As someone who really enjoys his cocktails I am admittedly curious as to the rumored excessive-drinking habits of our Founding Fathers. After conducting a casual examination, I think it would be fair to say that their wealth, power, and the period in which they lived in made alcohol a mainstay in their daily lives. Most of these gentlemen were the political playboys of their day and we already know that many of them had a penchant for wine, women and song. Today most people assume that the common table wine was the preferred beverage of colonial times and that most folks simply enjoyed it as a compliment to meals.
According to research conducted by Stanton Peele, the Founders had a much broader palette when it came to engaging in the Spirit of ‘76. Simply put, these boys liked to party:
How do we know the founding fathers as a group drank a lot? Well, for one thing, we have records of their imbibing. In 1787, two days before they signed off on the Constitution, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention partied at a tavern. According to the bill preserved from the evening, they 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 few shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate. Clearly, that’s humanly impossible. Except, you see, across the country during the Colonial era, the average American consumed many times as much beverage alcohol as contemporary Americans do. Getting drunk - but not losing control - was simply socially accepted. - Stanton Peele Addiction Website, June 15, 2010
[NOTE: In retrospect, these quantities may be exaggerated, or perhaps there were more people in attendance.]
The politicians back in Philadelphia weren’t the only ones enjoying a sip or two. According to the folks at Mount Vernon, the commander of the Continental Army also liked to get his ‘drink on’ while on campaign:
The sober picture we have of [George] Washington is not correct if we are to believe anecdotes of his day. It was said that he could dance the night away with four bottles of wine under his belt. And, that his Revolutionary War personal expense account for alcohol from September 1775 to March 1776 amount to over six thousand dollars. (Washington & Kitman, 1970) He was a devout lover of beer; in particular a dark porter was always in ample supply at Mount Vernon. A typical Washington hosted dinner "included several wines, beer, cider." - Mount Vernon, An Illustrated Handbook, 1974
Ben Franklin was a vocal advocate of alcohol and even penned a list of over 200 synonyms for being smashed. A few highlights: “he’s eaten a toad-and-a-half for breakfast”; “he makes Indentures with his Leggs”; “he’s had a Thump over the Head with Sampson’s jawbone.” Franklin said that “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.”
His friend Thomas Jefferson stated that “Wine is necessary for life.” Jefferson, one of the most knowledgeable wine connoisseurs in the country, fervently believed that it was essential to life-longevity. He further advocated the virtues of wine stating “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Monticello’s records show that Jefferson and his guests consumed 1,203 bottles of wine in just over two year's time.
According to W.J. Rorabaugh’s study titled The Alcoholic Republic, this country wasn’t built on religion, it was built on booze. Americans at that time 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. Between 1800 and 1830 annual per capita of consumption increased and exceeded 5 gallons, which is tripled of today's consumption. That’s quite a tolerance for sure.Perhaps Modern Drunkards contributing writer Richard English best summed up the affect of alcohol on American history when he said, “What we are not told, and I think we can guess why, is that booze played a large part in the lives of our most popular Revolutionary heroes. Like it or not, the American Revolution happened hand-in-hand with bouts of awe-inspiring drunkenness and the United States is a nation built upon intoxication.”
Maybe American Exceptionalism exists after all?