During the nineteenth -century America was known for it’s drinking abilities. The question some people want to know is “was early nineteenth-century America really a nation of drunkards” (Rorabaugh 5)? The United States was among the most addicted of nations, that in this respect it had out stripped all of Europe, and that “no other people ever indulged, so universally.” Alcohol was looked upon as a disease like the plague and it was spreading wider and wider throughout the country. It was being considered as a growing evil.
Statesman like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams weren’t worried about the use of alcohol for they drank themselves, but the excessive use. In 1821 a wealthy scholar, George Ticknor, warned Jefferson, “If the consumption of spirituous liquors should increase for thirty years to come at the rate it has for thirty years back we should be hardly better than a nation of sots” (6). This feared the Founding Fathers because they were afraid that the American republic would be destroyed in a flood of alcohol.
To others, like foreign travelers they found the drinking habits of Americans deplorable. They were surprised to see how much alcohol was being consumed. A Swedish visitor, Carl D. Arfwesdon, reported a “general addiction to hard drinking” (6). The travelers were so astonished to see the extent of intemperance of the Americans.
Americans drank mostly distilled liquor commonly known as spirits-whiskey, rum, and brandy. Most of these liquors were 45 percent alcohol or as we know it today as 90 proof. “During the nineteenth-century the typical American annually drank more distilled liquor than at any other time in our history” (7).
Between 1800 and 1830 annual per capita of consumption increased and exceeded 5 gallons, which is tripled of today’s consumption. After the high taxation the drinking of distilled beverages dropped to 2 gallons per capita. It seems to me that once the liquor was being taxed the Americans did not want to pay the high prices and that is why the consumption probably dropped.
Along with distilled spirits, Americans drank weaker fermented beverages such as: beer (5%), hard cider (10%), and wine (18%). “Until 1850 annual per capita consumption of commercial beer at not time reached 2 gallons, and it was not until the Civil War that it raised dramatically toward today’s rate of more than 18 gallons” (9). Hard cider was a very popular drink especially in Virginia. The consumption of hard cider was an annual per capita of 15 or more gallons. Wine on the other hand was not being consumed as much as beer or hard cider. Between 1770 and 1870 less than a third of a gallon was being drank.
Drinking in the young nation was obviously hearty, not to say excessive. “However, the charge made by alarmed clergymen and statesmen that in this respect America had outstripped every other nation was exaggerated” (10). During the early nineteenth-century the intake of alcohol in the United States with any other countries shows that Americans drank more than the English, Irish, or Prussians, but almost the same as the Scots or French, and less than the Swedes. Because Scotland, Sweden, and the United States were agricultural, rural, lightly populated, and geographically isolated from foreign markets they had stronger holds on distilled spirits. In Ireland and Prussia their economies lacked surplus grain and could not support a high level of distilled spirits production. In England taxes on distilled spirits were so high that people switched from whiskey and gin to beer. “Although through early nineteenth-century Americans did not drink more relatively affluent Europeans of that era, by modern standards they drank a lot” (11).
Although men were the heaviest drinkers, women were not faint-heated abstainers. “The subject received scant attention because it was “too delicate” to be discussed” (12). A woman was supposed to show restraint because she was delicate and fragile. The women were not allowed to drink in the public for instance in taverns, groceries unless they were traveling and recovering from a long journey. Even then they may only receive watered down and highly sugared spirits.
The delicacy of women led them to drink alcohol-based medicines such as stomach elixirs. However, there was some social occasion when it was proper for a woman to drink freely and openly. These were society dinners, suppers, evening parties, and at pioneer dances. At such occasions the whiskey bottle was passed around from mouth to mouth exempting neither age nor gender.
In the south, women slaves drank less than their share of liquor. Their masters provided watered spirits as a work incentive during harvest time. However, the law generally prohibited blacks from drinking at other times. In some districts blacks were supposed to be a majority of tavern customers, and slaves often found they could get liquor by exchanging their own garden vegetables or hams stolen from the master. “In 1798 North Carolina prohibited retailers from selling alcohol to slaves if their owners objected; in 1818 forbade slaves from vending liquor; and in 1833 forbade them from buying spirits under any condition” (13).
Drinking started at an early age especially with white males. “As soon as a toddler was able to drink from a cup, he was coaxed to consume the sugary residue at the bottom of an adult’s nearly empty glass of spirits” (14). The parents thought the early exposure would get the
children to the taste of liquor and get them to accept the idea of drinking small amounts, which would protect them from being drunkards. It was not uncommon to see twelve-year-old boys walk in a tavern with their fathers and drink from the same glass. This made a father proud that his son was now reaching manhood.
In American society alcohol was very persuasive. They drank at home, together, and at work. From the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn Americans drank. They also would drink before meals, with meals, and after meals. They started drinking as a youth and continued until their old age.
Just because Americans drank a lot of distilled spirits doesn’t mean they were drunkards. Even today, many people drink but we can’t call them alcoholics. I don’t know if anyone could really determine if any country could be considered as drunkards. So was early nineteenth-century America really a nation of drunkards? The answer is no, they were just enjoying themselves.
Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic An American Tradition. New York: Oxford, 1976.