In 1758 – when campaigning for the Virginia House of Burgess (the first assembly of elected representatives of English colonists in North America) – George Washington enlisted the aid of a barrel of Barbadian rum from which complimentary serves were ladled out to prospective voters. The future President went on to win the election despite further complaining that his campaign manager did not spend enough money on the alcohol.
Seven years earlier Washington had accompanied his half-brother on a trip to the island of Barbados in attempt to relieve his tuberculosis suffering kin (doctors believed the warm climate would aid recovery). In addition to attending his first theatrical performance and watching his first fireworks display within the biggest city he’d ever visited, Washington also discovered his first love for rum. During his time as Commander-and Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War (1775 to 1783), Washington expressed his belief in the important role alcohol played in sustaining the moral of his fighting men – stating, “The benefits of moderate use of liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed”. Washington would go on to instruct the commissary general of purchases for the Continental Army that;
“There should always be a sufficient quantity of spirits with the army, to furnish moderate supplies to the troops…such as when they are marching in hot or cold weather, in camp in wet, on fatigue or in working parties, it is so essential that it is not to be dispensed with”.
By 1785 the war was over and Washington was duly elected the first President of the United States of America. Unsurprisingly Washington continued to promote his love of Kill-Devil by insisting on two barrels of Barbadian rum to be available to him in toast of his inauguration.
Washington’s appreciation of a strong spirit however didn’t impose on his dreams for state development. In 1791, the new President passed a whiskey tax to help pay for the construction of the nation’s new capital building, despite Tomas Jefferson resigning his post as Secretary of State in protest. Understandably the new tax was less than well received by those directly involved in its production. Defiance grew strongest amongst the smaller grain and distilling communities of west Pennsylvania where tax collectors were known to be tar-and-feathered in protest before paraded through town on a pole of shame. Washington responded by using militia to bring tax jumpers to court but resistance continued to grow (A mere eight years previous, many of these same people were responsible for supplying the Revolutionary Armies with a soldier’s daily half-pint ration of whiskey). Resistance eventually culminated in what’s referred to as the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 when along with acts of violence and intimidation, 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville. In retaliation, Washington would successfully order and lead a force equal in size to the Revolutionary Army against the uprising.
The richest irony of all is that George Washington eventually became a successful whisky producer himself after retiring from parliament and setting up what would become America’s biggest distillery in 1797. He too would escape the need to pay tax on his own booze thanks to the republicans repealing the law in 1800 under leadership from Thomas Jefferson (one year later Jefferson would become the third President of the United States).
Today, Washington’s historic gristmill and distillery are still kept in original working order and can be visited in Mount Vernon, West Virginia for a humble admin fee of around USD$4.