My Beautiful Wickedness

Anti-Immigration and the Sale of Budweiser…a historical perspective
July 19, 2008, 9:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This one’s a repost from Mike Ely. Since I have some readers with Saint Louis connections, I thought I’d pass it along.

The Sale of Budweiser: Memories of Beer Lovers, Hemp Farmers & Bloody

By Mike Ely

Ok, I admit it. I’m not your usual observer. When I heard that
Budweiser had been bought by the Euro-capitalists InBev, I was not

I don’t care who owns the factories in the U.S. I don’t worry the U.S.
heartland is being infiltrated by foreign interests. And certainly, I
don’t consider Budweiser a national treasure. The truth is that it’s
almost undrinkable.

But my ears perked up when I read how Budweiser’s maker, Anheuser-Bush
had roots in St. Louis that went back before the Civil War. Ah, my
friends, THERE is a story worth telling. And I’m going to sit back in
the damp heat of this Chicago evening, sip on a couple of Fat Tires, and
tell it to you, just because I hate patriotic bullshit and because I
love revolution.

* * * * *

First, there is nothing American about beer making in St. Louis.

St. Louis in the 1850s was a raw river town situated where the Missouri
River and the broad Mississippi met. It was a frontier town in many ways
and the jumping off point. It was the “end of the line” for
civilization. But it was also one of the first American industrial
cities, with one of the heaviest concentration of of factory workers in
the country. And these workers were not native-born Americans.
A great many of them came straight from Germany – and formed part of a
very large German speaking population that then dominated both the urban
and rural landscape from St. Louis to Chicago, to Cincinatti and far
into the farmlands of Pennsylvania. And these immigrant workers were a
very rowdy and radical bunch. Many were veterans of Europe’s great
revolutionary battles of 1848 – the first upheavals when working class
and communist revolution emerged as a living threat to the world’s
ruling classes.

And, at the same time, surrounding this heavily leftwing, workingclass,
German-speaking city was a countryside filled with some of the most
ugly, racist, pro-slavery forces in the U.S. The Missouri River
stretched west from St. Louis, and its shores were lined with slave
plantations producing raw materials for twine — a product that shipped
downriver to bind the cotton bales of the Mississippi Delta.
The slave owners of Missouri were quite militant. They produced the
political gangs called “border ruffians” who crossed the western
Missouri border into nearby Kansas territory, where they engaged in
armed struggle with abolitionists like John Brown over whether Bloody
Kansas would be a slave state or free.

So you can imagine that there was a tension growing through the 1850s
between the pro-slavery farmers of the Missouri floodplains and the
anti-slavery and often communist workers of St. Louis.

There was a parallel, and little known cultural clash going on at the
same time: the German workers arrived as beer drinkers and quite a few
of them were first class brewers. There were some Irish among the
workers, and they too were fans of the Germans’ sudsy “liquid bread.”

Before long St. Louis was peppered with huge German beer halls, where
the often lonely immigrants found community and a feeling of home. For
reasons I haven’t yet uncovered, the reactionary political forces of
Missouri territory were anti-beer. Maybe they didn’t want this foreign
culture to take root. Perhaps they had some early religious
prohibitionist logic. But in any case there was an early political clash
when a major push was made to ban beer in St. Louis, and (needless to
say) the German workers pushed back.

Here is an irony worth thinking about: In the Mississippi river valley,
this important historical clash started between beer lovers and hemp
growers. And, believe it or not, revolutionary sympathies go with the
beer drinkers.

At a time when social organization among immigrants was primitive, the
fight over beer helped spur a sense of common identity among the
workers, and gave rise to a number of political newspapers. And the
movement that emerged from these circles were increasingly active in the
fight over slavery. I have on my bookshelf a rare little book that
gathers articles and histories from these German immigrant newspapers –
and it is clear how they started to articulate deeply revolutionary
views that spoke for a highly conscious and engaged working class

You may have studied the civil war a little…. I know I have always been
fascinated by this first, truly revolutionary war on U.S. soil. And one
thing to keep in mind was that the so-called “border states” were a key
battle ground as the civil war broke out. There was a strip of these
states (from Maryland through Kentucky, Tennessee, to Missouri). They
had sizable populations of slave owners and slaves – but a general
political mood that was divided over the issues of secession and war.

And in this fight over the border states, Maryland had a particular
importance because it surrounded the Union capital, so that if it joined
the slavery confederation, Washington DC would be harder to defend. And
the mood was so bad that Abraham Lincoln was almost killed in Baltimore
as he traveled from Illinois to DC to assume the presidency. At the
other end of the country, St. Louis has a major strategic importance for
the war: It was the major anti-slavery center on the Mississippi.
(Nearby Memphis was a creature of the Mississippi Delta, it was one of
the urban nerve centers of the slave empire – filled with slave markets
and holding pens.)

