“One Nation, Under the Influence”: I review a National Archives show on US Boozin’

“One Nation, Under the Influence”: I review a National Archives show on US Boozin’ July 8, 2015

for The American Interest:

“Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” on exhibit at the National Archives through January 10, is a lot like a 2 a.m. barroom yarn: rambling, studded with odd and fascinating moments, but lacking the one thing that might make it all make sense. …

“Spirited Republic” is organized mostly-chronologically. The opening sections make creative use of the archival material to tell the story of alcohol’s role in early American civic history: A reproduction of George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 painting “The County Election” shows drunk men nodding off at the polls while a swing voter asks for a bribe; a medical dispensary’s records show the brandy, wine, and whiskey prescribed to soldiers.

This show is a strangely official, utilitarian history of the world’s most beloved intoxicant. The benefits of alcohol explored in it are largely commercial and medical or quasi-medical. Alcohol pacified and motivated the troops, from the Founding through World War II. A 1780 petition from a man who rejoiced in the name of Gossinus Eketens asked the Continental Congress to provide the army with whiskey. Alcohol taxes fueled the new government—the Whiskey Rebellion gets a short and neutral depiction, with a letter from George Washington ordering strict prosecution of the rebellious farmers—and the show includes two letters from distillers asking for governmental help in opening up foreign markets for trade. (How does Kentucky liquor get to Oman and Samoa? This show answered a question I never thought to ask.)

more–Prohibition vs families, Jimmy Carter toasts the Shah, and a letter from Johnny Cash. Also: PEOPLE LIKE GETTING DRUNK. Am I the only one who sees this?!

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