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Alcoholic Originalism


You may have seen this study that came out a week or so ago showing that American adults consume almost as many “empty calories” through alcohol as through soda.

In a world of “facts,” this study might be “correct.” Yet, this is outrageous on two levels. First, calories that get me drunk are not empty calories. Soda offers nothing that can’t be achieved in other ways. Need caffeine, drink a cup of coffee. Need something sweet, there are a million options. People drink alcohol for specific reasons that cannot be replicated in a legal way. Humans throughout history have found drugs to alter their minds. In the United States we have chosen to make most of them illegal. Alcohol is an exception and so looking at it through the same lens we do as other food choices provides a limited perspective.

Second, the study is unpatriotic. Why do I drink? Because I am a good American. In a country where we have Supreme Court justices trying fit a brief 225 year old document understandable only in the context of the late 18th century around the contours of modern society in ways that often defy logic, we might as well examine what early Americans actually did if we want to emulate the Founders. What did they do? Drink.

The definitive book on this is W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the first chapter gives a solid overview of the topic and is where most of the following material originates. In short, before the Revolution, Americans drank approximately 3.7 gallons per person per year of hard alcohol alone (not counting beer, wine, and cider–by the far the predominant non-distilled beverage). While that dipped when rum supplies became scarce after 1776, it exploded to reach nearly 5 gallons by the 1820s, by this time mostly domestically produced whiskey. Between 1800 and 1830, the average American drank 15 gallons of hard cider, at least in the North. This was certainly gendered. According to the American Temperance Society (a fifth column of un-American activities if there ever was one), in the late 1820s, the nation’s 9 million women and children drank a total of 12 million gallons of distilled spirits per year; the nation’s 3 million men drank 60 million gallons. I’m not sure if or how those numbers included slaves, but like women, they drank less than white men. Both women and slaves faced social norms against excessive drinking; moreover, they were not accepted into the public and social drinking life of the early 19th century tavern. But both drank when and where they could. Children routinely drank in taverns by the age of 14. Drinking was especially popular within the American working class. In 1829, the Secretary of War estimated that 3/4 of the nation’s laborers drank at least 4 ounces of distilled spirits every day.

Ministers who considered themselves temperate drank. One, a supporter of temperance, drank 4 glasses of hard alcohol on Sunday to help him through his arduous workday. The Methodist church allowed at least one southern planter to be a member if he was temperate enough to hold his daily consumption of alcohol to one quart of peach brandy. On one horse carriage trip across Virginia, the team stopped 10 times over the 17 hour, 66 mile day. The passengers drank one drink at each stop, leading one foreign observer to write “the American stage coach stops every five miles to water horses, and brandy the gentlemen!” New York Governor George Clinton once hosted a dinner for the French ambassador. 120 guests at this party polished off 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch.

George Washington was a whiskey distiller. John Adams drank a tankard of hard cider at breakfast every morning. Thomas Jefferson hosted the first presidential cocktail party and was one of the first Americans to import large quantities of French wine. Dolley Madison openly poured herself a hot toddy while meeting with a temperance reformer.

I could go on.

So hoist one this evening for George Washington, for the person working on the docks of New York in 1801, for the Pennsylvania corn farmer turning his product into whiskey, and for the slave woman sneaking some alcohol behind her master’s back. And if this means hoisting one for each of these people, well, that just makes you more of a patriot. If you’re going to say that alcohol is empty calories, you might as well say the Declaration of Independence is empty rhetoric. After all, it’s not like Thomas Jefferson was sober while writing the thing.

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  • UserGoogol

    Technically the linked study is about alcoholic beverages. Beer and wine derives a non-trivial amount of its calories from carbohydrates in addition to the alcohol itself.

    • STH

      Yeah, if you’re looking to get tipsy for the fewest calories, you’d probably want to go for something harder.

      • Pseudonym

        Celery soaked in grain alcohol may actually have negative calories!

  • Leeds man

    This is not just American exceptionalism, but species exceptionalism.

    Certainly elephants can detect the fermenting fruit of the marula tree from 10kms and will coming running for it. The Bohemian waxwing has a taste for rowan berries that have begun to ferment. The birds are often found in heaps, dead on the ground, having fallen off their perch. Postmortem examinations show they were drunk when they died and that they had acute alcoholic liver disease.

