Drink bothered the Founding Fathers. Not on a personal level, of course. John Adams drank a tankard of hard cider with his breakfast and George Washington went on many a bender. No, they saw boozing as a threat to the good functioning of democracy in the young Republic. Was this more elitist whining over the habits of the hoi polloi? Maybe not. W. J. Rorabaugh reports in his classic The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition:
As a shrewd Scot by the name of Peter Neilson pointed out, the nation’s citizens were “in a certain degree seasoned, and consequently it [was] by no means common to see an American very much intoxicated.” In other words, as a result of habitual heavy drinking Americans had developed a high degree of tolerance for alcohol. Even so, in the opinion of Isaac Chandler, Americans were “certainly not so sober as the French or Germans but perhaps,” he guessed, “about on the level with the Irish.”
Fine company indeed!
Americans of all stripes have risked prison, madness, the disapproval of clergy, and death itself with their intemperate ways. And why not? A great deal of the United States, whether the 1830 version or the current one, spends a significant part of the solar year freezing, and it’s not like those log cabins and sod houses came equipped with board games to pass the time. The University of Illinois Press recognizes the important role of spirits, beer, and yes hard cider in the history of our nation with intemperate tales that show how whiskey and ‘shine watered the soil of our great land.
The Bootlegger: A Story of Small-Town America, by John Hallwas
Kelly Wagle had a mysterious career that included suspected involvement with two unsolved murder cases and a profound and lasting impact on the coal community of Colcheseter, Illinois. Combining whodunit storytelling with historical reportage and analysis, John Hallwas follows Wagle and Colchester through a time when an earlier, vital time of frontier life gave way to technological change, decline, and the inebriated hedonism of the Jazz Age. Wagle enjoyed status as a local folk hero and generous civic patron until a rival hood shot him to death in front of his house. Over 1000 of the town’s 1300 residents showed up for the funeral, though he suffered a setback reputation-wise when it became fairly clear he murdered his second wife. A story so compelling it inspired a Kickstarter campaign to get it told on the silver screen, The Bootlegger is a much-acclaimed account of a bad man and an era.
Spirits of Just Men: Mountaineers, Liquor Bosses, and Lawmen in the Moonshine Capital of the World, by Charles D. Thompson Jr.
One of our more acclaimed history titles of recent years, Spirits of Just Men looks at the story of moonshine in America via the story of Franklin County, Virginia. Charles D. Thompson Jr. uses the Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935 to explore the far-reaching moonshine economy, the local characters and issues involved, and Blue Ridge Mountain culture, economy, and political engagement in the 1930s. Don’t believe our hype? Listen to Kirkus Reviews: “Thompson brings the area to life, offering a portrait of a place that the government forgot, a blue-collar town run amok with barefoot children and well-armed men. A meticulous, exhaustive history of moonshining, poverty, and Blue Ridge culture.”
Very Special Agents: The Inside Story of America’s Most Controversial Law Enforcement Agency: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, by James Moore, ATF (Ret.)
When James Moore joined the ATF in 1960, it was an arm of the Internal Revenue Service with one job: to catch the Mafia bootleggers whose Prohibition-style distilleries each cheated Uncle Sam of $20,000 a day in tax revenue. During his twenty-five years of service, Moore saw the ATF shift into the enforcement of gun laws, be reborn as a separate bureau, and take on bombings and arson cases that most agencies wrote off as unsolvable. Moore’s from-the-hip memoir chronicles battles with an American rogue’s gallery that ranged from the Hell’s Angels to the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, and includes Moore’s myth-shattering inside view of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.