The Drunken Founding Fathers

Stanton Peele reminds us that the founding fathers were known to drink. A lot. I mean a whole lot. Beer, wine, hard cider, whiskey. Whatever they could get their hands on, and in large amounts, a fact that was systematically covered up by temperance movement historians.

Reason TV’s Meredith Bragg informed us of George Washington’s whiskey production. He didn’t tell us, however, about Washington’s alcohol consumption, which was, at times, prodigious. That consumption by Washington and his fellow founding fathers has been whitewashed—sometimes literally—from American history by the intervening Temperance movement, whose effects still drive us. For instance, the classic picture of Washington taking his farewell from his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York—which, of course, involved a toast—was painted with a serving flask clearly visible. This container was painted out of these same pictures later, in the nineteenth century, reminiscent of Soviet photos with purged former leaders excised.

It is impossible for Americans to accept the extent to which the Colonial period—including our most sacred political events—was suffused with alcohol. Protestant churches had wine with communion, the standard beverage at meals was beer or cider, and alcohol was served even at political gatherings. Booze was served at meetings of the Virginian and other state legislatures and, most of all, at the Constitutional Convention.

Indeed, we still have available the bar tab from a 1787 farewell party in Philadelphia for George Washington just days before the framers signed off on the Constitution. According to the bill preserved from the evening, the 55 attendees drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.

That’s more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a number of shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate. That seems humanly impossible to modern Americans.

That’s more alcohol than the average frat party, for crying out loud!

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  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    My dad did some histories of medieval peasant life in France. One of the things they discovered was that people drank prodigious amounts of wine. Watered wine was popular. It made sense because there was no clean water on tap and alcohol would kill the amoebas and whatnot in spring water.

  • dingojack

    Perhaps they were Rene Descartes fanbois.

    :) Dingo

    ———–

    PS: It’s believed that William Pitt the Younger’s prodigious drinking (which made GW look like a tee-totaller) may have contributed to his early demise.

  • timpayne

    I was given a book of early American recipes. While I’ve had little use for molasses doughnuts or roast squab, the ‘New Years Day’ eggnog is the best. Here are the ingredients:

    3 dozen eggs, separated

    4 cups sugar

    3 quarts medium cream

    3 quarts rye whiskey

    2 cups rum

    1 quart heavy cream, whipped

    nutmeg, grated

  • peterh

    A tavern with “a serving flask clearly visible.” Hooda thunkit?

  • Phillip IV

    That’s more alcohol than the average frat party, for crying out loud!

    Let’s face it, between alcoholism, sexism, racism and homophobia, a frat part is pretty much the only place left in America where the founding fathers would feel at home.

    Hey, wait…I think I just came up with the plot for the next Adam Sandler movie….

  • John Pieret

    Marcus @ 1

    It made sense because there was no clean water on tap and alcohol would kill the amoebas and whatnot in spring water.

    Indeed, it goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who, man woman and child, drank beer rather than water. They didn’t know the reason (germs) that it was better for them but they knew it was.

  • Childermass

    I say that every Congressman should be required to drink some before every speech and every vote. That can’t make any less sense then they do now and the tea baggers might say instead of just think the N word and might get voted out of office.

  • Childermass

    I almost forgot, there was a half-American prime minister of Great Britain and Nobel Prize-winning author who was given to heavy drink.

  • http://drx.typepad.com Dr X

    “Actually, I’m a better equestrian when I’m loaded because I ride more carefully” — Thomas Jefferson

  • http://heb712.blogspot.com heddle

    Protestant churches had wine with communion,

    Many still do. Not to mention: the big shots.

  • Childermass

    Dr. X @ 9,

    Assuming you are not joking, do you have a source for that quote as the only Google result for it is this is your comment here.

    (And either Google must really crawl this web site frequently or by chance it did so minutes after you posted.)

  • garnetstar

    They didn’t have Valium then.

  • ajb47

    Okrent’s “Last Call” talks about how much we* used to drink before Prohibition. It also talks about how much we drank during Prohibition (it’s more than you think), and how our consumption fell off after Repeal.

