Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Abraham Lincoln: President, Lawyer...and Bartender?

Although being a lawyer has been the traditional route for those striving to be President of the United States, history has proven that there is no single career path to the White House. Past jobs held by successful candidates have included a professor (Woodrow Wilson), a mining engineer (Herbert Hoover) and a Hollywood actor (Ronald Reagan). One of our previous presidents was even a bartender. His name? Abraham Lincoln. Yes, you read that correctly.


It all began in 1832. Lincoln, who had just come home after serving in the Black Hawk War, decided to run for the election to the Illinois state legislator. Unfortunately, he lost. After that, things didn’t look too good for the 23-year-old Kentucky native. A dedicated reader, he aspired to be a lawyer, but lacked the education to pass the bar. He was not one for physical labor either; his stepbrother commenting ‘I doubt whether since I saw you, you have done a good whole day’s work in any one day’. After briefly toying with the idea of becoming a blacksmith, Lincoln opted instead to enter a more business-oriented career. In the small village of New Salem, he entered a partnership with 21-year-old William Berry and bought a general store there on credit. They sold everything from calico fabrics to whiskey, the latter legal to sell without a license as long as customers didn't drink on the premises. Therefore, Berry and Lincoln could not be considered a fully-fledged tavern.


It didn't stay that way for long. The following year, in 1833, the venture became a tavern as well. Berry took out a license for Lincoln and himself; permitting them to sell spirits, including liquor at 12 cents a pint.


At the time, especially in the frontier, there was little stigma attached to the sale or consumption of alcohol. It was engrained in daily life; so much so that when a schoolmaster in New Salem attempted to join the temperance movement (anti-alcohol), the local church trustees suspended him. After the same trustees suspended a second man on the grounds of alcoholism, another member took out a bottle of whiskey, asking ‘How much of this does a man have to drink in order to remain in full fellowship of this church?’


With such a demand, one would think that Berry and Lincoln could have been a successful venture.Unfortunately, the cards seemed to be stacked against it from the beginning. There were other, larger businesses in the vicinity that they could not compete against, even after acquiring other stores. New Salem itself was experiencing a rapid decrease in its population, leading it to eventually being abandoned in 1840. Even after getting a license, business at Berry and Lincoln was never stellar.


The two men’s personalities didn’t help either. Lincoln was simply not shrewd enough and personally abstained from drinking. Berry on the other hand was an alcoholic. Many times Lincoln attempted to fill customer’s jugs with whisky, only to find that Berry had gotten to it first. Due to the fact that his partner was incapacitated most of the time, Lincoln had to frequently run the store himself. Furthermore, since Lincoln worked several odd-jobs to earn an extra income, Berry and Lincoln began to spend more time closed than open. Eventually, in 1834, he ran for the election to state legislature again and this time, won. He then turned to self-education in law and was admitted to the bar three years later. With a political career to foster, he left the bartending business for good. Berry and Lincoln was now officially doomed.


The following year, in 1835, Berry died after a period of ill health. His legacy was an estate worth only $60 (half of it going to doctor’s fees), and a $1,100 business debt; which Lincoln inherited. Dubbing it ‘the National Debt’, Lincoln only managed to pay it off once he entered Congress in 1847.


Unfortunately, the debt was not the only thing that followed him after his stint as a bartender. When Lincoln ran for president in 1860, the temperance movement had gained significant support as Americans called for stricter guidelines on alcohol consumption. The Republican Party, of which Lincoln was a member, endorsed this view as well. To top it off, his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglass publicly accused Lincoln of operating a ‘grocery’, the frontier euphemism for tavern. Lincoln consistently denied the accusation, as it had been Berry who had applied and signed for the license, not him.


In spite of the odds, Lincolns still managed to win both the election and his place in the history books. Out of several polls conducted over the years, he has consistently scored as one of the top three Presidents of the United States; proving that it is in fact possible for a bartender to become a good president.

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