Drinking in America: Our Secret History

By Neff, LaVonne | The Christian Century, August 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Drinking in America: Our Secret History


Neff, LaVonne, The Christian Century


Drinking in America: Our Secret History

By Susan Cheever

Twelve, 272 pp., $28.00

Today the United States is the fattest nation in the world. Two hundred years ago, we were arguably the drunkest.

So says Susan Cheever, though not entirely accurately: according to World Health Organization figures, 26 out of 188 nations are more obese than we are. We may not have been the drunkest nation either--Cheever sorely needs a fact-checker--but a lot of us were pretty darn soused. Those God-fearing founding fathers, it turns out, loved their tipple.

For starters, there was the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower, bound for northern Virginia. After a month's delay in England followed by nine torturous weeks at sea, the Pilgrims had drifted off course and were running low on beer. Better to land immediately in Massachusetts and set up a brewery than to risk more storms and total depletion of the beer supply.

The allegedly sober Puritans, who began arriving in America en masse a decade later to build their model "city upon a hill," were more provident. The Arbella and its sister ships "brought 10,000 gallons of beer [and] 120 large casks of malt to jump-start the brewing industry." Increase Mather, a 17th-century Puritan minister and president of Harvard, explained that "drink is in itself a good Creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness," though "the abuse of drink is from Satan." Unfortunately, Americans were not very good at keeping that balance.

By the mid-18th century, every American village had its tavern, a place "where rumors began and ended, where neighbors got to know each other, and where communities found an identity." Colonists spent a quarter of their household income on alcohol. "Everyone drank," Cheever writes, "beginning at birth--infants were plied with rum to help with sleep--and ending at death." They drank beer with breakfast and continued drinking throughout the day, with average consumption nearly twice as high as today's.

George Washington, "an enthusiastic drinker who favored rum from Barbados," was unable to win a seat in the Virginia assembly until he "delivered 144 gallons of rum, punch, cider, and wine to the polling places." John Adams "downed a tankard of cider before breakfast"; two of his sons and two of John Quincy Adams's sons "died alcoholic deaths by liver disease, suicide, and unexplained illnesses." Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at a tavern, "with an often-refilled glass of Madeira next to his inkwell." James Madison, who thought bribing voters with liquor was "inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican virtues" (and thereby lost an election), nevertheless "drank a pint of whiskey daily to aid his digestion."

In 1773, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, along with other drinkers at Boston's Green Dragon Tavern, plotted to block the unloading of a shipment of tea. But in drunken enthusiasm, a costumed band of anonymous protesters dumped the tea into the harbor instead. Paul Revere drank before, during, and after his fabled ride on April 18, 1775. The Lexington militia spent much of that night draining tankards at Buckman Tavern; their encounter with British soldiers early the next morning turned into a deadly drunken brawl. …

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