During colonial times Americans became hearty drinkers, consuming considerable rum and hard apple cider. They also drank a lesser amount of low alcohol beer that housewives brewed. Colonists brought a cultural predisposition to drink from Europe. Europeans had been using beer and wine for thousands of years and hard liquor since they borrowed distillation of alcohol from the Arabs at the end of the Middle Ages. In contrast, American Indians prior to white contact used alcohol sparingly, usually in the form of mildly alcoholic beer for ritual purposes. However, native inhabitants proved eager to trade furs and other valuable items for the white man’s “firewater.” Slaves in America took little alcohol; they came from African societies that had only beer.
By the 1750s Americans were drinking heavily. Much of the rum was imported, and the rest was distilled in the seaports from molasses brought from the West Indies. Although available data is rough, by 1750 the colonists may have consumed more than 6 gallons of alcohol per adult per year, nearly triple the 2.2 gallons drunk in 1998. During the American Revolution, consumption temporarily dropped as the British cut off rum and molasses imports. As a substitute, Scots-Irish immigrants imported distilling technology to turn corn into whiskey.
In those days much drinking took place in taverns, which served as community meeting places for entertainment and politics. In 1776 the Declaration of Independence was drafted in a Philadelphia tavern and Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors were recruited in drinking houses. A hangover might bring awareness that one had enlisted while drunk. Soldiers in the Continental Army, like their British opponents, received two ounces of distilled spirits twice daily. Alcohol was considered to be a preserver of good health, a cure for colds or fevers, a pain reliever, and a way to endure hot and cold weather. The main limit on consumption was availability.
From the 1790s through the 1820s, whiskey use soared. Heralded as the national beverage, whiskey made getting drunk a patriotic gesture and an act of American pride. In 1790, when Congress, at the request of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, imposed duties on imported molasses and rum, rum distillers complained that they could not compete with untaxed whiskey. The next year the federal government began to tax all distilled spirits. Many frontier whiskey distillers lacked the means to pay or refused to do so, and in 1794 the federal government crushed the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Illegal distilling, however, continued, especially in frontier areas such as Kentucky, and in 1802 Thomas Jefferson repealed the tax on domestic distilled liquor. Alcohol remained untaxed until the Civil War.
Around 1800 settlement of the Middle West began, and that region’s hot summers and excellent soil produced bumper corn crops. The result was a corn glut, which increased when Europe stopped buying American grain after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. Desperate western farmers turned their corn into whiskey in order to afford the shipping costs of sending it to the East for sale. Whiskey became both cheaper and more plentiful. By the 1820s whiskey was five cents a fifth, cheaper than rum, wine, beer, milk, tea, or coffee. It was often safer to drink than water, too. At the consumption peak, around 1830, Americans drank about seven gallons of alcohol per adult per year. This rate of use is among the highest ever recorded in any society and is close to the human body’s physiological maximum capacity for intake of alcohol.
While cider continued to be taken in rural applegrowing areas, three-fifths of the alcohol that Americans drank was in the form of whiskey. Beer and wine together accounted for less than 5 percent of the alcohol consumed. Beer neither shipped nor stored well, and it was hard to handle in a largely rural country. With low population density, beer dealers often sold so little that a tapped keg went bad before it was empty. Wine was imported and expensive, and attempts to plant vineyards failed.
Adult white men drank the most, consuming perhaps as much as five-sixths of the liquor at an average rate of a half pint a day, but women also drank, often at home and sometimes for real or imagined health problems. Many patent medicines contained alcohol; laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol, was popular to induce sleep or quiet children. It was effective and addictive. Slaves were barred by law from drinking, and most had much less access to alcohol than did whites, but masters often provided slaves with whiskey for a drunken binge after Christmas. Small children tended to sip tiny amounts, such as finishing off a parent’s glass. To pretend to be adults, twelve-year-old boys swaggered into taverns and ordered drinks. Masters or journeymen sent teenage craft apprentices to the store to get liquor in a pail and bring it back to workshops. When an apprentice finished his term of service at age twentyone, he was expected to treat the shop.
Whiskey, usually mixed with water, was taken on rising in the morning, with breakfast, at the “elevens” (the predecessor of the coffee break), with midday dinner, in mid-afternoon, with supper, and upon retiring. The American diet ran heavily to salt pork and corn flour johnnycakes fried in pork lard. The same food appeared at all three meals. Whiskey helped wash down this greasy, salty fare. In the early Republic, Americans did not often get drunk in binges; rather, they stayed mildly high all day long. All social classes drank, from teamsters who allowed the horses to find their own way home to judges who passed a jug or bottle around the courtroom. To keep workers from quitting, farm owners had to provide diluted liquor in the fields. Americans drank on many occasions. Businessmen sealed deals with drinks, political candidates treated voters, and militia musters ended with drunken militiamen covering the ground.
Alcohol did have critics. In the colonial period, Quakers and Methodists opposed drinking, and especially public drunkenness, as socially disruptive, personally irresponsible, and sinful. After the Revolutionary War, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who had been physician to the Continental Army, published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors (1784). This key pamphlet blamed the overuse of distilled spirits for disease, urged restraint in the intake of alcohol, and recommended beer or wine instead of spirits. Although consumption did not fall immediately, Rush influenced doctors and Protestant clergy, who blamed alcohol for wife beating, family abandonment, high illegitimacy, job instability, poverty, crime, and violence.
The early Republic was a time of social turmoil, and taverns, especially in seaports, were associated with rising public drunkenness, prostitution, and gambling. As early as 1810 New England ministers campaigned in The Panoplist, a religious magazine, for moderate use of alcohol, which they called “temperance.” Stressing health and social problems, this early campaign had little appeal, even after the founding of the first temperance society, the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, in 1812. The public appeared to prefer alcohol to protecting health or changing society. During the 1820s northeastern evangelical ministers, often Congregationalists or Presbyterians, turned alcohol into a moral issue. At first they urged moderation, but after 1830 these preachers increasingly opposed any drinking. They called liquor the Demon Rum and suggested it came from the devil. The renunciation of alcohol gradually became one way in which Evangelicals, including many Methodists and Baptists, demonstrated the sincerity of conversion experiences during the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from the late 1790s through the 1830s. Ministers found that abstainers who were reborn in the spiritual revival were more likely to join a church than were drinkers, who found nonreligious fellowship in taverns. Although churches began to require members to abstain, Catholics, Episcopalians, and many Lutherans never accepted this practice. At communion, Evangelicals served grape juice, which they declared was the pure wine of the Bible.
Temperance leaders found it hard to defend limited use because no one agreed how much alcohol was safe. They also found that attacking whiskey while exempting wine did not work, because the poor would not give up cheap whiskey while the wealthy continued to drink expensive wine. Some temperance leaders, notably Sylvester Graham of cracker fame, also embraced vegetarianism on the grounds that meat eaters became animalistic. Temperance gradually spread to the Midwest and the South, but southerners were slow to embrace the idea, in part because those who opposed alcohol often also opposed slavery.
By 1834 the American Temperance Society (1826), which claimed 1.25 million members in 7,000 local organizations, urged “teetotalism,” or abstinence from all alcohol. This idea was popular in rural areas and small towns. Some farmers even cut down cider-producing apple trees. Many city residents never accepted teetotalism. At the same time, heavy-drinking Irish and German immigrants arrived in large numbers.
By the 1850s, alcohol consumption had dropped by two-thirds or more as Evangelicals stopped drinking altogether. To be northern and middle class in 1850 was, by definition, to abstain. The country, however, was divided about drinking by region, by class, by rural or urban residence, by type of religion, and by ethnicity.