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
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.
Originally published in 1991.
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