Read Joe Sixpack every Friday in the Daily News
Direct from the Best Beer Drinking City in America
Reporting and drinking beer in Philly and beyond
Oct. 31, 2008 | Election Day? I'll drink to that
DON'T KNOW about you, but after two years of attack ads, robo-calls and dirty tricks (not to mention the callous exploitation of my good name), I sure could use a beer. Good thing the bars are open on Election Day.
This Tuesday, many joints will offer drink specials and follow the returns on big screens, encouraging one last night of earnest political debate among the patrons. We've come a long way from the days when city bars were regarded as the root of all evil on Election Day.
Throughout the 19th century, and especially after the Civil War, elections were won and lost in taprooms. The "saloon vote," as it was commonly called, was nasty business involving violent, devious characters who'd make Karl Rove look like a piker.
Booze and elections have a long, colorful history in America. Even before we were an independent nation, politicians plied voters with a nip or three.
According to Tracy Campbell, a University of Kentucky professor who has written on election fraud, even George Washington did it. While running for the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, Washington fretted that he hadn't bought enough rum, wine, brandy and beer to win the votes of his neighbors.
"It was not beneath his dignity to lubricate the thirsty throats of prospective voters who may have trudged many miles to make it to the polls," Campbell writes in "Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition - 1742-2004" (Carroll & Graff, 2006).
Colonists called the practice "treating." James Madison, said Campbell, derided it as "swilling the planters with bumbo." (Notably, Madison lost his Virginia election.)
By the mid-1800s, "treating" had evolved into what one reformer described as "a serious menace to the welfare of the nation."
Saloons had become the rough-and-tumble center of city commerce. Immigrants flooded them, looking for jobs and handouts. Big-city political machines operated out of the back rooms, controlling judges, cops and inspectors. According to one estimate, half of New York's aldermen under Tammany Hall were bar owners who worked in concert with breweries and "liquor interests" to run the city for their own profit.
Philadelphia was no different. In the Moyamensing section, for example, a notorious Irish Catholic thug named William McMullen controlled things from his own saloon.
Each Election Day, McMullen - a racist who once stabbed a policeman - dispatched roving gangs of drunks to intimidate blacks and attack opponents. Full-scale riots were not uncommon.
In 1871, the city suffered perhaps its worst act of Election Day violence when a young, black civil-rights activist named Octavius Catto was gunned down in broad daylight at 9th and South streets. The killer fled to a saloon a block away and escaped through the back door with the help of those inside.
Four years later, under pressure from reformers and angry voters, the State Legislature passed a bill to ban the sale of liquor on Election Day. Of course, the rule was widely flouted in Philadelphia; it would be another decade before the mayor began enforcing the law.
Looking back, it's clear that it was the threat of saloon violence - not simply the alcohol - that pushed the nation toward Prohibition. The temperance movement was as much about political reform as controlling consumption.
Even when the 19th Amendment was repealed in 1933, most states continued to prohibit alcohol sales on Election Day.
As the influence of saloons weakened after Prohibition, control of local government swung to labor unions, interest groups and businessmen. By the 1990s, the Election Day liquor ban was a queer vestige of another era, the smell of stale beer and cigar smoke replaced by the foulness of well-oiled lobbyists and slick political operatives.
Harrisburg gradually eased the ban, fully lifting it in 2001. Six states (Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Carolina and West Virginia) still prohibit Election Day sales of liquor, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
If you happen to wander into a bar on Tuesday night, you'll get a taste of how much things have changed.
At North by Northwest (7165 Germantown Ave., Mount Airy), the grassroots discussion group Drinking Liberally will meet to suck down brews and rehash the election.
At Johnny Brenda's Tavern (Frankford and Girard avenues, Fishtown), they'll roll out giant TV screens to follow the returns.
For a full measure of Election Day reform, order up a glass of Magic Hat. This year, the Vermont brewer devoted itself not to intimidating voters, but to encouraging them to go to the polls. Working with the nonprofit organization HeadCount, the brewery bottled an entirely new beer, Participation, and marketed it to help register 23,000 new voters this year.
Or maybe we haven't come all that far. That sounds an awful lot like swilling the planters with bumbo.
Sixpack at the Sixers
The World Series is over, the presidential campaign is wrapping up - it's time for basketball! Join me tonight at the Wachovia Center for 76ers Oktoberfest.
We'll be pouring samples of world-class beers at an open beer garden throughout the game. Stop by and let's talk about hops and hoops.
Tix start at $47 and include a souvenir mug and unlimited samples. More info at Joe Sixpack's Beer Radar, www.joesixpack.net/blog.