History of Drinking in America

Drinking in America
A History
Mark Edward Lender, James Kirby Martin
The Free Press, 1982
Copyright© A Division of Macmillian Publishing Co.

“Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with
thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God,
but the Drunkard is from the Devil”.

Increase Mather, Wo to Drunkards (1673)

p. 2-38
Chapter One

The “Good Creature of God”: Drinking in America.

Plymouth, 1621

The Mayflower’s crew belonged to this tradition. Moreover, the sailors
knew that if they continued to share their meager beer supplies with this
band of religious dissenters, there would probably be no alcohol left for
the voyage home. They were not prepared to take that risk, and matters
came to a head. William Bradford, the faithful diarist of Plymouth and
for years its able governor, recorded the scene. The settlers “were
hasted ashore and made to drink water,” he lamented, “that the seamen
might have the more beer.” Bradford’s pleas from the shore for just a
“can” of beer brought refusal. If he “were their own father,” one sailor
responded, “he should have none.” It was an inauspicious beginning to the
new venture. (Most versions of the Pilgrim story pass over the beer
crisis in favor of the traditional tales of Plymouth Rock and the first
Thanksgiving. The modern brewing industry has overlooked an advertising
bonanza.) The suffering on the beach finally became too much for the
Mayflower’s captain; he sent word that there would be “beer for them that
had need for it,” particularly the sick, even if it meant his drinking
water on the way back to England. His humanitarian gesture assured the
Pilgrims that as they faced the “starving time” of Plymouth’s first
winter, they would have an occasional taste of the Old World.

But the basic problem remained. The last major source of beer
disappeared with the Mayflower, and over the rest of the winter alcohol
became scarce indeed, nonexistent for many. There was a small supply of
gin and other spirits, but not enough to go around, and most of the
settlers quickly learned to drink water. The logic that dictated liquor
rations aboard ship, however, remained compelling in Pilgrim eyes and
prompted efforts to secure a reliable flow of alcohol for Plymouth. This
real concern ultimately was shared by all the early colonists.

It was clear from the start that the only sure solution lay in local
production. Relying exclusively on imports was impractical on a number of
counts. England was a long way off, and in the early colonial period
contacts with home were irregular at best. Shipping costs were also high,
a problem compounded as second- and third-generation settlers moved
inland, away from the coastal ports. Besides, the colonial
population-even that of tiny Plymouth-quickly grew too large to supply
through ordinary shipping channels. In the early 1620s there were only
two or three thousand people scattered throughout Virginia and New
England. With the Great Migration of the 1630s and forties, the American
population rapidly climbed upward (as many as seventy thousand people
left England for the New World; many went to the considered themselves
until the Revolution – dearly loved their beer. By the time the Mayflower
sailed, the most popular brew was a dark, hearty drink, about 6 percent
alcohol, that was made from barley malt and flavored with hops (this
potion evolved into modern porter and stout). The beers carried to
America, then, were hardly similar to the pale brews preferred in the
United States today, but they were the most popular beverages in the
colonies in the years following the arrival of the first settlers.

Local brewing began almost as soon as the colonists were safely
ashore. Colonial wives incorporated brewing into their household
routines, and beer became a dietary staple. “Common brewers,” who sold
wholesale and retail, appeared in short order as well, and many tavern
owners also produced their own supplies. In addition, the evolution of
commercial ties with the Old World generally made some imported beer
available to those who could afford it. But while it was soon apparent
that nobody was going to die of thirst, quality control was a persistent
problem. Although brewers used traditional ingredients when they could,
hops and malt from the parent state were not always available, especially
inland. Accordingly, the provincials used whatever domestic substitutes
they had on hand to fill the gap, even if this meant doing considerable
violence to English recipes. A verse from the 1630s applauded this early

If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault,
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,
Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips.

One suspects that the beers produced from such recipes were little
better than the poetry. Certainly, however, the new American beer rapidly
became a highly diverse creature. Tastes varied sufficiently to provoke
an official response by the mid-1600s, as local governments, concerned
over uniform quality, stepped in more than once to regulate the
ingredients of commercial brews. Most beer, however, was made at home,
and no government could dictate a housewife’s recipe.