    All I know is, I’m trying to do my part to live up to the Founding Fathers’ expectations in this department. I’m nothing if not patriotic.

    *we meaning USAns.

  • steve oberski

    @Phillip IV

    Not to mention the slavery.

  • caseloweraz

    Stanton Peele: That consumption by Washington and his fellow founding fathers has been whitewashed—sometimes literally—from American history…

    I literally split myself laughing at this — and then my evil half marauded through the starship corridors, swigging from a long-necked bottle of Saurian brandy while looking for Yeoman Rand’s cabin.

    Of course, drinking by American historical figures is nothing new. Was it not Lincoln who said, “Find out what sort of whiskey Grant drinks, and give it to my other generals”?

    Not to mention that certain British PM, who also liked cigars.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Childermass “Dr. X @ 9, Assuming you are not joking, do you have a source for that quote as the only Google result for it is this is your comment here.”

    It’s not a real quote. The actual one goes…

    My apologies, officer. I’m only riding my horse home instead of taking a cab because I feared that were I to leave my horse downtown overnight thieves would make off with it.

  • lofgren

    It’s important to take into account how alcohol production and serving conventions have changed over the years. We sometimes neglect important details while focusing on the sensational. For example when I first went to Italy I was told that Italians, even high school students, drink wine with lunch. Which was true – significantly watered down wine. Over the course of the meal they would consume maybe a glass of straight wine, which is not really excessive when it’s combined with food and lots of water.

    The potency of whisky has varied over the years and by distillery. The same with wine, and we (well I) don’t know what conventions was used when tabulating the bill for a party in the 1700s. Yeah, they were probably sauced, but telling just how sauced is more complicated than it looks.

  • caseloweraz

    I perused the reproduction of the bill for that celebration. It’s clear that the 55 gentlemen ordered and were billed for a great deal of “spiritous liquor” including the 7 “bowels” of punch.

    What’s not clear is whether the gentlemen drank all the spirits they bought on the spot; they might have taken some home, or just left them behind. Also unclear is how many people attended the party. Somewhat more than 55, is my guess.

  • ChasCPeterson

    Assuming you are not joking

    now that’s funny.

  • hunter

    We tend not to realize how much more our ancestors ate, as well as drank. I suspect a major reason is that their daily life was much more physically active than ours is now. I also remember reading somewhere, long ago, that a bottle of wine is the amount a man would consume with a meal.

    The point being that more physical activity elevates your metabolism — you just burn it all off faster — so I’m not sure they were actually loaded. Of course, I doubt they were completely sober, too.

  • chilidog99

    “Johnny Appleseed” was all about the hard cider.

  • sailor1031

    It wasn’t just that wine, beer and whiskey were safer to drink than water; these beverages were one of the few ways of preserving food calories for later consumption – especially in times when it was a challenge to get enough to eat.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I always accepted the “they drank alcohol in part because the water wasn’t safe” story, too. Then I ran across this and now I’m not so sure.

  • http://timgueguen.blogspot.com timgueguen

    Canadians drank a lot as well. Apparently the average Canadian drank 4 gallons a year in the 1870, and Toronto had a tavern for every 120 people. Canada’s first Prime Minister, and one of the Fathers of Confederation, John A. Macdonald, was well known for his drinking. One story, which may or may not have actually occurred, has Macdonald throwing up during a political debate due to overdrinking. Macdonald promptly told those watching that his opponent’s ideas had so disgusted him he couldn’t help but throw up.

  • Nick Gotts

    If the FFs hadn’t been well lubricated, would they have thumbed their noses at King George?

  • jnorris

    That’s more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a number of shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate. That seems humanly impossible to modern Americans.

    The founders are an inspiration to us all.

  • sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Bottles were smaller and wine had less alcohol than now- probably the same was true of spirits.

    All the same, there was a lot of alcohol around- children drank “small beer”- about 1% alcohol- and my grandfather, working in a steel mill in Sheffield in the early twentieth century, was supplied with unlimited mild ale of about 2-5 to 3% alcohol to counter the fluid loss and supply energy. He reckoned they drank up to twenty pints in a shift.

