We like to think of the leaders of the American Revolution and the Framers of the Constitution as a sober lot. But 18th-century Americans liked to drink, and alcohol played an important role in the momentous political events of the age.
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.
― Edgar Allan Poe
We Americans like to think of the leaders of the American Revolution and the Framers of the Constitution as, literally, a sober lot. The Stoic Washington, the thoughtful Jefferson, the determined Madison are the archetypes that come to mind when we imagine what our forefathers were like. When we wish to visit the places where these men made history and where great debates among them occurred, we journey to Independence Hall in Philadelphia or the House of Burgesses in Colonial Williamsburg.
But perhaps we ought to add the many drinking establishments of early America to our itinerary, for much of the business of the Revolution and the framing of our governments took place in such places. And we ought to tweak our mental portraits of the great men mentioned above, with the exception of the dour Madison, who qualifies as the “Founder with whom I would least want to share a beer.” (Humorless, dressed always in black and often rambling on about his impending demise–can you imagine the gregarious, lascivious Gouverneur Morris’ reaction to this guy?) Washington brewed beer and distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon, and Jefferson tried to make wine at Monticello (due in this case more to climate than his poor management skills). The young Patrick Henry worked as a bartender, and one of the leading Antifederalists and legal minds of the day, Luther Martin, was known as “Lawyer Brandy Bottle.”
Eighteenth century Americans liked to drink, and alcohol played an important role in the momentous political events of the age. Intoxicating liquors were omnipresent, a staple not only in the tavern and home, but often in the meeting hall, the business office, and, increasingly, 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, with the exception of wine, it 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. Benjamin Franklin listed 200 terms for drunkenness in his “Drinkers Dictionary”, including: “Fuzl’d”; “Globular”; “Got corns in his head”; “Been to an Indian Feast”; “His flag is out”; “He’s been too free with the Creature”; “As drunk as David’s Sow.”
Ben probably used a few of these terms at times to describe the condition of his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention. Of Luther Martin of Maryland, historian Forrest McDonald has written that he “reputedly showed up sober on but half a dozen occasions in his life, none of them being in the Philadelphia Convention” (E Pluribus Unum). But Martin was a fully functional alcoholic, the kind who seemed to need liquor as a fuel or a basic element of nutrition so that he could be at his best. In one instance, a Quaker hired Martin to represent him in court but required as a precondition that Martin not drink “a drop of liquor” during the course of his work on the man’s case. The sober Martin fumbled the case in the early going and snuck out of court during a recess, purchasing a bottle of brandy and a loaf of bread. He poured the brandy over the bread and consumed the saturated loaf. The inebriated Martin returned to the courtroom, resplendent in the glory of his full intellectual powers, and performed brilliantly, winning the case by the end of the day. When his teetotaler-client chastised Martin for breaking their agreement, “Lawyer Brandy Bottle” protested that indeed he had not drunk a single drop of liquor.
Martin did his share to support the taverns of Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. At the time of the Constitution Convention, the City of Brotherly Love 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, so this means that Philadelphia was home to 280 taverns. Nearly all these taverns, which served as important centers of wheeling and dealing, including the much-frequented Indian Queen Tavern, are now gone, their sites paved over in order to make way for much more important structures, such as parking garages, fast food joints, and similar monstrosities of modernism. Forrest McDonald theorizes that a crucial deal between North and South took place over dinner at one such bygone tavern, when Roger Sherman of Connecticut and John Rutledge of South Carolina met clandestinely over drinks to forge a key compromise at the Constitutional Convention involving the slave trade.
The Framers drank not only during the Convention’s recesses to facilitate compromise, but also after its conclusion to celebrate the document they had forged. There were two concluding dinners to the business at Philadelphia, and the bill for one of these events, held at City Tavern (which is thankfully still standing today) to honor George Washington, survives. Scholar Gordon Lloyd has done us the great service of making the contents of this document available online. In total, there were three bottles of alcohol for each of the fifty-five dinner attendees of the Washington Farewell Dinner, and we are given a hint that at least some guests imbibed too much that night because the party was also charged for “To [sic] Decantors Wine Glass [e]s & Tumblers Broken etc.” (Please note that Luther Martin, who had left the convention in disgust before its conclusion, was not in attendance at the dinner and thus does not skew the per capita figures.)
Drinking in America actually intensified in the five decades after the ratification of the Constitution, as historian W.J. Rorabaugh has shown in his important work, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. Despite attempts by early prohibitionists to stamp out consumption, the ingenuity of Americans proved victorious. Rorabaugh tells the story of a distiller who circumvented an 1838 Massachusetts law against the sale of alcohol by painting stripes on his pig and charging gawkers 6 cents to view the animal; as a bonus, he threw in a free glass of whiskey with every ticket. Massachusetts soon repealed the statute.
As Rorabaugh and others have suggested, 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. “What care I how time advances?” Edgar Allan Poe wrote. “I am drinking ale today.” 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. Yet we Americans tend to binge on it in private, with that strange combination of Epicureanism and Puritanism that seems to be a distinctly American trait. Drinking today is indeed a lost art in America; like fast food, we want our alcohol quickly and tend to value it more for the effect it produces rather than for the enjoyment the savoring of it brings. This has been the deleterious denouement of the do-gooding crusade against alcohol; following the Devil, statists have once again deformed the innate goodness of God’s creation.
So, conservatives, let us unite in lifting our glasses for independence and tradition, and with Mozart’s Don Giovanni, proclaim that great toast, “Long live good wine, the sustenance and glory of mankind”!
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The featured image is “Village Tavern” (1813-14) by John Lewis Krimmel.