On his path to the Presidency Abraham Lincoln held many jobs. He worked as laborer, surveyor, clerk, postmaster, and a brief stint in the militia as a soldier. In 1832 Lincoln and William Berry, a friend and from his military service, opened a small shop in New Salem, Illinois.
Being in largely rural area they carried such staples as lard, bacon, firearms, and honey. Of course, alcohol was also part of the inventory. Gin, whiskey, peach brandy, beer, cider, wine and whiskey could be purchased at their establishment. The term “Grocery Store” or “Groceries” were used on the frontier to describe places where drinks less than a quart and could be consumed on the premises. It appears that Lincoln and Berry had a license for a tavern (which covered the shop), but not a grocery.
Despite having grown up in a society where drinking was firmly entrenched, Lincoln disliked alcohol. He also had no aptitude for the business. He spent more time reading or swapping stories with customers, then seriously tending the shop. There are stories of potential customers finding the place locked and having to find and retrieve Lincoln from a spot nearby where he was working math or poring over some volume.
Lincoln’s associate was not up to the task either. Berry was, by all accounts, an alcoholic. He drank while minding the shop, and ran up debts. The two had planned to build a tavern to supplement the shop, but this never came to fruition. In 1833 Lincoln sold his share to Berry and moved on to role of postmaster of New Salem.
Further bad business deals and Berry’s death in 1835 saddled Lincoln with the debt from his former venture. It would not be until 1848 that he paid off the balance. He referred to the cumbersome payments as his “National Debt.”
Political opponent Stephen Douglas tried to use this against Lincoln during a debate. Douglas sarcastically referred to his first meeting with Lincoln’s had been across the counter of a general store where liquor was sold and concluded his remarks by saying that “And Mr. Lincoln was a very good bartender, too.”
Lincoln replied by saying “What Mr. Douglas has said, gentlemen, is true enough: I did keep a general store and sold cotton and candles and cigars and sometimes whiskey, but I particularly remember that Mr. Douglas was one of my best customers. Many a time I stood on one side of the counter and sold whiskey to Mr. Douglas on the other side. But now there’s a difference between us: I have left my side of the counter, but he sticks to his as tenaciously as ever!”
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.