Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of... Drunkenness?

By Adam K. Raymond 07/03/12

As the nation celebrates George Washington's birthday, The Fix recalls that he and his fellow Founding Fathers were prodigious boozers. How does the first president fare in our (very subjective) ranking?

Washington developed his taste for rum as a teenager in Barbados.
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Contrary to those familiar subdued oil paintings that depict the signing of the Constitution, the birth of our country was far from a sober affair. In fact, records reveal, in the days before the Founding Fathers signed the document in 1787, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention found themselves at a Philadelphia tavern—where, for lack of a better phrase, they partied their asses off. The bar tab included: "54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch." By the calculus of addiction expert and author Stanton Peele, that’s "more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a few shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate."

Which is impressive but perhaps unsurprising, considering that beer was more common than drinking water in parts of the Colonies. So who were the Constitutional Convention's biggest boozers? Here's a very subjective ranking  of our nation's founders—from the steadiest to the most likely to pass out in his porter. 

10. James Monroe

There's no better way to train for a lifetime as a heavy drinker than by serving as an aide to one. That's what Monroe did during the Revolutionary War, as General Stirling’s right hand man and drinking partner. Once in the White House, Monroe kept up the habit and employed fellow founder Thomas Jefferson as his wine advisor. 

9. Thomas Paine

Before he was the author of Common Sense and a radical revolutionary, Thomas Paine was a failed businessman, a crappy teacher and a two-time divorcé. The few joys of the first half of his life included gulping wine at his local tavern and debating politics. In his middle age Paine became an integral part of the American Revolution and though he drank, it was always in moderation. That changed when he got older, though—when an absent-minded and socially isolated Paine began throwing back wine and brandy with unfettered ferocity. 

8. James Madison

According to legend, the man who drafted the Bill of Rights downed a pint of whiskey a day. Of course, drinking booze was often safer than drinking water in the late 18th century, but a pint a day was still excessive. At least that’s what lesser-known Founding Father Gouverneur Morris thought. The author of the preamble to the Constitution, Morris once called Madison "a fool and a drunkard." So committed was Madison to the bottle that even the influence of Benjamin Rush—a prohibitionist and fellow Founder who inspired many in Washington to dry out—couldn't dissuade him. 

7. Ethan Allen

This war hero, businessman, writer and philosopher, whose name would one day be stolen by a furniture company, was a prodigious drunk known widely for his affinity for "stonewall"—a mixture of rum and hard cider. During the war, Allen and his Green Mountain Boys would imbibe the potent drink in preparation for battle with the British. Such was Allen's legend as a drunkard that tall tales started to get passed around. According to one, he and a cousin fell asleep in the woods after a long day of drinking. His cousin woke to the sounds of a hissing snake biting Allen over and over. Before he could fight the snake off, the cousin watched it slither away, disoriented and burping. Soon Allen awoke, cursing the mosquitoes biting him in his sleep. 

6. John Hancock

Before he was known for that flamboyant signature, John Hancock was a renowned rum runner. His involvement with the sauce extended far beyond smuggling it into the country, though. Hancock was a fixture in the taverns of Boston, where he and patriots like Sam Adams helped sow the seeds of rebellion. Hard cider was Hancock's drink of choice. The two-time governor of Massachusetts was such a prolific bar patron that it's been suggested the claim "John Hancock drank here" could be made much more often than the popular "George Washington slept here." 

5. George Washington

After losing his first election to the Virginia House of Burgesses, America's first president harnessed the power of booze in his second election—distributing 144 gallons of rum, wine, cider and beer to voters. He won, and took office on April 30, 1789. The occasion called for a party and that meant Washington needed rum—for which he'd developed a taste during some teenage years spent in Barbados. Despite laws against importing the booze, Washington had his barrel of rum at his inauguration. Eventually Washington's drinking started to take a toll on his body, but not in a traditional way: According to a letter from his dentist, the president's love of port wine was staining and softening his ivory teeth. After leaving office and retiring to Mount Vernon, Washington found that booze was good for more than just drinking. He began using extra grain from his farm to distill whiskey and soon became one of the biggest distillers in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. 

4. John Marshall

Like many of his fellow Founders, John Marshall was a noted fan of Madeira, the strong Portuguese wine with an ability to withstand extreme temperatures. After his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1801, the Virginian began inviting his fellow Justices over for dinners, which were always "lubricated with a well-chosen Madeira," according to a biography. Marshall's love of wine was no secret in Washington. In fact, wine companies in the District began to sell their best bottles under the name "The Supreme Court," as a nod to Marshall's proclivities. The Chief Justice’s taste was as inherent to his persona as his love of Federalism. As Justice Joseph Story once wrote, Marshall was brought up on Federalism and Madeira—and he was not a man to outgrow his early prejudices.

3. John Adams

At 15, the future second president enrolled at Harvard and soon developed a regular breakfast habit: bread and beer. Of course, this is a man who started smoking at eight, so a little morning brew wasn't too big of a deal. Adams would eventually outgrow beer and move on to the more popular hard cider. A descendent of his once wrote, "To the end of John Adams' life, a large tankard of hard cider was his morning draught before breakfast." No need to rely on the words of others, though. During a trip to Philadelphia, Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, about the city’s horrible selection of alcohol: "I am getting nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this cause alone."  

2. Thomas Jefferson

While his peers tended toward cider and beer, Thomas Jefferson was wine all the way. Described by The New York Times as "a lifelong oenophile," Jefferson once took a trip to France to improve his health. At least that's what he claimed. Turns out Jefferson started his three-month journey by drinking just about all the wine in Burgundy. Jefferson made no secret of his love of wine while in the White House. Rather, he flaunted it by holding regular wine-soaked get-togethers that earned him the informal title of "inventor of the presidential cocktail party." All told, he racked up an $11,000 wine bill in his eight years in office—an enormous sum for the time. Jefferson didn't slow down in his post-presidential years. His estate at Monticello was home to a brewery, which Jefferson eventually stopped using, and vineyards that never proved able to produce wine-bearing grapes. But Jefferson wasn't discouraged by this failure, and opted to have a dumb waiter installed between his cellar and dining room to ensure the fastest delivery possible. 

1. Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin's reputation as a boozer may be preceded by his reputation as a scientist, but the man who once published a list of more than 200 euphemisms for the word "drunk" sure spent a lot of his time that way. His love of wine, cider and the occasional beer didn't just extend to drinking them, though. He also wrote songs, poems and letters on the subject. They contained lines such as "Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried with fewer tensions and more tolerance." During the Constitutional Convention Franklin reportedly had a personal bodyguard follow him around so he wouldn't get into trouble at local taverns. A noted lover of Maderia, which he first tried at 19, Franklin's personal wine cellar is said to have contained more than a thousand bottles. He was such a fan of the drink that he once joked he should be buried in it: "I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira." Loyal to the end, Franklin wouldn’t blame wine for the gout that hobbled him. Instead, he wrote that it afflicted him because he ate a "hearty supper, much cheese and drank a good deal of champagne."

Frequent Fix contributor Adam K. Raymond draws the line at a mere two bottles of claret per meal, and yet still suffers from gout.

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Adam K. Raymond covers politics and sports for New York Magazine. Visit Adam's website and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.