Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Presidents and Beer: The Best and The Worst
I penned the cover story for the current issue of All About Beer about U.S. Presidents and the impact they have on brewing, beer and beer drinkers. Americans appear to be going to the polls in record numbers today to decide the next Commander in Chief. If you've not yet voted, please get out and cast your vote.
The U.S. Presidency carries with it an awesome amount of power and responsibility. That’s the case whether you are talking about nuclear arms or beer. Public policy shapes everything from the price to the availability of the beer we enjoy. Whether it is a new tax on beer or farm subsidies, politics has an impact on the brewing industry. Sometimes the changes are subtle and in other cases, such as Prohibition, the impact can dramatic.
When it comes to the Presidency, decisions made on policies have a national impact. They can boons or busts for beer drinkers. It is hard to say in the current race who would be better for beer drinkers. John McCain's wife owns a chunk of a Arizona beer distributorship. Barack Obama made it a point to campaign at a Pennsylvania brewpub. Whoever wins faces a huge budget deficit and will likely need to find new revenue. This has caused beer taxes to rise in the past.
One of the bellweather questions for American voters has traditionally been, "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" History clearly shows a few that stand above the rest.
Good Beer Presidents
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. A key plank of his campaign was repeal of Prohibition. Roosevelt sensed the mood of the country, which had shifted away from temperance and could no longer suffer silently through the loss of jobs and tax revenue. FDR pushed Congress to repeal the Volstead Act. On March 22, 1993, Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, which allowed the federal government to collect taxes on alcohol, while giving states the right to regulate the sale of the beer, wine and spirits.
James Earl Carter Jr. served just a single term as president, but in 1978 he signed a bill that launched the largest home brewing movement since the days of Prohibition. The law signed by Carter exempted homebrewed beer produced for personal and family consumption from excise taxes. The law still allowed states to prohibit citizens from making beer, wine, cider and mead, but soon homebrew shops started to open and Americans started discovering just how good fresh homemade beer could be. Alabama remains as the only state that does not legally allow homebrewing.
James Madison was elected as the 4th President of the United States in 1808, but before he became President Madison was serving in the House of Representatives and proposed the first bill ever designed to tax and regulate alcoholic beverages. Normally, this might get him nominated for the list of Bad Beer Presidents, but the congressman from Virginia did so for two basic reasons. The new country was in tough financial shape and needed a source of steady revenue. Madison also wanted to give domestic brewers and distillers a leg up on foreign competitors. Madison believed the Tariff Act of 1789 would encourage "the manufacture of beer in every State in the Union."
Thomas Jefferson was elected as the 3rd President of the U.S. in 1800. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and recognized as the top oenophile to ever occupy the White House. Most people believe that wine was his one and only beverage, but beer was a staple for Jefferson. During the War of 1812, Jefferson petitioned the government to grant Englishman Joseph Miller citizenship. Miller was a brewer and Jefferson wrote, “He is about to settle in our country, and to establish a brewery in which art I think him as skillful a man as has ever come to America. I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families."
George Washington was elected in 1789 as the first President of the United States. Records indicate that English-style porter was his drink of choice and that it was regularly stocked at Mount Vernon. Washington was also a homebrewer, but in those days the scale was much greater than it is today for most enthusiasts. Beer production had to be at a level that could satisfy a household, including family, guests and servants. A 1754 recipe for a 30-gallon recipe for small beer in a personal notebook of Washington’s is now housed at the New York Public Library.
Bad Beer Presidents
Warren Harding was the 29th President of the United States. He served from 1921 to 1923, when he died from a heart attack at age 57. While in Congress, Harding supported the Volstead Act and the 18th Ammendment, which brought Prohibition to the U.S. While in the White House, Harding often hosted all-night poker games. These events featured a steady stream of alcohol for Harding, his friends, political cronies and members of Congress who turned up to gamble. While he was busy violating the Volstead Act, Harding signed the Willis Campbell Act in 1921 to tighten the screws on the average citizen. The bill outlawed doctors from prescribing beer and liquor for medicinal purposes. This loophole was commonly exploited during the early Prohibition years.
Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President of the United States in 1860, winning a four-way race running as a Republican even though he received just 39.8 percent of the votes. Lincoln is widely regarded as one of greatest U.S. leaders for ending slavery and leading the north to victory in the Civil War, but when it comes to beer Lincoln has a less than stellar record. Lincoln pushed through the Internal Revenue Act in 1862 to help pay the mounting war debt by placing a $1 per barrel tax on beer and ale. The government has continued to tax beer and those duties now account for more than 40 percent of the price of an average beer.
Rutherford B. Hayes was elected the 19th President of the United States in 1876. During his presidency the temperance movement was picking up steam. Under the direction of his wife, Lucy, alcohol, smoking and profanity were banned from the White House. It was not a popular decision among the politicians and world dignitaries invited to White House functions, who stuck Mrs. Hayes with the nickname Lemonade Lucy.
George H.W. Bush was elected the 41st President of the United States in 1998, making the famous pledge “Read my lips: no new taxes.” During Bush’s term the budget deficit grew and the Democrat controlled Congress called for revenue raising measures. In 1990, Congress passed a luxury tax on items like fur coats, jewelry, yachts and private airplanes. They also passed a bill that doubled the federal excise tax on beer to $18 a barrel. Bush went back on his campaign pledge and signed the tax measures.
Woodrow Wilson was elected the 28th President in 1912. He was reelected in 1916. Wilson’s record regarding beer is a mixed bag. Wilson was in favor of temperance, not total prohibition. Wilson was in office when the Volstead Act was passed, but he vetoed the bill. Congress overrode the veto. But his lack of strong leadership to stop the Prohibition allowed the momentum built by the dry movement to successfully line up the votes in Congress and state legislatures to change the direction of American culture. The Anti-Saloon League successfully used World War I grain shortages as a tool to put brewers out of business. The sale of grain to distillers was banned during the war and Wilson slashed the grain supplied to brewers by 30 percent, while cutting the maximum alcohol level in beer to 2.75 percent.