Alcohol and the Modern State

Last week, I attended the Sixth Biennial Meeting of the Alcohol and Drug History Society. It was in Buffalo. I am a founding member of this organization, which was originally the Alcohol Temperance History group (ATHG). There were many nice people at the conference and many of the papers were excellent.

I chaired a panel on “Alcohol and the Modern State.” Brewing Battles deals with the relationship between the United States government and the brewing industry, that is probably why they choose me.

There were four papers and all were excellent.  Noelle Plack spoke on “Wine, equality and taxation in the French Revolution.” Prior to the Revolution, there was a very high indirect tax on wine. Using the rhetoric of equality common people fought for the abolition of the tax.  The taxes were reinstated between 1798 and 1804 but were much lower.

James Sumner’s paper was “Chemists in the brew house: Excise policy, chemical authority and the value of drink, 1790-1820. “ He looked at debates about how to determine the amount of alcohol in beer and what scientific methods to use. The English taxed beer indirectly and were looking for the most efficient, least corruptible way to maintain the tax and the revenue it generated.

Graceiela Marquez Colin and Gabriela Recio spoke on “Politicians and Brewers in Mexico: Taxing Beer in the 1920s.”  By 1899, five firms controlled 63% of Mexico’s beer production. Prior to the Mexican Revolution beer did not pay the stamp tax that other alcoholic beverages did. The Mexican Revolution halted national distribution of beer.  In 1912, the revolutionaries imposed taxes on beer for the first time and taxes rose five times between1912- 1922.  In response, the brewers formed a trade association that sought tariff protection, lower taxes, and a labor code.

Jon Miller gave a talk on “Petroleum Nasby and the Comedy of Excise Taxes.”  David Locke, a journalist, created Nasby as a fictional, satirical figure.  Nasby drank whiskey straight and was a Democrat. Locke used Nasby to promote support of the Republican Party and its’ polices. One of the policies he promoted the most was the excise tax on liquor. A modern comparison to Nasby would be Stephen Colbert who pretends to be a conservative Republican. Nasby was very popular and a favorite of President Lincoln.

All four papers reveal the centrality of liquor taxation to states and their need for revenue. They also reveal the different responses that varying interest groups have to liquor taxation.  In France, common people sought a reduction in taxes using the rhetoric of the revolution. In America, in the 1790s, western distillers rebelled against the imposition of a tax on whiskey.

Brewers in American, when faced with an excise tax to finance the Civil War, responded in a similar way to the Mexican brewers. They organized a trade association and sought amelioration within the tax system.The tax in the United States provided many patronage positions and this is one aspect of why Locke via Nasby supported the liquor excise. By looking at the relationship between states and liquor taxation, all the papers demonstrate how entangled liquor is in every aspect of modern life.

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