Nor did official scrutiny discourage some truly searching experiments
to replicate the original English product. In 1662, for instance, John
Winthrop, Jr., governor of Connecticut and son of Governor John Winthrop
of Massachusetts, brewed a palatable beer from Indian corn. This novel
contribution ultimately got the younger Winthrop elected to the Royal
Society of London -perhaps the highest honor the

From the beginning, distilled spirits were potent enough to raise
concerns over misuse. Aboard the Arbella Puritan elders noted that some
of the youth were ‘ rone “to drink hot waters very immoderately.” But
spirits had real advantages in the colonial view. Those who moved inland,
for example, could carry a potent beverage with relative efficiency; one
cask of hard liquor could have as much absolute alcohol as ten casks of
beer and would keep as long as the travelers refrained from drinking it
up. The premium placed on distilled beverages also allowed them to be
used as wages in the early years. In fact, when the town fathers of
Boston moved to halt the practice in the 1640s-it seemed to them that
workers became somewhat less productive after a few sips of their “wages”
-one group of laborers responded with what may have been America’s first
strike. The authorities backed down and restored their liquor. So while
strong drink was not as popular as beer in the first decades of American
settlement, many colonists liked it better than did their Old World

Some of this so-called strong water was probably gin, which, like
beer, had deep roots in English culture. Unlike beer, however, gin had a
dubious reputation. Introduced in the 1530s by soldiers returning to
England from the Low Countries, gin-grain spirits flavored with the
juniper berry-was produced cheaply and easily and became highly popular
among the urban poor (a profitable mass market for distillers, who could
sell gin at prices lower than those of good beer). Gin drinking grew to
an alarming extent and, in the view of many Englishmen, was thoroughly
out of control by the 1730s. The “gin epidemic” ravaged the poorer
districts at least until 1751, when a vexed government stepped in and
placed controls on sales. By then, however, the problem, immortalized in
Hogarth’s Beer Street-Gin Lane series of prints, had caught the public
imagination. Gin itself was never again wholly respectable with the
middle and upper classes. The drink retained a number of faithful
imbibers throughout England, but it never caught on in the colonies: The
early colonists drank some, and so did the Dutch in New Amsterdam and
elsewhere, but seventeenth-century America lacked a large urban
population, the traditional stronghold of gin. (This spirit remained a
relative pariah until the twentieth century, when combined with vermouth
and optional olives or onions it came into its own as the martini.)

As the colonists turned to distilling hard liquor, they proved as
adaptable as they had been in their search for bee. In fact, it was
technically easier to use local ingredients – grains or fruits – in
producing quality spirts than it was in getting a consistenly good beer.
In addition of making home brew, many colonial households began to opeate
backyard stills called “limbecs.” This not only assured a supply of
distilled liquors but also generally diffused the skills necessary in
production. And as the colonials started to standardize their distilling
operations and to introduce their own beverages, a preference for hard
liquor developed.

The movement toward strong waters in domestic production ws evident by
the late 1600s, as witnessed in the rise of respectabel regional liquors,
some of which later became popular throughout much of North America. In
New England, pears emerged from the vat as “perry”, while settlers in the
territory that ultimately became Vermont distilled honey into a mead so
good, as local tradition had it, that drinkers could bear the buzzing of
the bees (indeed, after a quart of so one could probably hear all sorts
of buzzing). In the Back Country, which ran down the eastern slopes of
the Appalachians from New England to Georgia, grains like corn and rye
(as well as potatoes and berries) offered a “buzz” of their own (these
grain liquors assumed a central role in shaping American drinking
patterns in the eighteenth century – a story to which we will

p. 9.

Even the apple provided a major impetus in distilling. The fruit was
not native to North America, but European seeds did well in the
hospitable climate, and orchards flourished. Hard cider, naturally
fermented to about 7 percent alcohol content, became especially popular
in the Northern provinces (although Tennessee took a liking to it later
on as well), where the drink ultimately rivaled beer in popularity. By
the early 1700s, and probably before, Anglo-Americans were distilling
their cider into a potent applejack. Applejack found a particularly loyal
following in the Middle Atlantic colonies, and the best came from New
Jersey. “Jersey Lightning” was stuff fit for the serious drinker: Too
much could bring on “apple palsey,” although one aged connoisseur
recalled that he downed a quart a day over the years “without the
slightest inconvenience.”

In the South, particularly in Virginia and Georgia, the peach
-introduced into Florida by the Spanish and spreading north over the
decades -also became a distilling staple. Peach brandies emerged as great
favorites, and a bit of this popularity still lingers.

