Book Review: “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant

The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, (Scribner:New York, 2008)is well written. The device of placing Sherwood Anderson within the story is more problematic. Anderson does serve to frame the story as a mystery. Under the guise of writing a story about the Bondurant boys and moonshine, Anderson’s character helps guide the reader through the narrative maze. It is interesting that Bondurant starts his story of hardship for the family in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919. This certainly gives his book a timely feeling.

Bondurant presents illicit distilling or moonshine production as occurring because of both hard times and thrill seeking. Moonshine, governmental corruption, and tax evasion have a long history, dating back to 1862 and the creation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue to finance the Civil War.

Until the passage of the Volstead Act, which established enforcement procedures for Prohibition, the federal government had a limited view of its proper role in the regulation of the liquor industry. From 1862 on, officials conceived of liquor taxation as an easy, painless, and morally expedient way to raise revenue. High excise rates led to speculation, corruption and illegal distilling, significantly reducing the amount of money the government received. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 created many new patronage positions and new opportunities for spoils. Because officials established a bureaucracy but paid little attention to administration, time honored patterns of political appointments and gain continued.

Despite reform efforts by David A. Wells and others, the combined forces of speculators and government spoils men dominated the federal tax policy and its administration. In the generally lax atmosphere of the Grant presidency, corruption reached new heights. Using the need for funds for Grant’s reelection as a pretext, mid-level revenue officials in St. Louis and other Mid-west cities set up a collection ring that cost the federal government millions in revenue from St. Louis alone.

Following the breakup of the Whiskey Ring, the administration of the Bureau of Internal Revenue stabilized. Although fraud by licensed distillers did not disappear, the Bureau shifted its attention to moonshine, particularly in the South.1 These unlicensed distillers are the characters in The Wettest County. During Prohibition, any production of alcohol for commercial purposes was illegal but the Virginia distillers in the book had a history of illegal production dating back to the nineteenth century.

After Repeal, widespread illicit distilling subsided but Southern moonshine has remained a perennial problem for the federal government. Federal legislation prohibits distillation of spirits for home use. Distilling sprits always requires payment of taxes and filing of paperwork prior to beginning production. In the early twentieth-first century, the ATF was the lead agency in Operation Lighting Strike, formed in Virginia and North Carolina to fight the big business of illicit distillation of alcohol. In a first, Operation Lightning Strike used federal money-laundering legislation to combat moonshine.2

Jack Bondurant is the chief protagonist; the author does not fully develop his character. The epilogue, which ends the book, although factual, is the least developed aspect of the book, particularly because the author does not really explain why Jack left the family business. Overall, The Wettest County is enjoyable to read and provides some, good historical information.

  1. Amy Mittelman, “Who Will Pay the Tax” Social History of Alcohol Review, no. 25, Spring 1992. []
  2. Amy Mittelman, “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF)”, in Jack S. Blocker, David M. Fahey, and Ian R. Tyrrell, eds., 2 vols., Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History (ABC_CLIO:Santa Barbara, CA, 2003). []
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