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Historical Overview

A short historical perspective that demonstrates just how long citizens and
the government have clashed over the issue of alcohol.

A whiskey tax in the United States first became on economic issue in 1794, when the so-called "Whiskey Rebellion" broke out along the western frontier, which then stood in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

With the onset of the Civil War, the Federal Government re-imposed excise taxes on whiskey and tobacco in an effort to fund Union army. After the war ended, the Reconstructionist government decided to keep the taxes in place, it turned out that re-building the nation was just as expensive as fighting to keep it together. Faced with enormous debts, both state and federal governments continued to collect and enforce the whiskey taxes.

The Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department was formed after the Civil War, and was headed by Commisioner Green B. Raum from 1876-1883. During this time Raum transformed the revenue collectors into a police agency, actively seeking out moonshiners in their home enviornments. They acted as a national authority, regardless of state lines.

North Carolina Senator Zebulon Vance campaigned against revenue laws in 1876, terming the revenue agents as "red-legged grasshoppers." Because of the revenuers, Vance complained, "The time has come when an honest man can't take an honest drink without having a gang of revenue officers after him."

Congress increased the whiskey tax to $1.10 per gallon in 1894, a stiff tax. While the increase was intended to up the government's take in "revenue", it ended up creating a boom in untaxed liquor. More and more distillers decided the only way they could con- tinue under the new tax was to sell their product illegally. By it's own estimate, the gov- ernment guessed that between 5 and 10 million gallons of illegal liquor were produced and sold annually in and around 1896.

Moonshining was popular in many places in the South during the last part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, but was concentrated in the Blue Ridge mountains, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and western South Carolina. The rise of local and state-wide temperance or prohibition movements increased the demand for their supply.

Federal marshalls arresting moonshiners

Federal marshalls (with star) capture moonshine stills and their operators
From the John C. and Olive Campell Collection
Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina
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