Foreword: The dictionary defines a “savant” as a person with a high degree of intelligence and foresight. While that term might not fit perfectly for the three men presented here, my use of the word is meant to suggest that each of these “whiskey men” offered insights into the subject of alcoholic beverages and the effort to ban them from the American people.
The most popular American orator of his time and noted religious sceptic, Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1889) is an unlikely candidate for the title: “whiskey man.” That is, until one looks at the liquor label that opens this vignette and recognizes that it advertises “Ingersoll Whiskey,” with the gentleman’s picture prominently displayed. Audience in locations all over America would flock to hear Ingersoll speak on political and social issues of the day. As shown below in what may be the only photo of him at an outdoor gathering, the orator could command the presence of thousands with his speeches.
Ingersoll waxed lyrical on the subject of liquor in describing American distillations: “The most wonderful whiskey that every drove the skeleton from the feast or painted landscapes in the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of corn & rye. In it you will find the sunshine & the shadow that chase each other over the billowy fields, the breath of June, the carol of the lark, the dew of night, the wealth of summer and autumn’s rich content. All golden with imprisoned light. Drink it and you will hear the voices of men & maidens singing ‘The Harvest Home,” mingled with the laughter of children. Drink it and you will feel within your blood the star-led dawns. The dreamy, tawny dusks, of many perfect days. For 40 years this liquid joy has been within the happy staves of oak. Longing to touch the lips of men.”
As for the efforts of the Prohibitionist, Ingersoll sided strongly with the “wets.” In answer to an 1883 press question in Chicago he said: “They are not questions to be regulated by law….I believe that people will finally learn to use spirits temperately and without abuse, but teetotalism is intemperance in itself, which breeds resistance, and without destroying the rivulet of the appetite only dams it and makes it liable to break out at any moment. You can prevent a man from stealing by tying his hands behind him, but you cannot make him honest. Prohibition breeds too many spies and informers, and makes neighbors afraid of each other.
Here is a last word from Ingersoll, now an almost forgotten American savant: Whiskey is what you need,” he wrote his ailing personal secretary. ‘After every meal take a good swallow. One swallow will not make a summer but will make you feel as though summer has come….”
When Robert Mugge (1852-1915), an immigrant boy from Germany, stepped ashore in New York City in September 1870 he began a career that only “a land of opportunity” can provide. Selling liquor as his launching pad, Mugge, shown here, is credited with developing the city of Tampa, Florida, while authoring a treatise that has been termed “part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” The growing tide of prohibition likely was the impetus that turned Mugge, liquor purveyor, into a political theorist. He evolved a concept of the ideal American society in a 52-page monograph he entitled “Practical Humanity,” issued initially in 1909.
Mugge devoted more than one-third of his treatise to “The Liquor Question.” Given his background, he not surprisingly created plenty of room for alcoholic spirits. “We might just as well give up the idea of founding these colonies at all as to establish them under a hypocritical prohibition law and expect them to be a success.” This self-educated savant then discussed the drinking public: “I refer to men known to partake of liquors in moderation. Will you not find that the great majority of these men are more sociable, warm hearted, charitable, kinder to women and children, more generous, more given to help their fellow man, live longer, and, indeed, are more honest in business than teetotalers or those who profess to be?
Although Mugge explicitly disavowed any identification with socialism, his ideas might be characterized as “Karl Marx meets Mr. Rogers.” Marx thought the state would “wither away.” Mugge suggested that in his system state and local governments gradually would collapse in favor of directing everything from a national center from which one or a few individuals make all the rules for numerous “colonies” across America in which the residents would enjoy small town “agrarian” lifestyles.
Marx called organized religion “the opiate of the people.” Mugge banned all churches from his colonies but people would be free to go elsewhere to worship. Marx advocated “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In Mugge’s model society poverty and crime would be abolished along with capitalistic greed. This Utopia somehow would be accomplished mainly by abolishing paper money. Needless to say Mugge’s vision of a future America did not catch on.
Founder of the famous Brown-Forman Liquor Company, George Garvin Brown (1846-1917) became the first president of the National Liquor Dealer’s Association and a leading spokesman against the movement to ban liquor and beer production and sales. The propensity of “dry” proponents to cite religion and the Bible encouraged Brown in 1910 to publish a book on the subject, entitled “The Holy Bible Repudiates ‘Prohibition.’” The subtitle describes the contents as a compilation of all Bible verses that mention wine or strong drink, Brown’s objective was to prove that the Scriptures “commend and command” the temperate use of alcoholic beverages — not a total ban.
In an introduction, Brown openly admitted his bias: “I have been a whiskey merchant and manufacturer for forty years and believe now, as I have always believed, that there is no more moral turpitude in selling an intoxicating liquor than there is in manufacturing and selling any other product.” His purpose for writing, he said, was “to expose the most dangerous propaganda against civil and religious liberty that has ever confronted the American people — ‘prohibition.’”
What followed was Brown’s line by line parsing of Old and New Testament Biblical passages where wine or strong drink is mentioned. Where needed, he said, Brown added his own “honest explanation” of each passage. The whiskey man found many opportunities for comments, with a particularly long exposition over the Wedding Feast at Cana, concluding: “If it had been wrong to make or use wine and given it to one’s neighbors, Jesus would not have set this example.”
Brown ended his book with a brief chapter he called “Reflections.” In it he provided a harsh critique of prohibitionists. Among them: “This sort of fanaticism when practiced in the name of religion, is on the principle, ‘it is not our duty now to burn heretics but we will make the laws and Caesar will do the rest.’” The book found a ready audience among the distillers, liquor dealers, saloonkeepers, and the drinking public of America. Brown was widely hailed for his scholarship but, as might be expected, pilloried by the “Drys.”
None of these three thinkers lived to see the imposition of National Prohibition, an event that that has been compared to a national train wreck. Not only were thousands of Americans now out of work but in their place came the bootleggers and a spike in crime. All three, in various ways, had foreseen the societal disruption and warned America of the consequences.
Note: Both Mugge’s and Brown’s books are available in paperback under the imprint “Scholar Select,” on sale from Amazon Books. Both bear a statement on the cover that: “This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” Longer posts on each man may be found on this website: Robert Ingersoll, October 24, 2018; Robert Mugge, April 12, 2020; George Garvin Brown, January 9, 2020.