“Wo to Drunkards “: Early Use and Abuse

All these drinks had their partisans, and drinking constituted a
central facet of colonial life. Indeed, two of the key characteristics of
early drinking patterns were frequency and quantity. Simply stated, most
settlers drank often and abundantly.

Most colonial drinking was utilitarian, with high alcohol consumption
a normal part of personal and community habits. In colonial homes, beer
and cider were the usual beverages at mealtime. In fact, alcohol was more
common at the family table in the colonial era than in our own; even
children shared the dinner beer. This practice of taking beer or cider at
dinner made steady drinkers of most Americans, a pattern reinforced by
activities outside the home. In New England, communal projects such as
clearing the common fields or raising the town church seldom proceeded
without a public cask of spirits to fortify the toiling citizenry.
Private labor also called for a steady pull at the jug. Farmers typically
took a generous liquor ration into the fields historian of the late
nineteenth century, took a dim view of such customs. “You may easily
judge the drunkenness and riot,” he noted soberly, “on occasions less
solemn than the funerals of old and beloved ministers” like ordinations,
for instance. After Thomas Shepard was ordained head of the church at
Newtowne, Massachusetts, the celebration that followed would have made
Dorchester cringe. Attended by local parishioners and civil and clerical
dignitaries, the celebrants feasted for

The drinking habits of the Founding Fathers attracted the attention of
nineteenth-centur ‘ y temperance advocates, a concern demonstrated in
these Currier and Ives prints. In thefirst engraving, from 1848,
Washington bidsfarewell to his officers over a toast; a supply of liquor
rests on the table. A reengraved versionfrom 1876 reflects the influence
of the temperance movement: A hat now graces the table and Washington no
longer clasps a glass.

The Old Tun Tavern, Philadelphia. The Old Tun was considerably
biLT-aer and more elaborate than were small-town drin”i 9 establishments,
but it was typical of colonial taverns in that it Offered not only food
and drink but also lodgings and aforumfor public gatherings.

and they served as rallying points for the militia and as recruiting
stations for the Continental army. Innkeepers ideally reflected the high
public status accorded their establishments, and in reality they often
did. Publicans were commonly among a town’s most prominent citizens and
not infrequently were deacons. And if they were good hosts, they did
their best to make patrons comfortable. While some taverns were only rude
structures with plank bars -there were a lot of these in port towns like
New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston and on the sparsely settled
frontier-others were well-appointed, pleasant places to spend time. The
Reverend Dorchester is again helpful at this point, describing a tavern
scene common any time between the late seventeenth and the early
nineteenth century -although we can doubt that he intended to make the
picture as appealing as he did. In the winters, alcoholism did not exist.
People have developed problems from drinking only beer and wine (we note
in this regard that in 1975 the average American consumed less absolute
alcohol overall than the average colonial consumed through only beer and
cider). So the potential for alcohol addiction was certainly present.

The social standards of the day had an important restraining effect on
intemperance. As we have seen, much, if not most, colonial drinking was
family and community oriented. And family and community conduct fell
under the governance of social norms inherited, like drinking behavior,
from England and the rest of Europe. These norms defined a largely
traditional society whose members shared a common loyalty to and an
identity with the community and its standards of individual conduct.
People were taught to accept their stations in life without complaint and
to defer in matters of leadership to society’s “betters,’ whether
seventeenth-century Puritan “saint” or eighteenthcentury Southern planter
‘aristocrat.” In sum, prerevolutionary America more often than not
represented a traditional deferential society.

Most colonials willingly conformed to community values, and if some
refused to do so voluntarily, the majority accepted the community’s right
to compel prescribed behavior. Thus, anything deemed inimical or
offensive to the community, be it drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, or
even Roman Catholicism, could be restrained for the good and safety of
all. Viewed from an egalitarian perspective, the world was inflexible in
many ways. Deference, however, characterized the age, although its
strength varied in degree from region to region and was probably weakest
on the frontier. And it had its advantages: If individual behavior was
circumscribed, residents had the security of knowing where they stood in
society, of enjoying its protection from internal and external threats
(both spiritual and physical), and of knowing what their local
communities and leaders permitted or expected of them.

