How to Write History and Practice Bourbon Politics


Rock Island, IL

In a former treatise, O Theophilus, I adverted that history is bunk. Of course I was joking. Seriocity don’t suit me too good. The Porch is a very grave place—some would say the very grave itself—and sometimes a man can hardly stand the earnestness.

Which is why I rejoice to be in possession of a wonderful book by Gerald Carson titled The Social History of Bourbon (1963), reissued by the University Press of Kentucky in 2010 with a new forward by Michael Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage (2013), also from UPK. (It’s not as lively as Carson’s book, but it’s worth reading if you care about important things.)

You historians and you readers of history, listen.

The book opens with this splendid sentence:

“Long before recorded history, primitive man discovered that the molecular readjustment of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a watery solution of fruit pulp which had been allowed to stand, produced a beverage which made the world seem a wonderful place.”

Primitive man discovered no such thing, but the simple phrase “molecular readjustment” executes the joke in first-rate fashion. What primitive man did discover, of course, was booze, made explicit in this sentence by the magic of its absence.

Carson’s joke is a good one–it too makes the world seem a wonderful place–and the jokes keep coming. Almost very paragraph sets up a happy turn-of-phrase. I report from the early pages of The Social History of Bourbon:

“There is nothing in alcohol itself which is poisonous or injurious to man’s health, despite a large propagandistic literature to the contrary. Indeed, the blood stream of the average healthy human normally contains a small amount of it. William Jennings Bryan, the advocate of unfermented grape juice, John B. Gough, the great anti-whiskey orator, when he was sober, even hatchet-wielding Carry Nation—she, too, had .003 per cent of alcohol frisking through her arteries.”

“Frisking”! Give me the contemporary historian who will risk using that excellent word–and take a jab at the unpatriotic rabble-rouser Carrie Nation!

But let us listen again to Mr. Carson.

“The first settler to plant a peach orchard on the Broad River was Micajah McGehee, who set up a small country distillery and consumed most of his own product. But so hard was his head that it took him all day to get capsized. In a moment of religious excitement he joined the Methodists; so, of course, he was spoken to about his drinking. McGehee replied that his peach brandy was necessary to the preservation of health. But as a gesture of good faith he agreed to limit himself to a quart a day.”

Now that’s good comic timing. But then Carson extends the joke.

“The allowance proved to be too small, for Micajah lost his battle with the angel of death at the age of eighty.”

Those who consume a quart a day—I think of the morning half-ration allotted to Deneen, Polet, and Stegall—should all hope for so long life. (Even Pat Summerall of blasted memory made it to 82, albeit with a teenager’s liver the last dozen or so years.)

Carson continues with a sentence that would allow most of us to die happy had we merely drafted it: “Firm information on the applejack distilling industry of the state [of New Jersey] is fragmentary and difficult to come by, since local history was usually compiled by emeritus pastors to whom the moral stance on total abstinence was more compelling than the moral imperative to write objective history.”

This, O best beloved, is how you write objective history.

One Owley Lemon, reports Carson, drank a quart of applejack a day “without inconvenience.”

Elsewhere Carson says, “The arduous occupations of lumbering, coopering, shipbuilding, grubbing out the farms, fishing on the Grand Banks all called for strong drink to wash down the Indian corn and salt provisions. So did the rigors of the American climate. Rum, and later whiskey, offered an attractive form of central heating.”

I see several historians in the hall each day. Not a one of them is this interesting.

Of the Irish in Pennsylvania of the 1790s: “When the new federal government taxed their Monongahela [whiskey], the western counties exploded with oratory and the squirrel hunters began to oil their guns.”

There ought to be a comma before any coordinating conjunction that introduces a subject change, but that’s a sentence to make you get down on your knees and thank God for the mother tongue.

Carson’s account of the Whiskey Rebellion during those grim years of the late 18th century might make you long for the Articles of Confederation but it will also make you glad you learned to read. The resistance was staged by a bunch of brave proto-Porchers, which is to say a sturdy band of true Federalists whom we know as Anti-Federalists. Unlike the Fed, they had no interest in asking the things they loved most to do the dirty business of discharging the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War.

So Carson writes of Geo. Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who “proposed, to the astonishment of the country, that the United States should meet fully and promptly its financial obligations, including the assumption of the debts contracted by the states in the struggle for independence. The money was partly to be raised by laying an excise tax upon distilled spirits. The tax, which was universally detested in the West—‘odious’ was the word most commonly used to describe it—became law on March 3, 1791.”

And, later, in Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, Mike Veach would write: “About the same time that whiskey came into favor with distillers, taxes came into favor with legislators.”

(It’s a wonder the gummint hasn’t figured out a way to tax sex, which would get us back in the black by nine o’clock Monday morning.)

Whiskey makers, responding to the whiskey tax, regarded a distant government arrogating itself to tax collection as being “no less oppressive than the one seated in London, and often drew the parallel.”

David Bradford, prosecuting attorney for Washington County and avowed enemy of the so-called “Watermelon armies” assembled to suppress the whiskey rebellion, “was a rash, impetuous Marylander, ambitious for power and position. Some thought him a second-rate lawyer. Others disagreed. They said he was third-rate.”

Now that’s comic timing. One thinks of the old Woody Allen joke, also perfectly timed: “She used an oral contraceptive. She said ‘no.’”

After the rebellion was squashed, “the punitive army moved forward in glorious autumn weather, raiding chicken coops, consuming prodigious quantities of the commodity which lay at the heart of the controversy.”

You PhD candidates in history who are told by your thesis advisors not to use such words as “punitive” and “glorious,” point to Gerald Carson’s fine example and make creative use of your middle fingers. Then write with your ears and spleen, not with your feet.

And how’s this for delicacy? “Faded diaries, old letters and orderly books preserve something of the gala atmosphere of the expedition” surrounding that punitive army. “At Trenton a Miss Forman and a Miss Milnor were most amiable.”

If the rising was a failure, reports Carson, so was the liquor tax. The military adventure alone, without ordinary costs of collection, ran up a bill of $1,500,000, or about one third of all the money that was realized during the life of the revenue act.”

Whereupon that great agrarian decentralist, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, came to the rescue. “The excise was quietly repealed during Jefferson’s administration. Yet the watermelon armies and the Whiskey Boys made a not inconsiderable contribution to our constitutional history. Through them, the year 1794 completed what 1787 had begun; for it established the reality of a federal union whose law was not a suggestion but a command.”

But out on the frontier, says Carson, and amid all this, “Ministers of the gospel were paid in rye whiskey, for they were shepherds of a devout flock, Scotch Presbyterians mostly, who took their Bible straight, especially where it said: ‘Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.’”

I’ll bet these Prostiterians (as I once heard the word pronounced by a sturdy Christian woman of impressive credentials) took their scripture “neat” as well. No God-fearing man would take his whiskey on the rocks—nor his gospel neither.

Along the western rivers, where there was little currency to speak of, “a gallon of good, sound rye whiskey was a stable measure of value.”

O for a sound and stable economy! Gerald Carson, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo woo woo.

The Social History of Bourbon: there’s not only a lesson here for those who aspire to write history; there’s also an FPR-style moral—if only sobriety could divine it.

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