Two things I read recently reminded me of the central argument of my dissertation and Brewing Battles. At the beginning of the month, I read a review of Roger Lowenstein’s new book Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War. Eric Foner wrote the review. Eric is a very prominent historian and was my dissertation sponsor.
The other thing I read was from a newsletter I get from the New York Times DealBook. DealBook which is about business and economic news had a post that Roger Lowenstein wrote discussing inflation and how war can affect the economic climate of the country.
Both Eric’s review and Lowenstein post talked about the need of the north to finance the war which resulted in a myriad of taxes being a placed on a variety of objects and activities. Many years ago, I discovered that Salmon P. Chase, Treasury Secretary, and the Lincoln administration established taxes on alcohol and tobacco as well as creating an income tax. Although Congress repealed almost all the other taxes from following the end of the war, the Internal Revenue taxes on liquor and tobacco remained. These taxes provided over 50% of the federal government’s revenue until the enactment of the Internal Revenue tax in 1913.
What follows is an excerpt from Chapter Two of Brewing Battles that describe the efforts by Chase and the Lincoln administration to finance the war.
“From the moment Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter the Federal government required large sums of money to finance the Civil War. A Special Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress (July–August 1861) attempted to meet this need by increasing certain customs duties, imposing a direct tax of $20 million on the States, and instituting an income tax.
It soon became clear that these measures alone could not relieve the country’s financial burdens. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase was hoping to raise $85 million and sent a bill to the Thirty-Seventh Congress. Congress, which reconvened on December 2, 1861, reviewed his request for a small increase in the income tax and excise taxes on manufactured goods. Distilled spirits, malt liquors, cotton, tobacco, carriages, yachts, billiard tables, gross receipts of railroads, steam boats and ferries, and playing cards all became taxable items. Signed by President Lincoln July 1, 1862, the measure became effective the following month. By the 1870s Congress had repealed most of the excise taxes; the liquor tax, however, has remained in effect until today. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 marked the entrance of the federal government into the affairs of the liquor industry; it has never left.
The federal government did not regard the liquor industry as an ordinary business. Alcohol was more than a manufactured item — officials saw drinking as a luxurious, even evil, habit that deserved a heavy tax. Ignoring the mixed history of ante-bellum attempts at taxation, collection, and sumptuary legislation, Civil War legislators assumed that an excise on distilled and fermented beverages would raise a large amount of much needed revenue.
Civil War legislation of 1862 established the federal system of taxation of alcoholic beverages. At that time, the government instituted excise taxes on liquor, tobacco, and other items as well as imposing an income tax. Most of these Civil War taxes were short lived; the liquor and tobacco taxes were permanent. Until the imposition of the federal income tax in 1913, liquor taxes generated a significant portion of the nation’s internal revenue and played an important part in maintaining the economic health of the country.
Taxation provided the context for an explicit relationship between the state and industry, a pattern that would become more common later in the century. For the liquor industry as a whole the relationship did not develop smoothly. Throughout the nineteenth century, mismanagement and politicization of the Bureau of Internal Revenue led to fraud and corruption. The government did not seek and could not maintain regulatory power over the liquor industry. Although several individuals devoted themselves to reform efforts, officials failed to develop or maintain long range plans for efficient tax collection. Within this context, the brewing industry developed a good working relationship with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and was able to hold the line on tax increases”
 U.S. Department, Internal Revenue Service, History of the Internal Revenue Service 1791-1929, prepared under the direction of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1930), 2.
 Ibid., 3; Charles A. Jellison, Fessenden of Maine: Civil War Senator (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1962), 149; Leonard P. Curry, Blueprint for Modern America: Non-Military Legislation of the First Civil War Congress (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968), 149–181; Bray Hammond, Sovereignty and an Empty Purse: Banks and Politics in the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 52; Charles Estee, The Excise Tax Law (New York: Fitch, Estee, 1863), passim.
©All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce without the permission of the author. Amy Mittelman, 2022.