  • naturalcynic

    Chart of alohol consumption in US historyWhat’s really eye opening is the drop of close to 75% with the first temperance movement in the 1830’s. Temperance originally meant “don’t drink enough to get drunk” in the early 19th century an evolved to abstention later in that century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were a higher percentage of teetotalers in the population while the drinkers drank more. Also note that consumption was halved during Prohibition. More current trends show a peak in consumption in the 1970’s at more than 2.5 gallons alcohol per capita to current levels just above 2. gallons per capita.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty — Survivor

    Stanton Peele reminds us that the founding fathers were known to drink. A lot. I mean a whole lot. Beer, wine, hard cider, whiskey. Whatever they could get their hands on, and in large amounts,

    Well, yeah, the water quality wasn’t all that great, and the beer, wine, hard cider, and other fermented goodness was a damn sight safer to drink. Plus, if you do the beer right, it can be nutritious, too…

  • dingojack

    sailor1031 (#22) – well apart from smoking, salting, pickling, desiccating, fermenting, grinding and bagging, making into biscuit, storing in a sealed container, storing in oil, storing in brine, storing in syrup, and even, storing in spirits (just to mention a few*)….

    Dingo

    ——–

    * In some places you could even freeze food and fashion it into a nice sled.

  • dingojack

    Mr Salad (#27) – just lucky your dear ol’ gramps didn’t work on the docks or he’d be drinking Porter (around 4%+ alcohol)*.

    20 pints is 2.5 gallons or 11.365225 litres of beer**. (around 284mL-341mL of alcohol, or between 14-24 shots of whiskey at proof)

    He says he wasn’t pissed. :)

    Dingo

    ——–

    * in contrast, wines average around 4% alcohol.

    ** 17.5 long necks (say, 3 per hour)

  • dave

    @dingojack: “Wines average around 4% alcohol” — Heh? Most wines I see (And I have a 400 bottle wine cellar) range between 11 and 16%. Were you speaking of wines being weaker in previous centuries? That only accounts for about a 1% difference on both ends of the range and a shift in distribution within the range.

    As mentioned elsewhere, its kind of difficult to directly compare to modern consumption — bottles were non-standard then and generally smaller, alcohol concentration tended to be less, more pronounced in beer and distillates where temperature control are more significant. Counting the other way, much of that tab is Madeira, which was a wine frequently consumed in colonial times because as a fortified wine, it survived the trans-atlantic crossing much better.

    Having said that, I dont see consumption of over 2 bottles per participant that huge. I, well not often, but with some frequency, throw parties where that consumption is matched. These tend to be smaller events than 54 attendees, usually 8-12, because when you get above that, there are usually non-drinkers mixed in, pulling down the average. They also tend to extend over a long period. If I start a dinner party with drinks at 5 and we go past midnight, for example. Most people can metabolize one drink an hour. So over 7 hours, if you drink 2 bottles of wine, at the end, you probably only have 2-3 drinks “in you,” which shouldnt make you drunk. Similarly Mr. Salads grandfather, who was probably working a 12 hr, not a modern 8 hr shift. Take 1/2% point off the concentration for the lack of modern brewing methods, and drop a couple of pints due to “Fisherman’s Memory” and thats an entirely reasonable amount of alcohol to metabolize.

  • dingojack

    Nope – the recommended number of drinks to remain under 0.05 is 2 standard drinks in the first hour, then 1 every subsequent hour. Over 30 standard drinks* in 8 hours (you are forgetting that 8 hour day had been introduced in England by the early 20th century) would be technically ‘tired and emotionally as a newt, actually’.

    Dingo

    ——–

    * remember this is 20 pints (11.365225L) mid-strength beer of 2.5 to 3% alcohol by volume (as Mr Salad himself said). Proof Whiskey is 51.7% alcohol by volume (Sikes’ Method).

