The Points Interview: Bruce Stewart

It is a pleasure to present the lucky seventh installment of the Points Interview, with Bruce Stewart joining us to discuss his new book, Moonshiners and Prohibitionists.   The book has just been released by the University Press of Kentucky, as part of its excellent New Directions in Southern History series, and offers a fresh take on moonshining and its relation to the politics of prohibition.  Prof. Stewart is assistant professor of history at Appalachian State University.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-Book cover of Moonshiners and Prohibitionistsstreet) could understand.

This book explains how prohibition sentiment, which was originally championed by middle-class townspeople, ultimately became embraced by rural Americans at the turn of the twentieth century.  To demonstrate how and why this change occurred, the book chronicles western North Carolinians’ changing perceptions of local alcohol distillers (many of whom would become moonshiners after the enactment of federal liquor taxation in 1862) throughout the nineteenth century.  Before the 1880s, licit distillers were viewed as entrepreneurs who provided local communities with a product (alcohol) the promoted social cohesion.  Mountain residents also supported illicit distillers (or moonshiners), believing that the federal liquor tax threatened local autonomy.  After the 1880s, the image of alcohol manufacturers (legal and illegal) took a turn for the worse.  Portrayed as social deviants who converted “the staff of life” into “poison,” distillers on both sides of law came under attack from rural residents who – like their urban counterparts – began to advocate for statewide prohibition.  Why did this change in attitude occur?  To answer this question, Moonshiners and Prohibitionists describes the rise of the anti-alcohol movement in western North Carolina, probes the impact of industrialization on rural mountain communities, and examines how federal liquor taxation affected party politics in southern Appalachia.  These phenomena, combined with mainstream media’s negative portrayal of Appalachian society, helped spark a local movement against alcohol manufacturers, one that paved the way for prohibition’s triumph in North Carolina in 1908.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I feel that scholarship has focused too much attention on the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) when explaining the rise of prohibition sentiment in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.  According to most historians, the ASL ultimately convinced most Americans to embrace prohibition (first at the local, then the state, and finally the national level) by demonizing saloons, which had doubled in number between 1880 and 1900.  But, in western North Carolina and other parts of the rural South, saloons were not as numerous as they were in the North and Midwest and whiskey (rather than beer) remained the most popular alcoholic beverage for most residents.  As such, alcohol reformers had to find other targets.  In western North Carolina, those targets were alcohol distillers, a group that scholars have overlooked.  By convincing rural residents that liquor manufacturers were the source of the problem, reformers removed the final barrier that had prevented most denizens from endorsing legal prohibition: the belief that alcohol distillers had an inherent right to make a living.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Today, most people associate prohibition with “rural” America.  Most don’t realize, however, that prohibition sentiment first emerged in “urban” America before the Civil War.  Embracing the middle-class values of self-control, frugality, and sobriety, townspeople argued that temperance (and later prohibition) would make society more productive.  Rural residents, who had previously believed that the moderate use of alcohol was “not bad,” were the last Americans to embrace these “virtues.”  I feel that this book helps to explain why rural residents ultimately embraced a movement that originated from urban places.  Moonshiners and Prohibitionists also makes us rethink the idea of “traditional” values, which actually accepted the consumption and manufacturing of alcohol.  Prohibition was an attack on these “traditional” values.  It was an ideology that reflected urban Americans’ desire to forge a new “modern” America.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from Moonshiners and Prohibitionists are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I stop the book in 1908, when moonshiners were demonized by most Americans as “evil men” (much like drug dealers are today).  Since then, however, the image of moonshiners has changed.  For most Americans, they are no longer viewed as a threat to society.  In many ways, moonshiners now represent a simpler past – they were the products of a rural America that is now gone.  They were “simple” people who wore overalls and beards and just wanted to be left alone.  They were a people “uncorrupted” by the modern society.  As such, I feel that scholars need to now examine how and why Americans’ perceptions of moonshiners have taken a turn for the better during the twentieth century.  This was something that I feel I should have touched on in the book’s conclusion.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s give up on the idea that Ken Burns does a film based on the book.  In an audiobook format, who should provide the voice for Moonshiners and Prohibitionists?

This is a tough question, largely because I have never thought of it before you asked me.  Growing up watching the show Ripley’s Believe It or Not, I would have loved if Jack Palance provided the voice for the book.  He had a very distinctive, rugged voice.  Unfortunately, he is no longer with us now.