From the earliest settlers to Prohibition and even today, Americans have a love-hate relationship with liquor, according to Clay Risen’s article in The Atlantic, “How America Learned to Love Whiskey“. Throughout our history, national attitudes towards liquor have swung from one side of the spectrum to the other. Even more fascinating is just how much influence liquor has had on American politics, and how the national attitude toward drinking reflected current events and economic conditions.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a critical moment in the life of the new republic. President Washington’s use of the military to force payment of the tax demonstrated that the fledgling federal government had real power—and was willing to use it.
But to Hamilton, who conceived it, the tax was about more than raising cash or asserting the central government’s authority. It was also a way to reduce alcohol production and consumption. Hamilton wrote in Federalist 12 that a tax on whiskey “should tend to diminish the consumption of it,” and that “such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society. There is, perhaps, nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits.” Washington agreed: Drinking, he said, was “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country”—even though, as the owner of one of America’s largest distilleries, he contributed his share to that ruin.
Not everyone fell in line, though. Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvania politician who would later become one of Hamilton’s successors as Treasury secretary, called the levy a hypocritical attempt by elites to “tax the common drink of the nation,” even as they continued to enjoy their imported fine wines and brandies. Georgians launched a petition to exempt peach brandy as “necessary of life … in this warm climate.” And Thomas Jefferson, who was known to enjoy a drink, led a successful effort to repeal the tax shortly after he was sworn in as president.
Sit down with a couple fingers of bourbon whiskey and grab a quick history lesson by reading the article here.