"LIFE, LIBERTY and the Pursuit of Drunkeness" would have been a more apt slogan for the first generation of Americans than the one Thomas Jefferson gave us. Between 1790 and 1830, Americans took to the bottle with a vengeance never matched before or since -- downing more than five gallons of hard stuff per person each year -- nearly triple what we drink today. That little-known national binge was the subject of historian William Rorabaugh's thesis at Berkeley and is now published as The Alcoholic Republic. All Ph.D. dissertations should go down so easily.
The founding fathers were well aware that their new country had a drinking problem. George Washington lamented distilled spirits as "the ruin of half the workmen in this Country"; John Adams found it "mortifying" that Americans should excel in intemperance; Thomas Jefferson was warned that we would soon become "a nation of sots." At times, the young republic seemed about to swamp in alcohol. A traveler, Anne Royall, wrote, "When I was in Virginia, it was too much whiskey -- in Ohio, too much whiskey -- in Tennessee, it is too, too much whiskey!"
Everything conspired to drive our early ancestors to drink: whiskey was cheap and plentiful -- how else could farmers dispose of surplus grain? And drinking was thought to be both healthy and downright patriotic. Because the revolution had been nurtured in public taverns, drinking and independence became peculiarly synonymous. "All men were equal before the bottle," says Rorabaugh, "To be drunk was to be free." Little wonder that the all-time favorite day to tie one on was Independence Day -- the only day an early temperance society allowed its members to become intoxicated.
American diet was part of the problem. It leaned heavily on pork and corn ("hog and hominy," they called it) fried in "rivers of butter and oceans of grease" -- which demanded something pungent to wash it down. Like whiskey. And, anyway, what else was there to drink? Not water, which was mostly muddy and thought unfit for human consumption; nor milk, which was scarce and unsafe; coffee was too expensive; tea unpatriotic. Wine appealed strictly to the upper classes. (Like the Justices of the Supreme Court who lived in a Washington boarding house where wine was permitted only in wet weather, a prohibition Chief Justice John Marshall nearly sidestepped declaring, "Our jurisdiction extends over so large a territory that . . . it must be raining somewhere.")
For the ordinary man, nothing could beat whiskey. It was abundant, inexpensive, home-grown and strong. Strong drink, says Rorabaugh, was needed to quell strong anxieties which were the underlying reason a generation of Americans took to drink. According to his theory, Americans experienced intense and uncomfortable changes between 1790 and 1830 -- a time when their aspirations as independent men were rarely matched by their achievements. Citizens most vulnerable to those anxieties drank most -- and by Rorabaugh's count that included nearly every group of white males in the country. Frontiersmen drank out of loneliness; frustrated journeymen imbibed on the job ("'One man was stationed at the window to watch,' recalled a baker, 'while the rest drank.'") So did bored Southern planters ("We have nothing," complained one, "but whiskey."), and stagecoach drivers, clergymen and doctors. ("I often hear the people saying," wrote Virginia's Dr. Joseph Speed, "that they scarcely know of a single sober doctor but myself.")
At the peak of the splurge, the average adult male was downing nearly half a pint a day. Although women and slaves got less than their share, they still managed to put a bit away. Slaves bartered garden vegetables for whiskey. Women took their alcohol medicinally and in the privacy of home. When a temperance reformer called on Dolley Madison and declined a drink, "the flustered hostess declared that 'such an example was worthy of imitation' and proceeded to mix herself a toddy."
Whiskey was drunk each day with regularity and special occasions called for more. Weddings were toasted with it; deaths mourned on it. Hogs were roasted and houses raised with it. Even court trials were not abstemious. "The bottle was passed," writes Rorabaugh," among spectators, attorneys, clients -- and to the judge. If the foreman of a jury became mellow in his cups, the defendant stood an excellent chance for acquittal." Elections could be won or lost on spirits. According to custom, candidates treated. As early as 1758, George Washington handed out 144 gallons of punch, rum, wine, hard cider and beer (half a gallon for every vote he received) in his race for the House of Burgesses.
The real question is -- why did so many Americans in 1830 suddenly and permanently sober up? After 1830 consumption of distilled spirits fell to less than two gallons per person where it has remained ever since.
Rorabaugh attributes the end of the binge to the beginning of the country's economic growth. It became possible for Americans to exchange unattainable ideals for practical and realistic goals, in effect, to turn from drink to making money. As farmers found new markets for their grain, distilleries closes. The temperance movement, perfectly combining American love of materialism with religious fervor, supplanted drinking as a national cult.
At times, Rorabaugh sets down more details about whiskey than you really need to know -- unless you're getting into moonshine. But, on the whole, he charmingly illuminates a corner of our history with this delightful book about the unsaintly way our sainted ancestors really lived -- proving that history need not be, you should pardon the expression, dry.