Such was the context of early American drinking. The colonials had
assimilated alcohol use, based on Old World patterns, into their
community lifestyles. As long as mores remained intact, communities held
drinking excesses largely in bounds. (Whether these norms could have
restrained intemperance in a population favoring distilled beverages,
however, is debatable.) Society would simply not allow things to get out
of hand, even though it permitted plenty of drinking at the same time.
Most people restricted their consumption primarily to the use of beer and
cider; they very rarely became problem drinkers. Even

Each colony developed an extensive legal code to combat all aspects of
liquor violations. These laws told tavern owners, for example, what they
could sell, to whom, when, and even at what prices. Plymouth forbade
sales to chronic drunkards, and Virginia, pursuing a similar goal, made
any credit innkeepers extended topers unrecoverable by law. Authorities
also frowned on breaches of the peace in the taverns. In an attempt to
maintain decorum, Pennsylvania once outlawed the drinking of toasts. An
even more serious expression of concern emanated from Boston in the
1670s, when the town exiled Alice Thomas after the courts had had her
jailed, flogged, and fined for permitting conduct in her tavern so
scandalous that it resulted in the first Massachusetts law against

Strictures against individual tipplers could be severe. Drunkenness
was a crime throughout the colonies, and the penalties against such
behavior were potentially extreme. In order to emphasize community
control, magistrates could (and did) set examples with jailings, fines,
the stocks, and the lash. Recidivism brought heavier fines and longer
imprisonments -or brutal corporal punishment. In Massachusetts, the
unregenerate ways of one Robert Cole, perhaps a spiritual ancestor of
Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, finally provoked the colony to disfranchise
him and order him to wear a scarlet “D,” for drunkard. Clearly, then,
colonial statutes gave officials the power, if they chose to exercise it,
to deal sternly with alcohol related infractions.

Even drinking at home could become an official concern, especially in
New England. The early Puritans stressed the importance of well-ordered
families in maintaining stable, godly societies, and they were not about
to let excessive drinking disrupt their world. Massachusetts expressly
forbade drunkenness in homes in 1636 and again in 1654. But the law
apparently had little impact, so in 1675 the Bay Colony established the
post of tithingman. These officers, who as “sober and discreet men” were
to oversee the conduct of ten or twelve families each, were to report on
any liquor violations they found. Later, convinced that the roots of
social vice lay in family sin, authorities directed the tithingmen to
record infractions of all types. These men, however, were neither
primitive secret police nor spies; rather, they did their jobs openly and
were appointed to their positions at public meetings. Their neighbors
knew who they were, and it is doubtful that they proved effective in
checking drunkenness, which perhaps explains why the office was not long

The tithingmen were probably unnecessary anyway. As we already Coales
for his calling.” In spite of other drinking violations, he received at
least one other opportunity to cut wood on public lands. We do not know
if he stopped drinking. He is found on a list of “disparat debts” in 1680
(a debt he might have paid, since he was not on the following lists). The
point here is that Puritan selectmen rarely applied the harsh letter of
the law. Dorchester authorities looked closely at Birch’s conduct and,
instead of constant punishment, found understanding just as effective not
only in helping him, but also in maintaining good order in the community.
And the Birch case was not an isolated instance: Alice Thomas and Robert
Cole were examples of others who had regained the good graces of local
New England magistrates.

One would suspect that the Southern colonies, lacking in well-ordered
communities by comparison to New England, were more given to
individualistic behavior. However, the evidence on early drinking
patterns in that region suggests a strong desire to control the drunkard
and “unseasonable drinking.” During the 1620s in Virginia, for example,
the General Court (and later the county courts) focused squarely on
excessive drinking as a threat to peace and harmony among the widely
dispersed settlers. Indeed, the fact that settlements were not compact
may have made the early Virginians as concerned as New Englanders about
controlling deviant behavior.

A number of General Court cases are revealing. A decision in 1624, for
instance, went against John Roe, James Hickmote, and Nathaniell Jeffreys
for “having kept company in drinking, and committing of a riot.” It was
the rioting that bothered the court, and each man had to pay a heavy
fine. In a case heard in 1625, Robert Fytts and John Radish faced not
only the charge of drunkenness but also that of being so “disorderd in
drink” that they were not “able to go home contrary to the proclamation
made against drunkenness.” Radish also had to stand up on the charge that
he, at an “unseasonable time of the night,” had taken Sir George
Yeardley’s servants to his house “and there gave them entertainment and
made them drink.” Fytts had to pay a stiff fine. Radish, who must have
been the instigator of the reveling, also was fined. Finally, the court
mandated that Radish “lie neck and heels or . . . make a good and
sufficient pair of stocks” for punishing yet other disturbers of the

Early Virginia cases demonstrate that magistrates did not worry about
drinking but rather about drunkenness and its impact on cornmunity
stability. The strange case of Thomas Godby serves to under canons of
wedlock. In the end, the drinking bout and its aftermath had not
threatened the public peace, and there was really no basis for judicial
action in the name of community stability.

