To begin with, grain was plentiful and easy to grow, but difficult and expensive to transport. It served (as it does today) as a mechanism for strengthening relationships, especially among men; as a rite of passage from youth to adulthood; and as a way of expressing a particularly American notion of egalitarianism in a state of intoxication, all men are indeed created equal. In 1830, the annual per capita consumption of alcohol among Americans stood at its all-time high of 3.9 gallons. It was a fixture in the courts, shared by attorneys from both sides, the jurymen, and even the judge. J. Plentiful whiskey resulted in cheap whiskey, and cheap whiskey resulted in increased consumption. Liquor was a regular feature of all social gatherings, public as well as private. So, while not perhaps technically drunkards, Americans were certainly, in the words of one historian, enjoying a spectacular binge.
The Prevalence of Alcohol Consumption
Even a relatively moderate drinker like John Adams regularly started his day with a gill ( pint) of cider. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
It is difficult for historians to gather reliable statistics about the consumption of alcohol; mainly because the numbers that are available often measure different things. It was distributed liberally at the polls by all candidates, including the distinguished Founding Fathers, who understood that the winner was usually the biggest spender. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. Americans themselves remarked on it, as did travelers from abroad, and they saw the problem as not only serious but growing. Farmers west of the Appalachians found themselves with enormous surpluses of grain and only one way to make money from it: to distill it into whiskey. In addition, per capita consumption figures may be based on the entire population or, alternatively, only on adults however those may be defined by law or custom. That is to say that, on average, every man, woman, and child in the United States drank almost four gallons of straight alcohol every year. In other words, Americans were so accustomed to drinking that they had developed a higher tolerance for the effects of alcohol; or, in the words of a Scotsman of the time, they were in a certain degree seasoned. At the same time, contemporary observers suggest that while heavy drinking was common everywhere, it was not common to see Americans drunk. Working class men routinely stopped for a few drops on their way to work in the morning, and again on the way home often, in fact, spending the evening at the tavern. Children, too, were allotted their portion, and even encouraged to imbibe at astoundingly early ages.
Why Did Americans Drink?
There were many reasons for the prevalence of alcohol consumption among Americans, and not only the obvious one that they enjoyed the sensations alcohol gave them. By 1845, that average had plummeted to 1 gallon even, the lowest figure ever, except for the dozen years of Prohibition. The industrialization of the economy; the centralization of employment; the revolutions in transportation and communication; the revival of emotion-based religion in what is called the Second Great Awakening all these factors and more combined to create a society in which needs and desires that had previously been satisfied by intoxication now were satisfied by abstinence (or at least temperance), without the physical and emotional destructiveness that came with intoxication.
Rorabaugh, W. Women partook of spirits nearly as much as men, if not quite so openly. But there were deeper, more personal reasons for the consumption of liquor as well. This latter idea was sometimes put into practice in unmistakable terms: any man who refused to drink with his comrades might be shunned, insulted, or even physically assaulted, presumably because he thought himself above the leveling influence of alcohol.. It was a common custom among businessmen to observe the elevens, a break from work at 11:00 A.M. For example, the alcoholic content of distilled liquors such as rum, whiskey, gin, and brandy (typically around 45%) is far greater than that of wine (18%), hard cider (10%), or beer (5%). What caused such a rapid and drastic change? To say that it was the result of the temperance movement, though correct, begs the question: Why was the temperance movement so astoundingly successful? Books have been written on the subject, of course; but in brief, the answer has to do with the enormous transformation in American society that took place in the first half of the 19th century. for a round of spirits (distilled liquors). Finally, some studies may include only alcoholic beverages sold as such, omitting the widespread use of alcoholic liquids for medicinal purposes.
Was the Early Republic a Nation of Drunkards?
Despite the ambiguity of the numbers, there is little doubt that alcohol consumption in the first decades of the 19th century was both widespread and substantial