Why I Love History


Here’s why I love history: you always stumble on things so unexpected, so different from the stereotypes you expect, so much better than anything you could make up.

In this excerpt from U.S. Grant’s memoirs (that’s him in the picture, looking very different from how we’re used to seeing him on the fifty-dollar bill)  it turns out that a major cause for the American war with Mexico (aside from taking about half a country away from the Mexicans) was the economics of drug smuggling — from America into Mexico. 

It was a drug war!

It seems the price of tobacco was unnaturally high in Mexico because of government restrictions, so smugglers could make a lot of money taking what Grant calls “the weed” across the Rio Grande to sell to the addicted population of Mexico who all smoked, partly because tobacco was hard to get, which made it more attractive. 

After the restrictions were lifted, the price dropped, smuggling stopped, and usage declined. Ever hear about that before? I’ve put an edited excerpt here, but the whole memoir is a great read and available free in eBook form.

U.S. Grant:

At the time of its first occupancy by United States troops there was a small Mexican hamlet there, containing probably less than one hundred souls. There was, in addition, a small American trading post, at which goods were sold to Mexican smugglers…The trade in tobacco was enormous, considering the population to be supplied. Almost every Mexican above the age of ten years, and many much younger, smoked the cigarette. Nearly every Mexican carried a pouch of leaf tobacco, powdered by rolling in the hands, and a roll of corn husks to make wrappers. The cigarettes were made by the smokers as they used them…

[T]he cultivation, manufacture and sale of tobacco constituted a government monopoly, and paid the bulk of the revenue collected from internal sources. The price was enormously high, and made successful smuggling very profitable. The difficulty of obtaining tobacco is probably the reason why everybody, male and female, used it at that time. I know from my own experience that when I was at West Point, the fact that tobacco, in every form, was prohibited, and the mere possession of the weed severely punished, made the majority of the cadets, myself included, try to acquire the habit of using it. I failed utterly at the time and for many years afterward; but the majority accomplished the object of their youthful ambition…

The native population had been in the habit of using “the weed” from a period, back of any recorded history of this continent. Bad habits—if not restrained by law or public opinion—spread more rapidly and universally than good ones, and the Spanish colonists adopted the use of tobacco almost as generally as the natives. Spain, therefore, in order to secure the largest revenue from this source, prohibited the cultivation, except in specified localities—and in these places farmed out the privilege at a very high price. The tobacco when raised could only be sold to the government, and the price to the consumer was limited only by the avarice of the authorities, and the capacity of the people to pay…

Now, [since the tobacco tax has been repealed,] the citizens are allowed to cultivate any crops the soil will yield. Tobacco is cheap, and every quality can be produced. Its use is by no means so general as when I first visited the country.

Excerpt From: Ulysses S. Grant. “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, Complete.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/1aS1D.l