Academic journal article The Historian

The Progressive Agent of Mischief: The Whiskey Ration and Temperance in the United States Army

Academic journal article The Historian

The Progressive Agent of Mischief: The Whiskey Ration and Temperance in the United States Army

Article excerpt

IN THE 1820S AND 1830s, the United States Army suffered from a phenomenally high desertion rate of about 20 percent a year. (1) The causes of desertion were many but stemmed primarily from low pay, lack of promotions, irregularities within the military justice system, and the prevalence of alcohol abuse among the rank and file. (2) Looking at this last cause, army and civilian leadership by the 1820s came to believe that the chief culprit for alcohol abuse was the army's own whiskey ration. This article will examine the history and rationale for the whiskey ration and the problems with alcohol abuse within the military. It will do so by placing the army's efforts to limit alcohol consumption and what can be termed as its own temperance movement within the context of similar activities taking place in civilian society. Finally, the article will also explain why, although civilian and military leaders and enlisted men largely agreed that too much drinking took place, the reasons and methods chosen to affect a change differed widely.

The army, even more than civilian life, created an environment in which alcohol abuse could flourish. Not only did the service often attract men with a notorious reputation for drinking, but once in the army, cheap alcohol was readily available from saloons and sutlers (an authorized merchant to the garrison). As a result, alcohol consumption was high (including drinking at least four ounces of whiskey in the morning) and with few proscriptions in place, resulted in an army crippled by problems related to alcohol abuse. (3) Many of these problems were not new and indeed had their origins in the colonial British army, but through the 1820s and 1830s, the army made unprecedented efforts to deal with alcohol abuse.

The army of the early republic and its problems with alcohol abuse were a reflection of the civilian society. The level of drinking in both civilian and army society was staggering by modern standards. Following the patterns of European society, Americans drank in quantities that seem inconceivable today because they believed alcohol to be both nutritious and healthy. (4) For example, when the ship Arabella, carrying approximately seven hundred passengers, arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, it carried ten thousand gallons of beer, one hundred and twenty hogsheads of malt for brewing more, and twelve gallons of distilled spirits. (5) Alcohol consumption increased yet more over the next centuries so that by 1825--the era of the greatest use of alcohol in American history--the consumption of ninety-proof whiskey by people aged fifteen and above was approximately nine and a half gallons per year. Reflecting the issue of alcohol abuse, however, two-thirds of all spirits consumed were drunk by only half of the adult male population. (6)

There were several reasons for the high level of alcohol consumption. High tariffs and strained relations with Great Britain had eliminated the trade in molasses, which meant the end of rum production. (7) Water was thought to have no nutritional value, was often considered unsafe, and was difficult to ship in sufficient quantities. Likewise, beer, coffee, milk, tea, and wine were expensive and difficult to keep. By contrast, corn, the production of which soared following the Revolution, although difficult to transport in bulk form, was easily converted to whiskey. Thus, inexpensive corn whiskey flooded the market as a result of easy production and low costs throughout the nation. Even George Washington became a corn whiskey distiller and Mount Vernon's five stills were among the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the country. (8) American workers gained access to this alcohol both independently--even a poorly paid farm worker could afford a gallon of whiskey with a single day's pay--and through distribution. (9) Stemming from the belief that alcohol was beneficial to a person's health, indeed that it possessed rejuvenative powers, farm workers and other laborers received a daily rum or whiskey ration to help combat the effects of working outdoors. …

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