And so, as war broke out, all sides prepared to seize St. Louis by
force. And if it had fallen to the slavocracy, it would have been quite
hard for the Union’s armies to gain a foothold on the Mississippi, and
it would have been that much harder to defeat the South.
On the surface, the politics of St. Louis did not look promising. After
1860, the new governor Claiborne Fox Jackson was clearly a pro-slavery
diehard, and the bastard was scheming to secede from the Union and pull
the state into slavery’s confederacy.

Step by step the tensions mounted, and started to go from political to
military preparations. One focus of preparations was the state armory,
the largest warehouse of weapons on the frontier. Whoever controlled
those guns would be better able to crush their enemies.

Here again beer enters the story. Because the German workers started to
prepare for battle. Led by veterans of the 1848 Revolutions, they
started to secretly train themselves in discipline and military tactics.
Their plan: to rise up against the state government in armed
insurrection, to seize the armory, and defeat the governor’s army.

Where did they do their drills? In the cavernous beer halls of St.
Louis. At a given time, they would gather. The doors would be sealed and
put under vigilant guard. The tables would be cleared away. And
cartloads of sawdust would be scattered deep on the beerhall floors.
And with the sawdust muffling the tramp, tramp, tramp of their feet,
the workers prepared themselves for war – learning the unit movements so
central to the warfare of that day. Outside, on the streets, the many
spies of the governor could not hear what was going on within.

I won’t go into great detail about the heroic and fascinating ways that
violence erupted. Led by army officer Nathaniel Lyons the anti-slavery
forces struck and struck hard. They seized St. Louis and the armory. And
they shattered the schemes of the slave owners. They routed the
Governor’s troops in the early battles. And they bottled up the
slaveowners of the Missouri River – cutting them off from the

What followed was one of the most bitter civil wars I have ever
studied: Missouri was criss-crossed by vicious pro-slavery deathsquads
that carried out horrific murders and mutilations. Their raiders came
dressed in a cloud of human scalps sewn into their clothes and bridles –
as they spread terror among those who opposed the sale of human beings.
If you have ever wondered where the frontier killer Jesse James got
trained, it was as a triggerman for one of the most notorious death
squads of the slavocracy.

Hemp made its appearance here too, right in the midst of the fighting:
in several key battles the Confederate forces build protective breast
works out of the hemp bales pulled from their slave plantations, piling
up the bundled hemp harvest to protect themselves from Union bullets.

Fighting against the slavocrats were a complex array of forces, and at
their core were new Union army units led by radical Republican John
Charles Fremont, recruited heavily from among the German workers of St.
Louis. The first known actions of communists in the U.S. was the
revolutionary armed struggle of these largely German-speaking forces,
led in part by Colonel Joseph Weydemeyer, an energetic communist
co-thinker of Karl Marx.

These units militantly emancipated many slaves that fell into their
hands. This was in direct contradiction with the policy of President
Lincoln who, afraid to offend the leading forces of other border states,
insisted in the early days of the civil war that slaves should not be
freed, but should be treated as “contraband property.” In this dispute,
Fremont was removed from the command of the Missouri armies, and these
revolutionary working class forces were dispersed into larger armies in
order to better control them.

There are, in my opinions, many lessons and insights within this story.
And more in the parts I have left untold.

But I tell this story now just to make a single point:

Anyone who thinks that Budweiser and the beer industry of St. Louis is
a story of patriotism, Americanism, of all-American “national treasures,”
of a whiteman’s “heartland” of traditional values and conservative
xenophobia…. Anyone who runs that story just doesn’t know.
The story of beer in St. Louis is a story of revolutionary immigrant
workers who didn’t speak English, who hated the mistreatment of
kidnapped Africans in the United States and who were willing to die (and
kill!) to end the horrific practices of human slavery.

Deal with it. Pass it on.

* * * * *
Mike Ely is a participant of the Kasama Project
( and can be reached at


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I love those Midwest Germans. One other factor in their willingness to fight against slavery: the revolutions of 1848 weren’t just about socialism, or even democracy; they were also, in what would become Germany, about creating a single German state out of a hodgepodge of little princedoms. These folks believed in The Union (and possibly were responsible for making it such a central element in Lincoln’s thought). The idea of breaking up the United States was anathema to them, a step backwards into political backwardness and a way to disenfranchise practically everyone. And they had fought against that back in Europe, and were glad to fight against it again. A lot of Germans (Bohemians, actually) in Texas formed military units and fought their way to join up with the Union armies. Brave folks.

Comment by nm

Thanks for sharing this – the husband gets his unwieldy last name from his St. Louis Germans.

Comment by Rachel

I drink Budweiser (and a lot of “good” beers as well) because it is, like me, lacking in taste, cold and yet, somehow, bubbly!

I will take what you say as truth, but I don’t think the Busch family are socialists.

Comment by democommie

Trés bien!

“I hate patriotic bullshit and because I
love revolution.”

I love that comment.

Comment by Ratty

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