Leaders of the Beer World: The Best and Worst Presidents (When it Comes to Beer)
The U.S. presidency carries with it an awesome amount of power and responsibility. That’s the case whether you are talking about nuclear arms—or beer.
Public policy shapes everything from the price to the availability of the beer we enjoy. Whether it is a new tax on beer or farm subsidies, politics have an impact on the brewing industry. Sometimes the changes are subtle, in other cases, such as Prohibition, the impact can dramatic.
The president of the United States is not the only power broker to hold sway over the fortunes of brewers, but the power of the presidency certainly can be felt like the IBUs in an India pale ale.
When it comes to beer and politics, what is good for brewers tends to be good for beer drinkers. A case in point is the Pop the Cap campaigns in North Carolina and South Carolina and Georgians for World Class Beer that were successful in the past few years in changing post-Prohibition restrictions on the maximum alcohol content allowed for beers sold in those states. Overnight, with the passage of state legislation, beer drinkers in places like Charlotte, Spartanburg and Macon could suddenly enjoy barley wine, strong ale and Baltic porter.
Presidential policy decisions have a national impact. They can bring boons or busts for beer. Every vote does count when you are the person setting the direction for the nation’s beer drinkers. Here is a roundup of the Best and Worst Beer Presidents.
FDR: Nothing to Fear About Beer Itself
Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd president at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. A key plank of his campaign was repeal of Prohibition, which had failed in practice and turned many law-abiding citizens into criminals. Prohibition not only destroyed the American brewing industry, it had a devastating impact on restaurants, hotels and taverns.
Roosevelt sensed the mood of the country, which had shifted away from temperance and could no longer suffer silently through the loss of jobs and tax revenue. He supported the Democratic Party’s decision to write the repeal of the 18th Amendment into the convention’s platform. On Nov. 8, 1932, FDR trounced incumbent president Herbert Hoover by a margin of 57.4 percent to 39.7 percent. He would be reelected three more times and lead the United States during World War II.
In addition to establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps and gaining approval for the Tennessee Valley Authority during his first 100 days in office, FDR pushed Congress to change and ultimately repeal the Volstead Act, which had ushered in Prohibition. In fact, the return of legal beer was one of Roosevelts’s first accomplishments in one of the most productive administrations in history.
Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, and wasted no time in attacking Prohibition. On March 22, 1993, Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, which allowed the federal government to collect taxes on alcohol, while giving states the right to regulate the sale of the beer, wine and spirits. The bill effectively ended Prohibition by allowing 3.2 beer (3.2 percent alcohol by weight or 4.0 percent by volume). Roosevelt is quoted as saying “I think now would be a good time for a beer!” after signing the legislation. On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified repealing Prohibition.
Carter: Homebrewing was No Small Peanuts
James Earl Carter Jr. served just a single term as president. Jimmy, as the 39th president was better known, campaigned as an outsider at a time that much of America wanted a change in the way Washington did business. On Nov. 2, 1976, Carter beat incumbent president Gerald Ford by a margin of 50.1 percent to 48 percent.
Carter’s administration was plagued by economic and diplomatic problems. Inflation, unemployment and high interest rates hammered the U.S. economy. On the international scene, President Carter led a boycott by 65 countries of the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. There was also the Iranian hostage crisis, with more than 50 Americans being held for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Still, with all of this bad news during his administration, Jimmy Carter established the Department of Energy and the Department of Education as cabinet level positions, and he was good for beer drinkers. In 1978, President Carter signed a bill that launched the largest home brewing explosion since the days of Prohibition. The law exempted homebrewed beer produced for personal and family consumption from excise taxes. The law still allowed states to prohibit citizens from making beer, wine, cider and mead, but soon homebrew shops began to open and Americans started discovering just how good fresh, homemade beer could be.
Madison: Tax Imports, Build a Domestic Beer Industry
James Madison was elected as the 4th president of the United States in 1808, crushing Charles Cotesworth Pinckney by 64.7 percent to 32.4 percent. He was reelected for a second term by beating DeWitt Clinton. During his time in office, the United States fought Great Britain in the War of 1812.
Before he became president, Madison was credited as being the “Father of the U.S. Constitution” after promoting the concept of three separate branches of government. The amendments to the Constitution that he authored in 1789 became the Bill of Rights.
