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.

Our national drunkenness has provoked sporadic attempts to curb the damage. From 1919 to 1933, Prohibition made it illegal to manufacture, distribute, sell, buy, or have possession of alcohol, as only the second-ever amendment to the Constitution criminalized what had become the nation’s fifth-largest industry. The so-called Noble Experiment succeeded in cutting the consumption of alcohol by about a third, but at a terrible price: the rise of organized crime, whose violent syndicates competed for the profits—tax free!—of the ocean of bootleg liquor in which America was now awash.

The drop in drinking was short-lived, however. With the advent of the postwar Golden Age of the Cocktail Hour, our national dependence on alcohol regained its hold. A 2010 Gallup poll showed America's alcohol consumption at a 25-year high. Although elementary school children no longer start the day with “flip”—grain alcohol and fruit juice—booze is still on the syllabus. About 25% of college students report that they have had academic trouble because of drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And come to think of it, a variant of flip remains a teen staple in the form of alcopops, the fruit-flavored beers such as Four Loko sold in convenience stores from sea to shining sea.

Relegating alcohol to a footnote to our history might not matter so much if it didn’t reflect a deep-rooted denial that keeps us from understanding, let alone solving, current crises. Why do we spend so much on health care and have such a poor record of health? How about 1.6 million hospitalizations and 4 million emergency room visits measured by the CDC in a recent year? What is helping expand our ballooning obesity epidemic? What can we do about the crimes of domestic violence and assault? Recently a Long Island serial killer has dominated the news. None of the many news stories profiling this killer in great hypothetical detail broaches the fact that many serial killers, from Jeffrey Dahmer to Ted Bundy, were drunks who relied on alcohol to unleash their blood lust.

There has been amazing progress in the science and treatment of alcoholism in recent years, but somehow when it comes to our own history, most of us are still in the dark—or choose to be—about that shining bottle on the bar. Daniel Okrent wrote in Smithsonian magazine that the Prohibition activists’ “public demon was alcohol, but their real enemy was an alien culture reflected by city dwellers, recent immigrants and educated elites….Always a minority, the forces of Prohibition drove the political agenda by concentrating relentlessly on their goal, voting in lockstep on a single issue…Americans were too distracted—perhaps too busy drinking—to notice what they had lost.

The relevance to our current political moment could not be plainer. When are we going to wake up and smell the vodka? 

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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.