It is very important to recognize that colonial magistrates, in both
the North and the South, rarely let concerns over excesses in drinking
spill over into attacks on the consumption of alcoholic beverages in
general. No one, at least no one willing to put themselves on the public
record, considered a broad legal prohibition as necessary for communal
harmony. That argument would have flown in the face of the entire
European heritage. If people denounced cases of individual intemperance,
they did not directly intimate that the fault lay in liquor itself; the
problem was one of isolated deviants misusing what society viewed as a
wholesome, healthful, and even necessary product.

The Exceptions: Indians and Blacks

While English colonists remained comfortable about alcohol for
themselves, they did not see it as a “good creature” for some other
groups. In fact, they could be very leary of liquor in the wrong hands.
As we have seen, in closely supervised colonial communities, drinking
sometimes was associated with social disorder and violence; and colonial
leaders feared that drinking-related problems in groups potentially
beyond community control could have serious implications.

In the port towns, for example, the authorities occasionally had
trouble with sailors who did not share the common social concern over
chronic intoxication. Plymouth once temporarily revoked all tavern
licenses in Yarmouth when some mariners got particularly rowdy; the inns
reopened after the seamen sailed away. There was also concern over the
behavior of those who slipped beyond the control of established
communities to the frontiers. But, most of all, white colonials worried
about Indians and blacks-groups not only racially and culturally
different but also frequently hostile. The colonists feared that alcohol
consumption among these peoples could be dangerous to over all societal

The Indians of eastern North America were unfamiliar with beverage
alcohol before the invasion of the whites. Most tribes got their first
taste from the explorers and adventurers who preceded the influx of
settlers, just as they learned about other aspects of European culture
from these initial harbingers of change. In some early cases, Indian

drinking did not seem to pose a problem. Some Indians appreciated the
colonial beverages and did not drink to excess. Samoset, for instance,
the tribesman who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter, was
particularly fond of beer. The first Thanksgiving saw red and white men
happily downing gallons of liquor together. But the picture changed
rapidly as the settlers became convinced that Indians, for reasons the
Europeans could not explain, were especially prone to drunkenness.
Alcohol seemed to hit Indians hard and fast, and they allegedly became
unpredictable and even violent-at least it so seemed in the eyes of
whites. The colonial view of Indian drinking, that red men could not hold
their liquor, was in fact the beginning of a long-standing stereotype of
the impact of alcohol on the tribes. Many early settlers believed Indians
to be uncivilized -nothing more than “savages”; therefore, any sign of
intemperate behavior served to confirm that image. Some modern
anthropologists have termed the so-called Indian drinking problem the
“firewater myth.” This stereotype not only followed the white frontier
line to the Pacific but in many respects has survived into the

Modern research has failed to explain the firewater myth. Some Indian
groups today do have unusually high rates of alcoholism, while others do
not. There is no positive evidence indicating a greater physiological
propensity to alcoholism in Indians than in whites, nor is it absolutely
clear how cultural conditioning factors may have distinguished Indian
drinking reactions from those of other groups. Thus, it is difficult to
say why the first reports of convivial Indian drinking in early Plymouth
(and almost everywhere else) soon gave way to a litany of recorded

One possible explanation is that some tribes learned to drink from the
wrong whites: fur traders, explorers, or fishing crews, all of whom drank
hard and, frequently, in a fashion not condoned by the social no ‘ rms in
traditional, settled colonial communities. This model might have inclined
the Indian-without prior experience with the effects of alchohol-toward
problem drinking from the very beginning. But even if true in some
instances, this represents at best only a partial explanation of the
situation. Indeed, evidence suggests that both reactions to alcohol and
drinking behavior varied markedly among tribal groups. At any rate, we
know too little about the role of alcohol in initial white-red contacts
to reach any solid conclusions. Nor can one be sure that the colonists
were not exaggerating their accounts of Indian drunkenness. Perhaps they
misunderstood Indian drinking behavior

11 , “I ,) I)olel liquor, and Indians. Scenes similar to this provoked
the Plymouthraid against Thomas Morton @ band at Merrymount.