    The Cosmos is just one large saloon bar with nice decor, but questionable clientele. Cheers!

    • Walt

      But the Cosmos’s drinks are poisonous.

      • Leeds man

        That’s just the discards from the stellar nursery pot still.

  • Stag Party Palin

    Pro thesis: Johnny Appleseed was popular because he gave you seeds to grow crummy little apples that were only good for hard cider.

    Question: I’ve heard it said that a significant amount of likker was drunk because the water wasn’t safe. Any mention of this in the book?

    • Well, more accurately I think is that water wasn’t a realistic option for alcohol until it was made safe, which became a goal of the temperance movement.

      • scholasticamama

        The medieval English and German peasant drank upwards of 3 liters of ale a day. Most of it was what we might call “small beer” (although not hopped) because it did not have a high alcohol content. Dinner and parties would have higher content ale. Wine was consumed to that amount in France and Italy.

        Some have suggested that the Muslim advances in distillation and filtration of water were to see to the need for clean water, since the drinking of harder spirits was out of the question.

    • Murc

      It is true that the water was not safe. I don’t know that it was the REASON the populace at large drank, but scholars of the time period understood (without knowing why) that consuming alcohol was safer than consuming, say, well water, especially in a city.

      If I were to find myself back in the 18th century, I wouldn’t drink any water I hadn’t seen come from a clean mountain spring myself without boiling the everliving fuck out of it first. My alcohol consumption would go through the roof.

      (What’s more likely, of course, is that I’d die in short order, being a weak-ass spindly guy with no applicable skills to the time period beyond being able to read and write.)

      • The Dark Avenger

        If you didn’y drink, you’d last longer than Edgar Allen Poe, who fits your description to a T.

    • The Dark Avenger

      He planted what the communities preferred:

      Business plan

      The popular image is of Johnny Appleseed spreading apple seeds randomly, everywhere he went. In fact, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, built fences around them to protect them from livestock, left the nurseries in the care of a neighbor who sold trees on shares, and returned every year or two to tend the nursery. Although apples grown from seed are rarely sweet or tasty, apple orchards with sour apples were popular among the settlers because apples were mainly used for producing hard cider and apple jack. In some periods of the settlement of the Midwest, settlers were required by law to plant orchards of apples and pears in order to uphold the right to the claimed land. For these reasons, Johnny Appleseed planted orchards made for popular real estate on the frontier.[6] His first nursery was planted on the bank of Brokenstraw Creek, South of Warren, Pennsylvania. Next, he seems to have moved to Venango County along the shore of French Creek,[7] but many of these nurseries were located in the Mohican area of north-central Ohio. This area included the towns of Mansfield, Lucas, Perrysville, and Loudonville.[8]
      Subsistence lifestyle

      According to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, towards the end of his career, he was present when an itinerant missionary was exhorting an open-air congregation in Mansfield, Ohio. The sermon was long and quite severe on the topic of extravagance, because the pioneers were starting to buy such indulgences as calico and store-bought tea. “Where now is there a man who, like the primitive Christians, is traveling to heaven barefooted and clad in coarse raiment?” the preacher repeatedly asked until Johnny Appleseed, his endurance worn out, walked up to the preacher, put his bare foot on the stump that had served as a podium, and said, “Here’s your primitive Christian!” The flummoxed sermonizer dismissed the congregation.[9]

      • MikeJake

        Store-bought tea?!


    • Halloween Jack

      I dunno about this book, but I learned in grade school that the Pilgrims, those abstemious Puritans, mostly drank beer because the water was full of microorganisms. (Fun fact: a lot of Louis Pasteur’s early work dealt with the effects of microorganisms on the brewing process; beer gone bad during brewing was a common enough problem before the process of sterilization was fully understood that many laws were passed against selling bad beer, and it’s still an occasional problem for homebrewers.)

  • Bruce Vail

    Don’t forget pot liquor.

    For slaves and other low-imcome workers, pot liquor was an inexpensive and concealable way to manufacture and consume spirits.

    • HP

      Pot liquor is the broth left over from cooking leafy green vegetables.

      • HP

        Adding, pot liquor is delicious, salty, prevents scurvy, and is not even potentially alcoholic.

