It’s best you read this sooner than later, to better save face the next time you share a tidbit at happy hour about our fourth president, James Madison. Because we all talk about James Madison at happy hour.
At some point, I’m not sure when, a sud-soaked falsity about the accomplished Virginian who introduced the Bill of Rights to congress and served two terms in the White House (1809-1817) stained the Web worse than a butt-chugged couch cushion. So the story goes, the president was determined to make beer one of the fundamentals of American commerce. The Chicago Tribune ran a hasty beer history round-up in 2007 that says Madison “proposed creation of a national brewery and appointment of a ‘secretary of beer’” — but, alas, the 11th U.S. Congress wouldn’t go for it. (The article cites the dubious Snopes.com as one of its sources.)
An advanced search through the historical newspaper database ProQuest, which includes archives for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal dating back to the 1850s, came up with zero results for this supposed agenda of Madison’s. Yet a handful of reputable publications repeated the story, and a powerful social media channel inevitably fanned the fumes.
In 2011, Serious Eats regurgitated the same bogus story. So did the National Journal and DCist in 2012. A beer blog picked it up, too, which further made the rounds in September after landing on Reddit’s “Today I Learned” page. So now we’ve got ourselves a totally erroneous myth about presidential history, forever engrained on the Internet. Way to go.
Now here’s the truth: James Madison did not attempt to appoint a secretary of beer to his cabinet or endorse a manufacturing plant for the cause and solution to all of life’s problems.
According to staffers at Madison’s Montpelier estate in Orange, Virginia, the mix-up may have come from a letter written by a businessman named Joseph Coppinger. The December 16, 1810, dispatch hit up Madison for public funds to launch a national, but not government-run, brewery. Coppinger’s self-contradictory argument? To ward off “the baneful influence of ardent spirits on the health and Morals of our fellow Citizens” and improve the quality of existing malt liquors in the marketplace.
“The lack of an extant response from Madison suggests he was not amenable to this suggestion,” says assistant curator Tiffany Cole, on behalf of the research team at Montpelier. “Furthermore, the notion that Madison would support a cabinet post for beer production runs counter to his established views of limited government and executive powers.”
Sorry, beer nerds, but you needed to know the truth. Next pub crawl you’ll just have to stick with reciting the current administration’s recipe for White House Honey Ale. That’s plenty factual.
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