dane poetry in which he satirized the Pilgrims with as free a hand as
he gave the Indians drink. Then he went too far; he gave his Indian
friends guns. For most colonists, savages with alcohol were bad enough,
but redmen with alcohol and guns were intolerable. “0, the horribleness
of this villainy!” Bradford wailed, and, after obtaining the support of
other settlements, he dispatched Captain Standish (Morton called him
“Captain Shrimpe”) to clean out Morton’s nest. There could have been a
nasty fight at Merrymount. When the “invasion force” arrived, Morton’s
men were under cover and well armed, but they were also so drunk that
they could not handle their weapons. Morton was taken and shipped in
chains back to England (where he was ultimately freed). Merrymount was
finished, but its demise illustrated the gravity of the problem of
Indian-colonist relations.

Although the authorities fined and jailed many colonists over the
years for illegal beverage sales, in general white officials were very
inconsistent in enforcing regulations. While they sought to restrain
private liquor trade with the Indians, they were not above entering the
traffic directly when it suited their purposes. Often they saw to it

Colonial governments also kept a watchful eye on drinking among
blacks. The floodgates of black slavery had opened in the English
mainland colonies by the end of the seventeenth century. Drinking
patterns, like most other aspects of slave life, were largely a matter of
what white masters would allow. Like the Indians, blacks were perceived
in terms of heathenism. Even more threatening, they lived among the
whites, so that the consequences of violence were omnipresent and
internal rather than sporadic and external (as in the case of the Indian
nations). Furthermore, blacks played a functional role in providing
back-breaking labor for whites, while Indians came to be viewed as a
menace to be removed or exterminated.

But masters did permit a certain amount of controlled drinking among
their chattel laborers-normally on special occasions. In the South, the
end of harvest and the Christmas season generally saw holiday
celebrations, with slave owners providing a day off for music, dancing,
extra food, and drinking (largely of cheap distilled spirits). Some
masters also used liquor to reward slaves for special service; still
others, if they allowed their slaves time to work for themselves, let
them purchase spirits with part of their wages (the extent of this
practice remains unclear).

Unless a master specifically granted his slaves -or for that matter,
his white indentured servants as well -permission to drink, the general
rule was to keep the alcohol away. The demands of discipline in the slave
and indentured labor forces necessitated such a policy. An imbibing slave
did less work and was worth much less as a chattel. Thus, from the
owner’s point of view, keeping the slaves and servants sober was. an
exercise in protecting his investments and property while avoiding
disruption of the labor force, particularly if drunken slaves fell to
fighting among themselves. Overall, bonded laborers probably received
just enough alcohol to keep them healthy -as defined by the wisdom of the
day -but there were laws to prevent them from getting more than what was
minimally medicinal. For example, lest either slaves or indentured
servants spend time away from their masters in the taverns, local
authorities carefully regulated the circumstances under which they could
enter inns and, quite often, barred them altogether. Nor were these
regulations confined to the South. A Connecticut statute of 1703, typical
of New England policy, called for the flogging of slaves, indentured
servants, and apprentices caught in taverns without their masters’
permission. Other Northern statutes levied fines (some as high as E 30)
on whites selling liquor to any blacks, free or slave groups. They also
represented further testimony that if alcohol was all right for the white
community, others could only drink by permission. Social control and
societal stability remained the preeminent values among free whites
attempting to conquer the North American continent.

The slave trade, as depicted in a nineteenth-century Print. While
historians now doubt the existence of the “triangle trade, “rum and other
liquor didfigure in the international commerce in human chattels.

Library of Congress

has generally received most of the credit for weaning the colonials,
once and for all, from the tastes of the Old World. It would be easy to
overstate this case, however. Distilled drinks, such as applejack and
other fruit brandies, were already popular, as was cider, and many of the
colonial beers were not good replicas of those brewed in England. So the
triumph of cheap rum seems hardly surprising in retrospect, but it was
important nevertheless: This trend indicated that the AngloAmericans were
evolving as a separate people, discarding some of their most familiar
European cultural baggage. In fact, by the dawn of the eighteenth century
(if not earlier), Americans were a people becoming confirmed in their
love of hard liquor.

