Thursday, February 04, 2010

Virginia Moonshine

After the American Revolution, the new federal government faced the problem of paying off the national debt incurred in fighting the war, and of generally paying its ongoing bills. Among other things, a new federal tax was imposed on liquors and spirits. People were not pleased. Several hundred were so angry about the new tax that they openly rebelled, threatening an attack on Pittsburgh. President George Washington personally led an army of thirteen thousand which crushed the so called Whiskey Rebellion.

Resistance to the tax went underground. Farmers, especially in Kentucky, Virginia and the Carolinas could survive a bad year by turning their corn into profitable whiskey. Small stills sprang up and were operated at night by the light of the moon (hence the name “moonshining”). The ongoing battle between moonshiners and federal revenue agents became legendary throughout the South.

On January 29, 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Untied States Constitution was ratified and one year later on January 17, 1920, in accordance with the provisions of the implementing law, America went dry. Moonshiners were delighted to find that prohibition furnished a large market for their product. It was colorless, it looked like water, and it was often one hundred proof. High school boys, flaunting the law, went out into the woods, met moonshiners, and then brought a pint of moonshine to the school dance. More staid citizens were able to get a prescription from the family doctor for a bottle of liquor. Local drug stores stocked pints of scotch and bourbon for medicinal use.

By 1932 most in the country were ready to repeal Prohibition. The promised benefits, such as the elimination of crime, never emerged. In fact things got worse as the growth of organized criminal gangs produced just the opposite result. In the 1932 presidential election, Franklin Roosevelt promised to end Prohibition. Prohibition was overturned at the national level by the 21st amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As America became more urbanized moonshining largely died out, but is still even now practiced in remoter rural areas.

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