While serving in the House of Representatives, Madison proposed the first bill ever designed to tax and regulate alcoholic beverages. Normally, this might get him nominated for the list of Bad Beer Presidents, but the congressman from Virginia did so for two basic reasons. The new country was in tough financial shape and needed a source of steady revenue. Alcohol consumption in the fledgling nation was fairly high, in part because safe drinking water was often hard to come by. Madison also wanted to give domestic brewers and distillers a leg up on foreign competitors.
Madison believed the Tariff Act of 1789 would encourage “the manufacture of beer in every State in the Union.” The new tax on imports was levied on ale, porter, beer, rum, spirits and wines, along with key raw ingredients shipped into the country such as malt and molasses.
Jefferson: America’s First Wine Connoisseur and a Homebrewer
Thomas Jefferson was elected as the 3rd president of the U.S. in 1800, beating incumbent President John Adams by 61.4 percent to 38.6 percent. He had lost the election to Adams four years earlier. Jefferson would win reelection in 1804, beating the Federalist candidate Pinckney.
Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the first U.S. Secretary of State. While serving as Minister to France from 1785 to 1789, Jefferson developed an expertise regarding wine that ranks him as perhaps the top oneophile to ever occupy the White House. Most people believe that wine was his one and only beverage, but beer was a staple for Jefferson.
During the War of 1812, Jefferson petitioned the government to grant Englishman Joseph Miller citizenship. Miller was a brewer and Jefferson wrote, “He is about to settle in our country, and to establish a brewery in which art I think him as skilful a man as has ever come to America. I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families.”
Miller would help establish a brewery at Monticello and, in an 1815 letter to Joseph Coppinger, Jefferson reports, “I am lately become a brewer for family use, having had the benefit of instruction to one of my people by an English brewer of the first order.” In fact, slave Peter Hemings learned how to brew under Miller’s guidance.
Washington: Father of Our Country and Home Brewer
George Washington was elected in 1789 as the first president of the United States, beating John Adams by 93 percent to 7 percent. He was reelected in 1792, again over Adams. Washington was a military man and a politician, which would suggest he enjoyed a drink every now and then. Records indicate that English-style porter was his drink of choice and that it was regularly stocked at Mount Vernon.
Washington was also a homebrewer, but in those days the scale was much greater than it is today for most enthusiasts. Beer production had to be at a level that could satisfy a household, including family, guests and servants.
A 1754 recipe for a 30-gallon recipe for small beer in a personal notebook of Washington’s, now housed at the New York Public Library, reads: “Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran, Hops to your Taste.—Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall[ons] into a cooler put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the Beer is Scalding hot or rather draw the Melasses into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. Let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask—leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working—Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.”
Harding: Do as I Say, Not as I Do
Warren Harding beat James M. Cox on Nov. 2, 1920 by 60.3 percent to 34.1 percent to become the 29th president of the United States. He served from 1921 to 1923, when he died from a heart attack at age 57.
While in Congress, Harding supported the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment, which brought Prohibition to the U.S. When he ran for the Oval Office against Cox, who was a wet, Harding said he would support Prohibition because it was “a fundamental principle of the American conscience.”
On the surface, Harding was acting like many politicians before and after him: he took a position because it meant getting votes. The problem was that Harding was a hypocrite of the first order. While in the White House, Harding often hosted all-night poker games. These events featured a steady stream of alcohol for Harding, his friends, political cronies and members of Congress who turned up to gamble.
While he was busy violating the Volstead Act, Harding continued to curry favor with the drys. Harding appointed the Anti-Saloon League’s Roy A. Haynes as federal Prohibition Commissioner. He also signed the Willis Campbell Act in 1921 to tighten the screws on the average citizen. The bill outlawed doctors from prescribing beer and liquor for medicinal purposes, a loophole that was commonly exploited during the early Prohibition years.
With his administration embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal and reports about mistresses surfacing, some scholars believe that Harding decided to curtail his personal drinking in 1923, shortly before his death.
