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Abraham Lincoln was the only President who was also a licensed bartender

Goran Blazeski

History has proven that there is no single career path to the White House. For example, Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor, Woodrow Wilson was a professor, Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer, George Washington established the nation’s largest whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson brewed his own beer. One of America’s presidents was a licensed bartender, and his name was Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln came home after serving in the Black Hawk War, he had an idea of becoming a blacksmith, but somehow his plans changed and the 23-year-old Lincoln entered a partnership with 21-year-old William Berry and they bought a general store on credit in New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837.

Lincoln depicted protecting a Native American from his own men in a scene often related about Lincoln's service during the Black Hawk War.

Lincoln depicted protecting a Native American from his own men in a scene often related to Lincoln’s service during the Black Hawk War.

Since it was illegal to sell single drinks to consume at the store without a license, in 1833, the venture became a tavern as well. Berry managed to take out a license for Lincoln and himself. The license cost them $7. Now when they became licensed bartenders they were permitted to sell spirits, including liquor at 12 cents a pint.

They served French brandy, peach brandy, apple brandy, Holland gin, domestic gin, wine, rum, whiskey, and beer. They could also sell food as well, including takeout meals for stage passengers.

Lincoln in his late 30s as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo taken by one of Lincoln's law students around 1846.

Lincoln in his late 30s as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The photo was taken by one of Lincoln’s law students around 1846.

Berry was apparently an alcoholic, and when they got the license he started drinking heavily. Sometimes he was even too drunk to work so Lincoln ended up running the store alone. He even had to work other jobs to earn an extra income. Eventually, they began to spend more time closed than open and they fell in debt.
When Berry died, Lincoln assumed the debts from the business. He managed to pay off the debt once he entered Congress in 1847.

In 1834, Lincoln ran for the election for state legislature again and this time, he won. He then turned to self-education in law and he left the bartending business for good.

An iconic photograph of a bearded Abraham Lincoln showing his head and shoulders.

An iconic photograph of a bearded Abraham Lincoln showing his head and shoulders.

In 1837 Lincoln moved from New Salem to Springfield, where he thought he would have a better chance to get involved in politics, and have a better chance to get involved in politics he did. In 1860 Lincoln ran for president, but once he entered politics he denied selling alcohol by the drink.

At the first of the Lincoln – Douglas debates in Ottawa on August 21, 1858, his opponent Stephen Douglass publicly accused Lincoln of operating a ‘grocery’, the frontier euphemism for a tavern.

Despite everything, Lincoln managed to win the elections and become one of the top three Presidents of the United States.