The Alcoholic Republic
W. J. Rorabaugh
Rorabaugh’s theory, reminiscent of the theory that civilization can be traced back to communal beer-drinking festivals, is that the United States was founded on drunkenness, but that around 1830 the country sobered up, got religion, forgot about drunken republican brotherhood, and devoted itself thereafter to property accumulation.
Rorabaugh has done his homework and tells us pretty much everything we want to know about the history of America’s drinking habits. During the early colonial period spirits were regarded as a healthful gift of God and drinking started at breakfast. During the the revolutionary and early republican periods communal bingeing became widespread, but after about 1830 or so, when the republican ideals had proven hard to maintain, the norm became individualistic evangelical Christianity, sobriety, and self-improvement in the pursuit of wealth – or else solo binge drinking.
For the first settlers west of the Appalachians, whiskey was the only cash crop and served as a form of currency in a cash-poor region. (Rorabaugh compares American frontier life in the early 19th century to that of the similar impoverished rural cultures in developing but still underdeveloped Sweden and Scotland). Most of the American groups especially noted for drunkenness are about what you’d expect (laborers, sailors, Irish immigrants), but few would have guessed that schoolteachers and ministers would be among them. It’s also surprising to find that the Primitive (Hardshell) Baptists forbade members to join temperance societies.
Still later, when the existence of a permanent working class with little hope of rising any higher became evident, desperate forms of escapist drinking became most prevalent. The temperance movement rose as early as 1750, but only when it took a religious form around 1830 did it become effective. Drinking by immigrants and the lower classes was always regarded as more harmful than drinking by “real Americans”, and the prohibition movement tended also to be middle class and nativist.
The beverages of choice were fruit brandy, rum and hard cider in the beginning, whiskey and cider during the period of early independence, and finally whiskey and beer. Tea and wine were generally regarded as unpatriotic, and after a certain point, so was rum. During the early days milk and clean water were hard to get and were even regarded as unhealthful, and few adults drank either if they could help it. The American taste was for distilled spirits mixed strong, and some early temperance advocates even promoted beer as a temperance drink. (But beer only became important relatively late, with the German immigration after 1850.)
Rorabaugh speculates that whiskey helped people endure a horrendous diet consisting almost entirely of pork and corn meal. Beyond that, “Americans had psychological needs that were met better by alcohol than by food” (p. 122). American drinking culture, as distinguished from Italian drinking culture for example, helped men deal with their disappointments, anxiety, and high but probably unattainable goals. He also notes that both abstinence and the characteristic alternation of abstinence and bingeing are conducive to a strong work ethic, contrasting both patterns to the use of opium in that respect.
Drunk or sober, students of American history should all find Rorabaugh’s book to be of great interest.
[Links, further reading, and my ancestor the frontier brewer are at “more”].