Revenuers & Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900

Revenuers & Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900

Revenuers & Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900

Revenuers & Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900

Synopsis

The federal government's attempt to enforce civil rights measures during Reconstruction is usually regarded as a failure. Far more successful, however, was the collection of federal excise taxes on liquor during the same period -- an effort that secured for the government its single most important source of internal revenue. In Revenuers and Moonshiners Wilbur Miller explores the development and professionalization of the federal bureaucracy by examining federal liquor law enforcement in the mountain South after the Civil War. He addresses the central questions of the conditions under which unpopular federal laws could be enforced and the ways in which enforcement remained limited.
The extension of federal taxing power to cover homemade whiskey was fiercely resisted by mountain people, who had long relied on distilling to produce an easily transported and readily salable product made from their corn. As a result, the collection of the tax required the creation of the most extensive civilian law enforcement agency in the nation's history, the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The bureau both regulated taxpaying distilleries and combated illicit production. This battle against moonshiners, Miller argues, implemented by the Republican party's vision of a federal authority capable of reaching into the most remote parts of the nation.
Miller concentrates his analysis on the revenuers, but he nevertheless draws a clear picture of the mountain people who resisted them. He dispels traditional views of moonshiners as folk heroes imbued with a stubborn individualism or simple country folk victimized by outside forces beyond their control or understanding. Rather, Miller shows that the men (and sometimes women) who made moonshine were members of a complex and changing society that was a product of both traditional aspects of mountain culture and the forces of industrialization that were reshaping their society after the Civil War.
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Excerpt

This book began as something else, a study of federal civil rights law enforcement during the Reconstruction era of the 1870s. My previous work on urban policing and several years of teaching a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction led me to see Reconstruction as a novel federal policing effort in the face of determined southern resistance. Part of the explanation for its failure could be found in difficulties and dilemmas of balancing force and restraint experienced by ordinary policemen. Research in this area, though, soon convinced me that many other scholars have covered this ground and that I would add only a slight twist to familiar interpretations.

The apparent dead end led to this book. Amid the mountain of archival material on enforcement of Reconstruction civil rights and election laws were many references to internal revenue and moonshiners. in fact, most of the correspondence of several southern federal district attorneys was concerned with difficulties in collecting the whiskey tax and dealing with violent resistance. I had serendipitously found a new topic, one that not only addresses the police problem of federal authority in an area that has been scarcely explored, but adds a new element to historians' ongoing debates about whether the Civil War left a legacy of permanently expanded federal power.

In addition, the study of revenue enforcement offered a chance to compare it to Reconstruction, since many of the same officials were engaged in both tasks, though usually in different regions of their states. Contrasting the failure of Reconstruction with the relative success of revenue enforcement contributes to understanding a central question: What are the conditions under which unpopular laws can be enforced, and what are the limits of their enforcement? Policies and practices of government officials, politi-

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