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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 34

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This is the grave of Lyman Beecher.

2016-05-07 11.39.57

Lyman Beecher was born in New Haven in 1775 and quickly became a rising star in the New England religious world as a young man. He attended Yale and and graduated in 1797, then working under the legendary minister Timothy Dwight to complete his training. He started becoming a famous in 1806 when he gave a fiery sermon against dueling that referred to the death of Alexander Hamilton. He really rose into the public eye by becoming a leader in the nascent movement against alcohol. I love alcohol in most of its non-vodka forms but let’s face it, early Americans were drunks on a scale completely incomprehensible to modern society. In 1814, he published six sermons of temperance that were spread throughout the U.S. and Europe. He slowly began to move away from his earlier doctrinal conservatism and embrace the Great Awakening. He moved to Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati to run that training schools for ministers to win the West for Christianity. This was an engaged student body; the students had an 18-day debate over slavery, leading many to embrace abolitionism. That was too much for Beecher and 50 students withdrew and transferred to Oberlin. He charged with heresy for embracing the new evangelicalism in 1835. He was acquitted but this and the slavery debate undermined Beecher’s position and he left Cincinnati to move in with his famous son Henry Ward, now a famous minister in his own right. Really, Beecher’s biggest contribution was his children, including Henry Ward, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Catharine Beecher, mother of modern housework.

Lyman Beecher is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

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  • cpinva

    “I love alcohol in most of its non-vodka forms but let’s face it, early Americans were drunks on a scale completely incomprehensible to modern society.”

    the same was true in the old countries, for pretty much the same reason: the likelihood of death by alcohol was much less than the likelihood of death from drinking water. lacking modern water treatment facilities and sewer systems, drinking water was a risk to life and limb, drinking alcohol not only increased your chances of survival, but was fun too!

    • vic rattlehead

      This is actually an urban myth.

      • Brett

        Same here. They didn’t really understand what water contamination meant until the mid-19th century, but they knew that water with visible contaminants was not good and they usually sought out springs or wells with clear water for use.

        There’s a really good Quora-by-way-of-Slate essay on medieval water consumption and infrastructure.

        The real reason they drank a ton of ale and beer was because it was a low-alcohol form of carbohydrates that also quenched thirst – very good stuff if you’re working multiple days a week in summer doing manual labor.

      • cpinva

        “This is actually an urban myth.”

        um, no, it isn’t. I don’t know where you got that from, but it’s wrong. you didn’t need to “see” contaminants in the water, to be wary of drinking it. true, water from moving bodies was generally safer than water from stationary bodies, but it’s not pure by any means. you don’t need to be a scientist, to note that lots of people tended to get sick from drinking water, and consider other options. alcohol killed biological contaminants, if the distilling process hadn’t already killed them. most of the alcohol drunk was low proof, so it didn’t have the massive dehydrating effect that spirits had.

        over a period of time, people did develop an immunity to many water borne pathogens, and modern water treatment made them less likely. however, if you moved to another area, there might be different pathogens in that water, that you weren’t immune to, so you had to start all over again.

        and frankly, if you lived in early America, you’d probably try and spend most of your waking hours at least mildly buzzed, so the basic shittyness of your existence didn’t drive you to suicide.

        • GeoX

          Well…either it happened or it didn’t, but I don’t think “there are good, logical reasons why it makes sense that it would’ve!” proves much of anything. Also, “everyone realized how shitty their lives were” seems very much like a twenty-first-century anachronism to me.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      Beer wasn’t safer to drink than water because of the alcohol content, which isn’t high enough to prevent bacterial growth (That’s why beer can spoil).

      It’s because it was boiled during the brewing process.

      Making boiled water palatable was also a big reason for the popularity of tea around the world.

      • Warren Terra

        Yes, this. I don’t know what percentage alcohol is needed to inhibit bacterial growth, but some lackadaisical Googling found one paper where you didn’t see any effect at all until the concentration was over 10%, which would be extremely high even for a beer intended to get you drunk, let alone for one intended as thirst-quenching during the workday.

  • Denverite

    early Americans were drunks on a scale completely incomprehensible to modern society.

    Oh, I think I can guess.

    • Honoré De Ballsack

      I was gonna write, “Speak for yourself, John Alden.” Sometimes I think the bloggers here deliberately post low-hanging fruit to get the comment counts (thread counts?) up.

