"Drinking with History"
As many laws about beer and alcohol continue to reflect Prohibitionist thinking it
might serve us well reflect on the role such beverages played in the lives of the
people who helped in the creation of the United States. Eighteenth century
Americans liked to drink, and alcohol played an important role in the momentous
political events of the age. Intoxicating liquors were every where; they were a staple
not only in the tavern and home, but often in the meeting hall, the business office,
and, even in the polling place. It was a part of nearly every American’s daily routine
and was consumed morning, noon, and night.
Alcohol was safer to ingest in its various forms than often-contaminated water and
was relatively easy to manufacture. Rum, beer, cider, whiskey all were enjoyed by
Americans. It is estimated that on average, Americans above the age of fifteen drank
per annum thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and
one gallon of wine. Alcohol was so much in use that Benjamin Franklin listed 200
terms for drunkenness in his “Drinkers Dictionary".
Ben probably used a few of these terms at times to describe the condition of his
fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention. It was said of one delegate, Luther
Martin of Maryland, that he “reputedly showed up sober on but half a dozen
occasions in his life, none of them being in the Philadelphia Convention”. That was
not untypical of many of his colleagues.
At the time of the Constitution Convention, Philadelphia had some 28,000
inhabitants, and approximately one in four of these were adult males. It is estimated
that there was a tavern for every twenty-five adult males in the city for a total of over
280 taverns, many of which served as important centers of political wheeling and
The Constitution framers drank not only during the Convention’s recesses to
facilitate compromise, but also after its conclusion to celebrate the document they
had forged. With the formation of the new United States, drinking actually intensified
in the five decades after the ratification of the Constitution. High levels of alcohol
consumption is typical of a society that values personal independence, an agrarian
economy, and tradition. The act of drinking in a sense is timeless; it is coincident with
leisure and compels reflection. It looks to the past. It precludes real labor, which
spurs change and progress.
Temperance advocates and prohibitionists of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and
twentieth centuries sought to make the masses pliable to centralized control and
economically valuable to an increasingly industrialized society. Though they often
focused on legitimate social ills that resulted from overconsumption of alcohol—
domestic violence, desertion, incapacitation—their campaigns had at their heart the
larger goal of building a disciplined and obedient workforce and citizenry.
Thus these two tendencies in American history—the desire to express one’s
independence through drinking and the desire to control others through prohibition—
have left a strange legacy in terms of our modern social mores when it comes to
liquor. Its consumption largely banned in public, alcohol has in many ways been
assigned a new scarlet “A” by state and local governments, which regulate, tax, and
even monopolize its sale, all in the name of promoting the public welfare.
Drinking today for some is indeed a lost art in America. Like fast food some drinkers
consume alcohol quickly as they value it more for the effect it produces rather than
for the enjoyment the savoring of it brings. Ah, but not the craft beer drinker. Most of
them understand that great beer is meant to be enjoyed as the glorious result of the
brewer's art. Drinking alcohol and understanding it's role in American history is
partaking in the support of individual independence and national tradition.
*Based on an article by Stephen Klugewicz
|Drinking in Early America