Honest Abe: Tax the Beer Drinkers
Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States on Nov. 6, 1860, winning a four-way race running as a Republican even though he received just 39.8 percent of the votes. He beat out Stephen A. Douglas (29.5 percent), John Breckinridge (18.1 percent) and John Bell (12.6 percent). With the Civil War still being fought, Lincoln was reelected over former Union General George B. McClellan in 1864.
Lincoln is widely regarded as one of greatest U.S. leaders for ending slavery and leading the north to victory in the Civil War, but when it comes to beer, Lincoln has a less than stellar record. Lincoln pushed through the Internal Revenue Act in 1862 to help pay the mounting war debt by placing a $1 per barrel tax on beer and ale. The government has continued to tax beer and those duties now account for more than 40 percent of the price of an average beer.
Lincoln was not against alcohol. He ran a liquor store in Kentucky in the 1830s and in one famous exchange in the White House when he was told that General U.S. Grant was seen drinking while near the front lines, Lincoln is quoted as saying “So Grant gets drunk, does he?…You needn’t waste your time getting proof; you just find out, to oblige me, what brand of whiskey Grant drinks, because I want to send a barrel of it to each one of my generals.”
Hayes: Lemonade Lucy Rules the White House
Rutherford B. Hayes was elected the 19th president of the United States on Nov. 7, 1876, even though he lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden by 47.9 percent to 51 percent. Hayes, who was a wounded veteran of the Civil War, ended up winning the election when backroom dealings shifted electoral college votes to his column. The final margin was a single elector.
During his presidency the temperance movement was picking up steam. Under the direction of his wife, Lucy, alcohol, smoking and profanity were banned from the White House. It was not a popular decision among the politicians and world dignitaries invited to White House functions, who stuck Mrs. Hayes with the nickname “Lemonade Lucy.”
Bush: Double the Beer Tax, It’s a Luxury
George H.W. Bush was elected the 41st president of the United States on Nov. 8, 1989, defeating challenger Michael Dukakis by a margin of 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent.
During his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Bush made the famous pledge “Read my lips: no new taxes.” During Bush’s term, in addition to invading Panama and liberating Kuwait from Iraq’s control, the budget deficit grew and the Democrat-controlled Congress called for revenue-raising measures. In 1990, Congress passed a luxury tax on items including fur coats, jewelry, yachts and private airplanes. They also passed a bill that doubled the federal excise tax on beer to $18 a barrel. Bush went back on his campaign pledge and signed the tax measures. According the Beer Institute, American’s now pay $5.2 billion annually in beer taxes.
Wilson: Prepared the Country for Prohibition
Woodrow Wilson was elected the 28th president on Nov. 5, 1912, winning a three-way race with 41.8 percent of the vote, beating former presidents Theodore Roosevelt (27.4 percent) and William Howard Taft (23.2 percent). He was reelected in 1916, beating Charles Evans Hughes.
During his years in the White House, the U.S. fought in World War I and the Federal Reserve System was established. Wilson’s record regarding beer is a mixed bag. Wilson was in favor of temperance, not total prohibition. Wilson was in office when the Volstead Act was passed, but he vetoed the bill. Congress overrode the veto. But his lack of strong leadership to stop the Prohibition allowed the momentum built by the dry movement to successfully line up the votes in Congress and state legislatures to change the direction of American culture.
The Anti-Saloon League successfully used World War I grain shortages as a tool to put brewers out of business. The sale of grain to distillers was banned during the war and Wilson slashed the grain supplied to brewers by 30 percent, while cutting the maximum alcohol level in beer to 2.75 percent. During this time, states started banning the sale of alcohol and brewers went out of business by the score.
White House residents have had a profound impact—good and bad—on brewers and beer drinkers. Starting with George Washington, their personal views and political motives have influenced what, where and how much we can drink. In the 2008 presidential race, Republican John McCain’s wife, Cindy, owns a third of her family’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in Arizona. Democrat Barack Obama made it a point to make a campaign stop at the Bethlehem Brew Works during the Pennsylvania primary. Hopefully, no matter which way you vote, these two candidates will stay friendly towards beer.
Rick Lyke has been writing about beer, wine and spirits for more than 25 years. After recently undergoing successful cancer surgery, he founded Pints for Prostates to help reach men with a message about the importance of regular PSA testing. Get more information at www.ustoo.org/pints.