Rum found a major competitor as settlement spread to the frontiers.
Both molasses and finished rum were too bulky and expensive to ship far
inland, and as the eighteenth-century settlement line advanced,
frontiersmen shifted their loyalties to grain whiskeys. Indeed, whiskey
was particularly suited to the frontier. Grain was plentifulmuch more was
harvested than farmers could eat or sell as food -and a single bushel of
surplus corn, for example, yielded three gallons of whiskey. This assured
a plentiful liquor supply for Westerners and gave them a marketable
commodity, which both kept longer and was easier to transport to market
than grain. The advantages of whiskey were, therefore, such that it
rapidly eclipsed rum as the staple drink in the Back Country. The arrival
of the Scotch-Irish, who flocked to the frontier beginning in the 1730s,
dealt rum a further blow. These immigrants had enjoyed reputations as
whiskey lovers in their northern Irish homes, and they brought their
distilling skills across the Atlantic with them. By the late 1700s they
had given American grain spirits a new quality in taste.

The American Revolution also accelerated the shift from rum to
whiskey. During the war years, the Royal Navy blockaded American ports,
and both rum and molasses imports from the West Indies (much of which was
British and thus enemy territory) became scarce. Domestic grain whiskey
stepped in to fill the demand for spirits. And the demand, for both
civilian and military purposes, was huge. Profits were handsome indeed,
and so much grain ended up as whiskey that the Continental Congress,
fearing food shortages, occasionally moved (although in vain) to limit

One of the biggest whiskey consumers was the Continental army, which
attempted to provide a daily liquor ration of roughly four ounces.
Spirits rations were normal in the armies and navies of the pe-


tionally legislated end of the slave trade in 1808, and thus of the
commerce in rum associated with it, also hurt. So by the end of the
eighteenth century, rum had passed its zenith; whiskey was fast becoming
the premier American beverage.

It must be noted that the distiller’s art was a highly varied
phenomenon. Some vats turned out perfectly awful stuff. “Red-eye” was the
slang for much of it, probably after Proverbs XXIII: “Who hath redness of
eyes? They that tarry long at the wine.” On the other hand, there were
excellent spirits whose partisans have become legion over the years.

In this latter category, the first distinctly American whiskey was
rye. While we do not have the original recipe (if indeed there ever was a
formal first one), this whiskey today is distilled from a combination of
rye, corn, and barley malt, with at least 51 percent of the mixture rye.
Who distilled the first batch is also obscure. One version gives credit
to farmers in western Maryland and Pennsylvania-Scotch-Irish territory.
On the other hand, a more pleasing account honors none other than George
Washington. One of Washington’s overseers, a Scot, supposedly persuaded
him to plant some otherwise unprofitable land in rye for the express
purpose of distilling. The resulting spirit is said to have made a fine
impression on Mount Vernon’s guests, including the Marquis de Lafayette.
Rye whiskey then spread to Maryland, so this story concludes, when the
overseer set up shop there after Washington’s death. In any case,
Maryland and Pennsylvania soon became national centers of rye

Corn also made fine whiskey. Frontier Kentucky made the best, although
colonists since the earliest years at Jamestown had distilled limited
amounts. Corn whiskey itself is about 80 percent corn, with a balance of
rye and barley malt. Before use, the distillate is stored in oaken
barrels to make a clear beverage, but corn whiskey has never been as
popular as bourbon, a whiskey of 65 to 70 percent corn and a distinctive
flavor and dark color imparted through aging in charred oak barrels.
Bourbon was born in Kentucky, taking its name from Bourbon County, where
it was first produced in 1789. Allegedly, the original distiller was the
Reverend Elijah Craig, and Kentuckians quickly took a liking to his
innovation. By the early nineteenth century, bourbon had become an
important regional industry, and the renown of the liquor became such
that, as much as any single beverage could, it assumed the mantle of the
indigenous American national drink. Kentucky still retains a special
place in America’s heart for its bourbon.


necessary places, but under the influence of hard liquor and a
“prevailing depravity of manners throughout the land” they were fast
becoming nothing more than dens of iniquity. The future president readily
admitted that his concerns carried little weight. In fact, he thought
that they were earning him the “reputation of a hypocrite and an
ambitious demagogue.”