  • thusbloggedanderson

    Gordon Wood relayed some of that in his OHUS survey of 1789-1815. Pretty amazing that the country got anything done.

  • Hugo Torbet

    5 gallons of whiskey in a year is not very much. It works out to only about 12 ounces per week, and this is only three proper drinks.

    • Remember though, this includes infants and small children, which made up a huge percentage of the rapidly growing and fertile United States during these years.

      • Shitfaced babies built this country, goddamnit.

        • Brandon C.


        • Halloween Jack

          Babies were put to work in the fields at twelve weeks; any baby that couldn’t pull its weight was fed to the hogs. If you had a childhood like that, you’d drink too.

      • Murc

        Oh, for the days when stopping a baby from fussing was as easy as rubbing some manner of alcoholic beverage around their gumline.

        • I don’t understand why this isn’t still done inside the home.

          • The Dark Avenger

            My Texan grandmother recommended paregoric for that purpose for my tooththing pains, you could still buy it over-the-counter in Texas at that time.

          • Murc

            What makes you think people stopped doing it, as opposed to simply stopped admitting to it?

            • There were definitely times during teething when I thought about it. I never could bring myself to it, though.

            • Pestilence


          • Lee

            I’m pretty sure that Child Protective Services would have some words with the parents or guardians who did so.

          • DocAmazing

            It’s not?

        • Halloween Jack

          Both Bob Geldof and Johnny Rotten, in their autobiographies, talk about having been fed Guinness as infants to “strengthen” them; I believe Rotten says something about a hot poker being put in the beer first “to drive off the alcohol”, but if you know that the myth about using booze in cooking quickly and completely removing the ethanol is just that, then those were in fact a couple of shitfaced Irish babies. Which explains rather a lot, actually.

  • Spud

    Soft drinks used to be able to get that intoxicating effect without alcohol.

    But of course that was when the “Coca” in Coca-Cola was a cocaine.

    The inventors of Coke were trying to turn outcast morphine addicts into more socially acceptable coke fiends.

    • UserGoogol

      My understanding is that the amount of cocaine in early Coca-Cola is moderately exaggerated. Coca-Cola contained (and contains?) ingredients from coca leaves, but I don’t think they processed it in such a way as to contain significant amounts of proper cocaine.

      But it’s certainly true that the history of narcotics is… kind of weird.

      • Right–it was a mild stimulant in the beverage.

  • Pathman25

    Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.’
    Maybe you and John Cole could ride to meetings together?

    • If you are going to admit that, you might as well just give the North Koreans the keys to Detroit.

      • BigHank53

        Oh, right: pick the one city that would give the North Koreans second thoughts about the deal.

        • Keaaukane


          • Bill Murray

            no that’s Ann Arbor, not Detroit

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    Visiting Denver. So far I have celebrated Centennial State exceptionalism with some Mercenary Double IPA, Avery IPA and 90 Shilling Ale. All of which I have enjoyed patriotically. We are headed to Boulder today and hope to hit a brewery and bask in the mountainous splendor. Any suggestions?

    • tonycpsu

      Boulder Beer’s Hazed and Infused is a must. The rest of the beers I had there were unremarkable, but that was 10 years ago. Food was very good as pub food goes, though.

      • ResumeMan

        Well if you’re in Colorado, make sure you sample some of the state’s other recently-legalized mind altering substances!!

  • Hogan

    Just the day for a whiskey rebellion!

  • Richard Hershberger

    I just want to go on record that I find the idea of drinking a quart of peach brandy in one day to be utterly revolting.

    • Hogan

      You must be a Presbyterian.

      • Pestilence

        or someone with taste buds not entirely deadened by years of hard cider, at least.

  • ajay

    In terms of going completely against the explicit instructions of its founder, Christian Temperance is right up there with Muslim suicide bombing. I don’t even want to think what kind of contortions you need to go through to take a faith where drinking wine is at the core of your relationship with God – where it actually symbolises the love of God for man and his willingness to sacrifice for humanity – and turn it into an anti-alcohol cult.

    • Lee

      C.S. Lewis was bitterly against Christian Temperence, he thought it was heretical. In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote that if Christians wanted a religion that was against drinking they should become Muslim.*

      *Although Indonesian Muslims and to a lesser extent Iranian Muslims seem to have clever workarounds for this.

