History of Drinking in America: Part Two


A “woodcut” used by the Harrison/Tyler campaign in 1840.

This is part two in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it!  Read part one here.

Concerns about the wide spread use of alcohol in young America started taking form in religious circles.  Methodists and Quakers warned parishioners of the dangers of hard liquor to social order.  The Quaker Anthony Benezet, who founded the first anti-slavery society on the American Continent, called alcohol “The Great Destroyer” and warned of the medical and social problems associated with excessive drinking in a 1774 pamphlet .[1]  While many religious organizations saw nothing wrong with alcohol, stigma was attached to drinking too much. While moderate drinking was accepted, heavy drinking began to be regarded as a sin

The most influential figure in the early temperance movement was Dr. Benjamin Rush, who served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  In 1784, Dr. Rush published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society.  In his pamphlet, Rush broke new ground, becoming one of the earliest people in the medical field to suggest that liquor broke down the body and helped produce both mental and physical illness.  Of equal concern, was Rush’s opinion that the continual drinking of liquor would result in the dissolution of government and the collective American spirit.  Rush called for government limitations on drink asking, “Should the customs of civilized life, preserve our nation for extinction, and, even from an increase of mortality, by these liquors; they cannot prevent our country being governed by men, chosen by intemperate and corrupted voters?”[2] Despite his condemnation of liquor, Rush did not admonish the drinking of all alcoholic beverages.  Whereas Rush believed hard liquors like rum, liquor, and gin were evil and Antifederal, he supported the consumption of cider and beer as “invaluable FEDERAL liquors’ which promoted cheerfulness and political stability.”[3]

Rush’s writings on spirits and the dangers of drunkenness were very influential.  After reading Rush’s widely distributed pamphlets, a group of farmers banded together in Connecticut in 1789 to form the first temperance society in America which banned the production of whiskey.  Like Rush, most early temperance societies crusaded only against liquors, believing less strong drinks such as beer, cider, and wine, were acceptable to drink.. When the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (MSSI) was formed in 1813, it served wine at gatherings.  Thomas Jefferson, profoundly influenced by Rush’s work, “came to see alcohol not as a blessing but as a curse, and regarded liquor as the national disease of Americans.”[4]  Presidents James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson also signed statements warning of the danger of liquor to individual health and the general community.[5] 

While drink continued to be enjoyed by many, concerns arose around the availability and consumption of hard liquor by those classes of people considered ‘undesirables’.  Many Southern States passed laws restricting the drinking of alcohol by slaves to special occasions, fearing consumption would make them distempered or violent.    Similarly, communities on the frontier had long been weary of giving alcohol to Native Americans, unless they were negotiating or trading, in which case they would often intentionally have the other party drink to stupor.  Often, these “Indian whiskeys” would be gross concoctions that would intentionally make their drinkers sick.  It was felt good drink could not be wasted on Native Americans, as it was often social custom for Native Americans to accept gifts regardless of quality.[6]

Despite growing objections to the amount of alcohol being drank in the colonies, consumption continued to increase from 1800 to 1830.  Buoyed by the cheap price of whiskey and the Market Revolution, shifting attitudes toward drink caused an increase in alcohol consumption by men.  With the shift caused by the Market Revolution, more and more workers transitioned from artisan work to a factory-based system.  Losing the influence and possibilities for advancement that were previously available in small shops, workers began to demand “expanded drinking privileges on the job… Alcohol, which had been a symbol of steady habits and a brotherhood of craftsmanship, now became a tool of resistance, a companion in despair, and a belligerent affirmation of liberty.”[7]  In this changing society, drinkers were overwhelmingly men who did much of their drinking at taverns and away from the home – a change from the drinking habits of the recent past.  As historian W.J.Rorabaugh notes, binging became more and more popular in the 1820s as men adjusted to rapid societal and economic change in the Jacksonian Age.[8]  Drinking became an expression of personal liberty and democratic spirit in the era.   Since it was felt that the laws of society did not govern what you did with your body, it was a personal choice to drink – as long as your choices did not infringe on the rights of others.  The total consumption of alcohol exploded.  In 1829, The Temperance Society in Albany, New York, estimated that drinking-age inhabitants in the city (those who were age 15 or older) drank about ten gallons of alcohol a year, a figure believed to represent the amount of alcohol consumed by the average drinking age person in America as a whole.[9]

By the Jacksonian Era, drinking and politics came to be closely associated.  Democrats were known to have rallies at taverns, offering supporters free drinks (a practice also common in colonial times known as ‘treating).  Candidates and voters went to the tavern and drank together making it an important part of the political process.  This practice provided an avenue for politicians and constituents to personally connect with one another.

Alcohol played an important part in local, as well as, national elections.  At the Presidential Inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the party at the White House became so raucous and filled with drunkards that many officials feared violence and vandalism.  In order to subdue the crowds, the officials placed bowls of hard liquor on the White House lawn. While this act might have been done out of self-preservation and concern for the White House, the offering of drink demonstrated a willingness to serve the populace with the drink of democracy – strong liquor. Years later, William Henry Harrison’s ‘log cabin and hard cider’ campaign would help him win the presidential election.  After he defeated Henry Clay in the primary, the Baltimore Republican joked that the way to get rid of Harrison was “give him a barrel of hard cider…he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin” mocking his age and competency.[10]  The Whigs embraced the connection to the alcoholic drink and passed out small bottles of hard cider at campaign stops. Harrison’s alcohol embracing campaign helped him beat incumbent Martin Van Buren in an Electoral College landslide. The connection to alcohol was able to ingratiate Harrison to the common man, demonstrating the cultural grasp alcohol had in the young Republic.

[1] Anthony Benezet, “The Might Destroyer Displayed,” Internet Archive: Medical Heritage Library, http://archive.org/details/9102947.nlm.nih.gov (accessed July 14, 2013).

[2] Benjamin Rush, An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind 8th ed. (Boston: James Loring, 1823), 27-28.

[3] Pegram, 15.

[4] Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976), 23.

[5] Ibid, 24.

[6] Lender and Martin 49-50.

[7] Pegram., 10.

[8] Pegram., 10-11

[9]Clark, 20.

[10] Adam Reno, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too:The Log Cabin Campaign of 1840,” American Studies at the University of Virginia Digital Collection, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/reno/harrison.html (accessed July 14, 2013).


6 thoughts on “History of Drinking in America: Part Two

  1. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Three

  2. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Four

  3. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Five

  4. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part One

  5. I’m not that much of a online reader to
    be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up!
    I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the future.

  6. This is really interesting stuff. Well researched and well written.

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