  • dave

    I am perhaps less familiar with the history of the English steel industry than the American. However, “Early 20th century” covers a large period, in the US, the 8hr shift, although “introduced” earlier, did not become widespread until the 1920’s, which would be considered “early 20th century” but then so would the the 1900-1920 period where the 12hr shift was standard. My limited research into English shifts indicates that the 12 and 13hr shift did still exist in periods that would be considered the early 20th century, but I cant get handle on exactly when it changed over, and what the prevalence was at any point. In anycase, if Mr. Salad’s grandfather drank that in an 8hr shift, I would agree with you. However, assuming a 12 hr shift, I think that is a reasonable recollection, if not actual events. Remember, I posited dropping a few pints due to “fisherman’s memory.” Just as I doubt that Mr. Salad’s grandfather actually had to walk barefoot uphill both ways to the mill, I attribute some of that count to the typical exaggeration of an oldtimer. 2.5-3% is a common concentration quoted for a mild produced by modern methods. I dont think Mr. Salad’s grandfather was whipping out a hydrometer in the middle of his shift at the steelmill. Given my understanding of beer production methods as an amateur brewer who has brewed a number of historical recipes, I think a drop of 1/2% is not unreasonable, but that is my personal, if somewhat informed, opinion. So taking 16 pints (losing 4 to rounding and oldtimer exaggeration) gives 5.12-6.4 oz of alcohol, as stated before, the average person can metabolize 1 drink, or 1/2 oz per hour. This can increase in those who drink regularly. But assuming 1/2 oz per hour, and 12 hrs, the alcohol is entirely metabolized at the low end, and has a whopping 0.4 oz, less than a single drink, left over at the high-end.

  • http://timgueguen.blogspot.com timgueguen

    What became Saskatoon was founded in 1882 by members of the Temperance Colonization Society, who wanted to start a “dry” community. They’d most certainly be appalled at things like Saskatoon bars opening at 5 AM, and being allowed to serve alcohol, for the gold medal Olympic hockey game at the Sochi Olympics.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “Most wines I see (And I have a 400 bottle wine cellar) range between 11 and 16%”

    Okay, who’s with me on this? DAVETRIP!!

  • dingojack

    “…Just as I doubt that Mr. Salad’s grandfather actually had to walk barefoot uphill both ways to the mill…”

    Uphill? Luxury!!! We had to go to Mars in a leaky rowboat, scale Mon Olympus, using only our tongues, (twice) just to get to the mill (let alone returning), and all without any kind of equipment whatsoever! :You don’t know how lucky your were. :)

    Ok 16 pints is 9.09218L, A standard drink of mild beer is 375ml therefore 24.245813 standard drinks per 12 hours. That would still exceed the expected 13 standard drinks by almost a factor of two.. At that rate (should you be driving) you’d be about 10 times more likely to have an accident than if you were sober.

    I sure hope you don’t let your guests drive home after one of your binge-drinking parties.

    Dingo

  • dingojack

    PS: Sorry about the link, for some bizarre reason Windows 8 seems the think it’s a phone number or something.

    As a sidebar: Clippers used to load up with grain at Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney and sail for England using the Roaring Forties. In the 6 to 8 weeks it’d take to get to Newcastle (or where ever) the grain would have just began to sprout (and so would have the maximum sugar content), ready for creating the mash. This occurred up until the late 1950’s, I believe.

    Dingo

    =====

    Furthermore: Don’t have one of your parties here, the cops take a generally dim view of Dangerous Driving Occasioning Death or Grievous Bodily Harm

  • lorn

    I’m reminded of a Virginian historical society which had a painting of farmers going out to their fields. Each carried earthen jug of a gallon or better, a farm implement thrown over the shoulder and a bundle wrapped in cloth. One of the ladies present asked what it was they carried. One of the other ladies piped up that it was bread and water, and perhaps some cheese. The resident historian informed the ladies that while it may have been bread and cheese in the bundle it was likely hard cider in the jugs. The very proper ladies seemed taken aback by the understanding that even the clean living and upright common farmers drank prodigiously.