How Alcohol Has Steered American History

By Susan Cheever 05/04/11

From the Pilgrims' pit-stop at Plymouth Rock, to the murder of Abe Lincoln, to Wall Street's meltdown, booze has played a pivotal role in our nation's most momentous events. But we prefer to ignore its profound impact.

Prohibition opponents battle for brew in 1931.

Our country was founded as “that shining city upon the hill,” an image from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount first applied to the New World by the Puritans in 1630. They hoped America would become a moral example, a beacon of light and right—that sort of thing. But as it turns out, an equally apt metaphor for our new nation would have been “that shining bottle on the bar.” The truth, rarely acknowledged, is that a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider or even a dry martini was often the silent third party to many decisions that have shaped our history ever since America's founding days. “Drinking was as intimately woven into the social fabric as family or church,” writes Daniel Okrent in his book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

In fact, our whole country may have been founded because of booze. The Pilgrims made an unexpected pit-stop on Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer. They had been headed for Virginia but finding themselves low on drink, the Mayflower’s captain, fearing a mutiny, headed for shore, landing on the wintry, unsettled and inhospitable coastline. Our Founding Fathers were far from straitlaced 12-steppers. George Washington won his first election because he remembered to pass out free liquor at the polls. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in a Philadelphia tavern. James Madison was known to consume a pint of the stuff a day. Even Paul Revere stopped for a few shots of fortifying rum on his famous ride, which may be why he was captured by the British.

Sometimes we raise a glass to this history, but more often we hide it. The iconic 1848 Currier and Ives print of General George Washington’s farewell to the officers of his army originally showed him hoisting a glass of Madeira—a characteristic pose. In 1876, as the temperance movement gained steam, the print was re-engraved to transform the decanter on the table into the familiar tricorne, his hand now resting abstemiously on his chest. Yet after his two terms in office, Washington retired to Mount Vernon where he set up a state-of-the-art still and got into the liquor business, becoming one of the biggest distributors of whiskey in the young nation.

And for most of its history America has been one of the world’s drunkest countries. “Figuring per capita,” Okrent writes, “multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you'll have an idea what much of the nineteenth century was like.” Our American character, forged by the hardness of life in the early colonies and on the expanding frontier, has always valued the ability to let loose: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means just that, some would argue. One of the rare chapters in our history textbooks that does relate to alcohol is the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. The most serious crisis of Washington’s presidency, this near insurrection saw farmers and distillers on the western frontier taking up arms against the federal government to protest an excise tax on spirits—the first federal tax on any domestic product. Washington called up an army to quash the rebels, who wisely chose to chill out and return to their back-yard stills.

Whether we own up to it or not, the facts indicate that rather than the stars and stripes, our flag should feature stars and bottles. Big business has featured generations of boozehounds, from Henry Ford II, who was infamous for his drunken rages, to the anonymous Lehman Brothers broker who left an empty bottle of vodka on his desk in his abandoned corner office in an iconic photograph taken on the day after the firm’s 2008 bankruptcy. Thomas Edison, arguably the greatest inventor of the modern era, was a leading proponent of coca wine, a Bordeaux mixed with cocaine. And it hardly needs noting that our canon of great artists, actors and writers—including five of the nine Americans awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—is a list of alcoholics.

Many of the darkest episodes in our history, not surprisingly, also include alcohol. John Wilkes Booth reeked of brandy as he ran from Ford’s Theater after assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist witch hunts in the early 1950s destroyed many valuable careers from Washington, DC, to Hollywood, died in Bethesda Naval Hospital of cirrhosis of the liver at age 48. “McCarthy was an alcoholic, and his alcoholism explains his infamous behavior,” writes historian James Graham in Vessels of Rage, Engines of Power: The Secret History of Alcoholism.

When it comes to national politics, sobriety isn’t always a virtue, and drinking doesn't always lead to error. While he was almost certainly a longtime alcoholic, Ulysses S. Grant still managed to lead the Union army to victory during the Civil War. After he sobered up and was elected to the country's top office, he was widely derided as one of the worst presidents of his century. The hapless Herbert Hoover was a teetotaler. George W. Bush was famously sober as well.

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Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.