Before he was president, Abraham Lincoln was a licensed bartender. During his time in New Salem, Illinois, Lincoln was co-owner of the Berry-Lincoln Store, a general store/drinking establishment, with William Berry.
According to Northern Illinois University:
Some of the items that Lincoln and Berry sold were lard, bacon, firearms, beeswax, and honey. In addition to these items, they also sold liquor, as most of the stores of the day did. Every store could sell liquor in quantities larger than a quart without having to get a license, as long as it was not consumed at the store. . . . Only when one was licensed would one be engaging in the occupation of grocery-keeping as a tavern. Lincoln and Berry decided to keep a tavern in addition to their general store, to try to make some more money. Berry issued a license to Lincoln and himself in 1833. Neither of the signatures was in Lincoln’s handwriting, however. Lincoln denied that he ever kept a grocery [tavern], and said that he never liked liquor or its effects. One historian claimed that “local tradition maintained that disagreement over the sale of liquor caused the dissolution of the Lincoln-Berry partnership soon after they obtained the liquor license.”
It was his time as a store clerk that earned Lincoln the nickname “Honest Abe” since he was fair in his dealings. During the first of seven famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1958 for a Illinois Senate seat, Lincoln had to dodge his bartender/tavern past. On August 21, 1858 in front of 10,000 to 12,000 spectators, Douglas recounted that he had known Lincoln for twenty-five years. “I was a school teacher in the town of Winchester, and he was a flourishing grocery-keeper in the town of Salem,” Douglas attested. The room broke out in applause and laughter. “He was more successful in his occupation than I was in mine, and hence more fortunate in this world’s goods.” Douglas continued, “Lincoln is one of those peculiar men who perform with admirable skill everything which they undertake.”
In response, after the reported laughter died down, Lincoln refused to acknowledge his past. Part of it could have been his stance against alcohol. While another part of him believed that Berry was the main proponent of adding liquor to the store, thus placing no responsibility on Lincoln. “The Judge [Douglas] is wofully at fault about his early friend Lincoln being a grocery keeper,” Lincoln response incited laughter among the crowd as he referred to himself in the third-person. “I don’t know as it would be a great sin, if I had been; but he is mistaken. Lincoln never kept a grocery anywhere in the world. It is true that Lincoln did work the latter part of one winter in a little still house, up at the head of a hollow,” Lincoln concluded. The still house he referred to is commonly believed to be the ill-fated Berry-Lincoln Store.
First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858.