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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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