      • Linnaeus

        I’ve observed that Turkish Muslims also tend to interpret the Islamic prohibition of drinking alcohol a bit permissively. At least the Turks that I knew did.

        • LeeEsq

          The Indonesian and Iranian Muslims I’ve met interpreted the prohibition to be a prohibition of a particular type of alcohol rather than alcohol in general.

          I think that the Christian Temperance movement argues that Jesus turned water into Welches rather than wine.

    • stickler

      Well, 19th century evangelical Americans were nothing if not idiosyncratic when it came to religion. Welch’s Grape Juice was originally an attempt to replicate Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine – since the Lord wouldn’t want His people to be drunkards, surely He created non-alcololic wine in that miracle. Why not try to do the same thing in the USA? So non-fermented grape juice was born – for sacramental purposes.

      • DocAmazing

        An old doc that used to do contract work in Saudi Arabia told stories of ordering large quantities of Welch’s grape juice and turning that miracle beverage back into wine. Apparently his Saudi hosts were unimpressed.

    • Bill Murray

      but it isn’t wine anymore once communion is going on

      • Linnaeus

        If you accept transubstantiation.

        • Halloween Jack

          If you accept your messiah dying, being dead for three days in a pretty warm climate without refrigeration, and coming out of the tomb without a healthy appetite for blood and/or brains, then the rest is pretty damn easy.

      • Lurker

        Depends on your theology.
        1) For catholics, the wine is no longer wine. It is blood that has all the visible and scientific qualities of wine but the substance of the stuff is blood.
        2) For calvinists, the stuff is wine, and Christ is present in spirit.
        3) For Lutherans, Anglicans and, I think, many Episcopalians, the stuff is blood and wine simultaneously. At least Lutherans have the “no questions” policy: It is blood, but a man cannot comprehend how and should not make any inquiries into the topic.

  • greylocks

    Much of the production of alcohol up until the Civil War was the result of creative use of agriculture surplus. America was already producing far more food than it could consume, and modern methods of storage and preservation didn’t exist.

    There was some “alternative to water” thinking here (drinking water all the time is boring even if you think the water is safe), but there was also a lot of “wtf are we going to do with all this extra corn?”

    • Linnaeus

      Rorabaugh mentions that in his book. He is, by the way, an interesting fellow.

  • The W.C.T.U. is alive & well, by the way.

  • cpinva

    let’s be blunt, if you lived before the mid-20th century, you’d spend as much time as possible drunk. hell, if the water didn’t kill you, something else would, quickly (accident) or slowly (infection). either way, it wouldn’t be painless. if you were lucky enough to survive those, a “dr’s” ministrations would likely do you in. even the wealthy spent much of their time potted, though they stood a better chance of dying peacefully in their bed, then did the working/slave classes.

  • Halloween Jack

    A decent and accurate summary of early American drinking habits, but leaving out one important point: people drank that much because they had fuck-all else to do. Never mind no movies, TV, radio, internet, etc. Books were relatively scarce and expensive; newspapers could be good, but could also be as inflammatory, inaccurate, and plain badly-written as to make your average internet comment section look classy, witty and well-sourced; folk music, much beloved of NPR and countless baby boomers, was in reality on the average what you might get if you took the worst player on each instrument in an average high school band or orchestra, killed off a random third of them (with diseases like “milk fever” or “the ague” which don’t seem to exist any more), and threw them together and asked them (demanded! drunkenly!) to play the popular songs of the day without direction, practice, or sheet music. There were always dirty jokes, and a fellow could be pretty popular if he knew enough; it’s not much of a stretch to say that Abraham Lincoln was the first stand-up comic to be elected president.

    And, of course, since food preservation techniques were literally primitive (see my comment about Pasteur above), you have the perfect setting to create a drug by a form of controlled spoiling. (You make hard cider by taking freshly-squeezed apple juice and… leaving it alone.) Drink enough, and you’d forget that the only other form of entertainment open to you, depending on your choice of partners and particular acts, would likely result in another damn mouth to feed, unless you coughed in its face extra hard the next time you had the milk fever.

    So, yeah, those noble, brave, shitfaced pioneers. I’d take one in their memory, but sadly, I’ve given it up. But I’ve got an XBox, so fuck ’em.

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