Booze in American History

drunk pilgrimsHistorian of addiction Susan Cheever’s new book Drinking in America: Our Secret History contains fascinating facts about America’s relationship with alcohol. According to Cheever, the Pilgrims landed at Cape Cod in part because they were running out of beer. Somehow that never made it into our grade school social studies texts.

Because most water was not potable in the 17th Century, especially on a long voyage across the ocean, beer or ale was the drink of choice. It would be interesting to know how much that daily dose of alcohol influenced their judgments; in Cheever’s view the influence was considerable.

Sarah Hoopla’s fascinating review of the book summarizes some of the history:

In the harsh early years of the New World, drink was a necessary balm. Settlers sipped their way through icy winters. Schoolchildren were weaned on flip, a cocktail meant to keep the young ones hardy. Alcohol was sustenance, celebration, and fortitude. Even the notoriously prim Puritans believed in the power of booze, though they warned of its dangers as well. As Massachusetts Bay Colony elder Increase Mather put it, “Wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” The tricky question is: when does the one tip over to the other? The Puritans were the first to place restrictions on alcohol consumption, and as Cheever writes, “the difference in attitude toward drinking between the Pilgrims and the Puritans would split the 17th century Great Migration to America into two factions.” You can still find these warring philosophies today — “the one that holds our freedom to eat and drink as an essential liberty, and the one that hopes to limit our drinking through law for the good of the community.”

Even the American Revolution is pulled into the narrative:

The patriots who tossed tea into the Boston Harbor in 1773 hadn’t planned on doing so, but they were blasted after hours of drunken scheming. “Perhaps if they had been sober,” Cheever writes, “the night would have been different; they were not sober. They were drunk enough to change history.”

In fact much of our early history seems to have been decided through a alcoholic haze:

John Adams drank a tankard of cider upon waking. Washington ran a profitable distillery at Mount Vernon. Irish immigrants built the Erie Canal fueled by whiskey. Johnny Appleseed, the staple of children’s fables, sowed his seeds not for apples to eat but apples to drink.

There is plenty more along these lines as Cheever brings her narrative into the late 20th Century, pointing out that the much maligned prohibition was fueled by women attempting to make their home a safe space.

We tend to think of our leaders as soberly pondering the great issues of war, economics, and politics in the great, unfolding pageant of American history inspired mostly by their religious faith and concern for the common good.

As Cheever shows, more than likely our history (and by implication the history of other nations) was carried out by alcohol-addled tipplers stumbling through life like the rest of us.

It explains a lot.

I have not yet read the book but Hoopla’s review has piqued my interest. I’m sure you know an “alcohol-addled tippler” for whom this would make a nice Christmas gift.

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