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  • Tipling Toward Freedom:Alcohol and Emancipation
  • Luther Adams (bio)

In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, tippling laws outlawed the sale, gift, or loan of "spirituous or vinous liquors" to enslaved Negroes or free blacks without written permission. By law it was illegal for any black person to enter a tavern or coffee-house where liquor was sold. The law limited the mobility of black people and their ability to buy, sell, or trade. The act was intended to prevent insurrection, to maintain tranquility by nipping "riots, breaches of the peace, disorderly and indecent conduct, and vagrancy" in the bud.1 Tippling was about more than feeling fine and mellow, it was about a world teeming with outrages. Blacks were out drinking, some had their own money, they gathered in groups on street corners, and behind closed doors. They violated laws meant to hold them captive by choosing where to go, when, or what to do with their own bodies. Blacks were out of place and out of control—freedom was in the air. This law, an effort to control black people enslaved and "free," was part of the [End Page 323] last desperate defense of a dying institution—slavery. 2

Civil War governors received scores of petitions written by white Kentuckians attempting to escape punishment for violating the tippling law—and from those who wrote to support or hinder their efforts. The petitions overwhelmingly involved men, black and white. Fewer women black or white appear in the petitions sent to Kentucky's Civil War governors. Petitioners pleaded for mercy. In defense, they claimed they were ignorant of the law, or tricked into providing black people with liquor by blacks and whites alike. Others claimed they were too poor, unable to pay fines, and many were unwilling to serve time in prison for their offenses. These petitions open a space to consider a "world turned upside down" in a state divided between the Blue and the Gray, and where black people acted less and less like slaves. Their words help us see connections between slave and free, blacks and whites, mobility and markets, and a future shaped by unforeseen consequences of war.

Tippling laws were a common feature of slave societies in the U.S. According to the legal historian Judge Leon Higginbotham, at least since 1698 blacks, enslaved and free, were prohibited from buying and selling liquor. Tippling laws flourished in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina as well as Kentucky.3

Kentucky's first tippling laws appear to be holdovers from its time as part of the Virginia colony. It was not until 1793 that Kentucky passed the first of several tippling laws. These laws focused on the social [End Page 324] impact of drinking to "excess." As "engines of vice" tippling resulted in a host of social ills: "industry checked, purses drained, constitutions destroyed, families are devastated and the people are demoralized."4

In 1817, 1820, and 1823 amended tippling laws linked liquor and slavery. Suppressing tippling was legally yoked to the effort to "restrain and punish slaves found rambling about without lawful passes."5 These amendments outlawed giving or selling alcohol to slaves without "an order" from "the owner, master or person having authority over such a slave."6 By controlling black mobility and placing the ability to drink alcohol in the hands of the authorities—masters, prohibiting tippling helped strengthen slavery.

By 1856, Kentucky's tippling law was amended again to further restrict free blacks. Like slaves, free blacks were denied the right to sell, give, loan, buy, borrow or receive any amount of alcohol without a certificate from "some white person of respectable character." Moreover, by law free blacks could only have liquor "for medicinal or mechanical purposes." The law made it a crime for blacks, free or slave, to even be around a house were liquor was kept for sale, or to work in any capacity that allowed them to serve enslaved black people liquor. Nor were free blacks allowed to manufacture liquor.7 In 1857, [End Page 325] a black was indicted in Kentucky for operating a tippling house, suggesting tippling laws were enforced in the state prior to 1861.8

Violators were punished with...