The making of it was regarded as an honorable livelihood; and he who could make most, was the most enterprising and respectable."

Though he himself did not show much interest in liquor or cider, Lincoln did not show interest in a anti-alcohol law to blanket the land. Historian Lucas E. Morel, in a 1999 article in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, suggests:

"Albert Beveridge relates a telling exchange on the subject between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. At a reception hosting Douglas during the congressional campaigns of 1854, Lincoln declined a drink, whereupon Douglas exclaimed, "Why! are you a member of the Temperance Society?" Lincoln replied, "No! I am not a member of any Temperance Society ... but I am temperate in this, that I don't drink anything."

Clearly, Lincoln believed that instead of fiery denunciations, moderation, reason and patience would win out. So raise your glass high tonight to remember the teetotaler who chose not to drink--but refused to stand in the way of his fellow Americans and their whiskey-drenched patriotism.


DrDaRyL said...

As Lincoln was moderate in his (non) consumption of alcohol, so should we be moderate in our consumption of historic Lincoln for modern purposes. You're right, it's really gotten out of hand. For my money I'll take Charles Darwin (who shared birthdays with Lincoln) as more relevant today. Probably not a rye drinker, but I'm sure gin made him grin.

evdebs said...

There is a small irony that Lincoln was called on his temperate inclinations by a man named Beveridge, whichever way you spell it.

I have long opposed President’s Day as an abomination to patriotism. I am old enough to remember getting Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays off. Then when MLK Day became a national holiday, despite the best efforts of John McCain, our national leaders felt hard working Americans already had enough holidays and combined Lincoln’s and Washington’s days into a single, mindless celebration of executive authority that would have horrified Washington and surprised Lincoln. Celebrating, or even observing President’s Day is in contradiction of all that is sacred in American patriotism. It would cause one to honor Lincoln and FDR in the same way they would George W Bush or Richard Nixon. I will not raise a glass of rye tomorrow. I will not rest until President’s Day is abolished. I refuse to honor presidents unless they have earned it, and too few have.