If the public generally disregarded the thinking of men like
Oglethorpe or Adams, concern over the social ill effects of strong drink
soon became more clamorous. In 1774, Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia
Quaker with numerous philanthropic interests, published The Mighty
Destroyer Displayed-the first full-scale assault on American drinking
habits. Benezet argued that distilled liquor was not only unhealthy but
also degrading and ultimately immoral for individuals and society. The
Mighty Destroyer was widely read, although with undetermined effect.
However, we know that by 1784 both the Quakers and the Methodists had
urged their members to abstain from hard liquor and to take no part in
its manufacture or sale. Like Benezet, they drew clear connections among
drinking, personal moral decline and health complications, and social

The bitterest denunciation of distilled spirits came in the immediate
aftermath, and as part of the zeitgeist, of the Revolution. The
Revolutionary period witnessed heightened concern that society’s
traditional values were being lost -that luxury and vice were threatening
public virtue and liberty itself. A great many people traced these
unwanted developments to American links with the British nation, which
supposedly had grown increasingly decadent over the years, thus
representing a corrupting influence on America. The result was what
Revolutionary leaders often described as a rise in social dissipation and
a decline in public spirit. The most zealous in this view were the
ideological republicans-men like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and
Patrick Henry-who finally came to agree that national salvation lay only
in independence. They hoped that the Revolution would represent a
cleansing process for Americans and that it would fire a rebirth of
individual and public virtue.

“Virtue” was the catchword of republicanism. It dictated that citizens
act, vote, and think not out of hopes for personal gain but out of a
sense of public duty and concern for the general good. A nation founded
on this premise had to maintain traditional concerns about order and
stability, and republicans believed that true liberty could exist only in
a society composed of such a virtuous people. Providence,


as a Pennsylvania delegate, and served for a time as Continental army
surgeon general. Rush enjoyed a reputation after the war as perhaps the
new nation’s foremost physician. His interests ranged widely- his
writings on mental illness earned him the title “Father of Psychiatry”
but most Americans of his time came to know him for his work on behalf of
temperance. Rush had spoken out publicly against the use of hard liquor
since at least 1772, but his masterpiece was the Inquiry.

The tract represented a radical challenge to previous thinking; it
assaulted the old dictum that alcohol was a positive good. Rush had no
quarrel with beers and wines, which he believed healthful when consumed
in moderate amounts, but he correctly pointed out that Americans were now
drinking primarily “ardent spirits,” and, he argued, these did more than
cause drunkenness. Consumed in quantity over the years, they could
destroy a person’s health and even cause death. More important was how
alcohol went about its lethal business: For Rush was the first American
to call chronic drunkenness a distinct disease, which gradually, but
through progressively more serious stages, led drinkers to physical doom.
In fact, he described an addiction process and specifically identified
alcohol as the addictive agent. As Rush claimed, once an “appetite,” or
“craving,” for spirits had become fixed in an individual, the victim was
helpless to resist. In these cases, drunkenness was no longer a vice or
personal failing, for the imbiber had no more control over his drinking
-the alcohol now controlled him. In Rush’s view, the old colonial idea
that drunkenness was the fault of the drinker was valid only in the early
stages of the disease, when a tippler might still pull back; once
addicted, even a saint would have a hard time controlling himself.

The Inquiry was a powerful indictment, and it conveyed a sense of
urgency. The threat of hard liquor, Rush believed, called for immediate
action. As a doctor, he was genuinely concerned about personal health.
Drinking habits as they were, many people did risk addiction and a host
of related medical complications. Long-standing friendships with Anthony
Benezet and early Methodist leaders had also convinced Rush of the moral
and social threats posed by hard liquor. His republican ideology,
moreover, had so affected his reactions to public behavior that he saw
clearly in American drinking patterns what others had only hinted at and
what we have traced in retrospect: The Americanization of drinking -that
is, the movement from beer, cider, and other light alcoholic beverages to
distilled spirits-had not resulted in new social controls to limit
drinking excesses. Not only was



The “Moral and Physical Thermometer” of temperance and intemperance.
Rush did not insist that particular levels of drinking corresponded
precisely to the matching vices and medical and legal complications.
Ivevertheless, he did try to convey, in a way that a popular readership
could understand, the progressive nature of alcohol addiction and its
personal and social implications. In this regard, Rush @ news come
strikingly close to modern conceptions of alcoholism.

gressive nature of alcohol addiction, outlining the disease’s social,
medical, and moral complications. Rush wrote other tracts on temperance,
and he made some headway in pressing his views on the Protestant
churches. A minority of the American elite, certainly citizens of
republican leanings themselves, adopted his position on strong drink and
either banned it from their homes or limited its use. There was some
comfort in knowing that men like James Madison had also denounced “the
corrupting influence of spiritous liquors” as “inconsistent with the
purity of moral and republican principles.”

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