Becoming Leader of the Free World cements a man’s position in the history books, though it’s easy to forget these individuals had a life before entering the White House.
Take Abraham Lincoln for example. Arguably the most famous President, he overcame a tough upbringing to inspire the nation via the Gettysburg address and make a humanitarian impact on the Civil War.
Before that he’d worked a variety of jobs, including what some would describe as a “barman” in New Salem, Illinois.
The mind races at the possibility of Honest Abe dispensing drinks and listening to customer’s worries. In fact, it sounds like a solid premise for a sitcom.
The reality is a little different. An article on the website of the New Salem Lincoln League is keen to set the record straight, asking “was Lincoln ever a bartender? Nope, not really. At least as we understand the term “bartender” today. And there was never a saloon… called Berry and Lincoln.”
So what did the future President do in New Salem, and who was Berry? Lincoln arrived in Illinois aged 21, accompanying his family. He’d had quite a journey through life before that.
The young Abraham was educated against a backdrop of upheaval following a land dispute. His father moved the clan around and at one point Abe walked for miles through the Indiana wilderness to obtain books.
New Salem was the moment he chose to fly the nest and establish himself. The Enchanted Manor website writes that he “spent six years working several different jobs in the village.
He split rails and worked on a riverboat, was a store clerk and general store owner, served as the postmaster and deputy surveyor and enlisted as a soldier in the Black Hawk War… before being elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834.”
It was his time as owner of a general store that led to his association with alcohol. He went into partnership with friend William F. Berry and they started up the Berry and Lincoln store.
According to the Find A Grave entry for Berry, quoting pages from New Salem History, the pair “founded two Berry-Lincoln stores; and for a short time, the two men were thriving merchants.”
While they sold booze, it was far from a watering hole. The Chicagoist site states that “Stores could sell alcohol in quantities greater than a pint for off-premises consumption, but it was illegal to sell single drinks to consume at the store without a license.
In March 1833, Berry and Lincoln were issued a tavern, or liquor, license, which cost them $7 and was taken out in Berry’s name. Stores that sold liquor to consume on the premises were called groceries.
A tipple was merely one of the things you could purchase at Lincoln’s business. This was a more tempting proposition than most, but not enough to qualify him as a barkeep. Brandy, gin, rum and whiskey were passed over the counter to Abe’s patrons.
It sounds simple enough, yet the enterprise didn’t last long. Neither seemed particularly suited to running a shop. Lincoln’s writings suggest it was something he fell into, and some sources claim Berry had a habit of quenching his thirst on the job.
Berry passed away from malaria fever in 1835, by which time Lincoln had moved on to become Postmaster of New Salem. He took on the store’s debts, which took him years to pay off, according to The Story of Young Abraham Lincoln by Wayne Whipple.
New Salem History writes that “William Franklin, Reverend Berry’s oldest son, was a very astute businessman, and he did not leave a large debt for Lincoln to pay off.”
“He had some wealth and actually paid some of Lincoln’s debts.” It also details Lincoln’s close relationship with the Berry family.
When Lincoln rose up the ranks in political circles he distanced himself from his former role as purveyor of spirits. He even went as far as to deny such a thing ever took place, whilst in debate with Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858.
The irony of this position is highlighted by the Chicagoist, who wrote: “Holders of the nation’s highest office have often had a close relationship with booze, as George Washington established the nation’s largest whiskey distillery in 1797 and Thomas Jefferson brewed his own beer.”
Lincoln may not have wanted his name tied to liquor. But the Americans he served at his general store were no doubt as grateful as those he ultimately served in his capacity as President of the United States.