      • LeoFromChicago

        Arguments for prohibition should be unconstitutional! :-)

    • Matt McIrvin

      Thinking about the opiate epidemic, a lot of it is people who are genuinely in chronic pain, and I can’t imagine that this situation was better with the labor available in the 18th and 19th centuries. I suspect that most Americans simply self-medicated with booze until opiates were available (and then they used both!)

    • SamChevre

      It wasn’t just Americans.

      I remember when reading Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris” being startled enough to do a double-take when he mentioned, in passing, that the wine ration that dishwashers got as part of their pay was 3 liters a day.

  • Hogan

    Beecher also wrote A Plea for the West, informing evangelicals that the pope was already flooding the Mississippi Valley with Catholic immigrants and missionaries who would turn our fair republic into another Hapsburg dominion. This was instrumental in kicking off the wave of anti-Catholic violence of the 1830s. His son Edward wrote The Papal Conspiracy Exposed, which is pretty much what it sounds like, in 1855 at the height of the Know-Nothing movement.

  • Bruce Vail

    Between the Beechers and the Bushs, Yale has a lot to answer for.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Always been a Schlage man myself.

      • Barry_D

        You can always tell a Yale man, but you can’t tell him much – unless you have a Schlage in your hand :)

        • keta

          If all the girls who attended a Yale prom were laid end to end a Harvard man would still piss on his hands, surprising everyone save Dorothy Parker.

          • Hogan

            Nice.

  • JohnT

    I have to say, to have 3 children with such meaningful contributions to national life would be the coolest achievement I could imagine

  • Karen24

    Catherine Beecher deserves almost as much hate as Jefferson Davis. Her view of the proper role of women and her influence in speading that poison cannot be condemned often enough.

    The amount of booze the average person consumed before the middle of the 19th century really is stupefying. Pun very much intended there, too. The famous Johnny Appleseed wasn’t all about healthy diets; apples could be made into hard cider, which was the equivlalent of soda back then. Kids drank it. (Also, I must commend hipsters for making cider fashionable. I learned to drink it in Canada where cider was the girly drink. I still think we got the better deal.). That kind of drinking would be impossible today, and we’re rather the better for it.

    • bender

      Before the middle of the nineteenth century, most work and transportation was muscle powered. If you are getting to your destination on foot or riding/driving a mule or horse that knows the way, being drunk isn’t so dangerous. Firearms were less lethal, too. Many people never operated any kind of powered machinery.

      Speaking from brief experience of being a dishwasher in a restaurant, repetitive physical activity can be made more pleasant by being slightly drunk.

    • Dennis Orphen
    • Get this, from Ch. II:

      So a woman, educated with the tastes and habits of the best New England or Virginia housekeepers, would encounter many deprivations and trials, which would never occur to one reared in the log cabin of a new settlement. So, also, a woman , who has been accustomed to carry forward her arrangements with well-trained domestics, would meet a thousand trials to her feelings and temper, by the substitution of ignorant foreigners, or shiftless slaves, which would be of little account to one who had never enjoyed any better service.

    • Warren Terra

      The famous Johnny Appleseed wasn’t all about healthy diets; apples could be made into hard cider

      More than this, cider is probably the use to which crabapples are best suited. Apples good for eating or cooking are rarer, and are not grown from seeds – they’re produced by grafting branches onto rootstock less well suited to making good apples.

  • Karen24

    And don’t forget the English Navy’s daily rum ration. Personally, staying blotto is the only way I would be able to climb those ropes in a heavy sea, and apparently the Admiralty Lords agreed.

    • BubbaDave

      Plus it made the sodomy and the lash aspects more enjoyable as well. Win-win!

    • ajay

      And don’t forget the English Navy’s daily rum ration.

      The rum ration (Hornblower notwithstanding) wasn’t universally available. In the 18th century and into the Napoleonic Wars, watered rum was a substitute only generally provided on tropical service; the normal ration was beer, at a planning consumption rate of one gallon per man per day. NAM Rodger estimated that Royal Navy (not English Navy) sailors got more than 50% of their daily calorie intake from the beer ration.

  • Just so you know, Vin Scully just mentioned during the Dodger broadcast how common it was to see dead horses in the street in his youth.

    • Murc

      … was it really? Scully is old, but it’s not like he was born in the 19th century, and he grew up in New York City. By the thirties the penetration of the automobile there was immense, and by the forties near-total. I have no doubt he still saw working horses as a child, but I have my doubts that it was “common” to see them dead in the streets, simply because horses as whole were uncommon by then.

      • Warren Terra

        Scully’s secret past as a serial killer of urban horses revealed at last!

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