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Tuesday, 16 August 2011
A nation built upon intoxication
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?
Monday, 15 August 2011
A response worth reading
Below is a very thoughtful email that I received today from a female soldier in the United States Army. I have removed her personal info for privacy reasons, but received permission to share her thoughts here as it pertains to a recent debate and post.
I wish to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude for your stance against the ignorance and anti-equality rhetoric being preached over on the Old Virginia Blog. To be frank, I do not frequent either of these blogs, but this conversation was brought to my attention by a friend in my outfit. As a military servicewoman with two tours in Iraq on my service record, I cannot tell you how infuriating it is to see this sexist mindset still being propagated in the United States. The fact that some men still refuse to give female soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way the same respect as their male counterparts is vexing to say the least.
I will say that it is comforting to know that this primitive attitude against the inclusion of women at military academies and in combat situations seems to be a fleeting one and a minority opinion of few. Most people and places that I have encountered over the course of my career have been either entirely supportive or even benign as it is commonplace. We have come a long way since the days of Rosie the Riveter.
These Old Virginia Blog folks must live under a rock. The comments that they have posted on the surface appear to come from older, insecure men, who are obviously threatened by women in an equal or dominant role. I fear that they probably don’t treat their own mothers, wives, and daughters as equally capable females. Perhaps they were embarrassed by a woman in their own lives and therefore project their grievances on others. Whatever the issue, Mr. William’s inability to accept change in anything related to the advancement of women in the military appears to be quite evident.
In addition, Mr. Williams’ counter-points about the obvious physical differences between the sexes and the distracter of the NFL’s lack of women participants simply illustrate the fragile nature of his argument. He is not the biggest offender however as I find him to be no more than immature. On the other hand, I was bothered by the letter written by the VMI board member who would rather abandon his post than accept female cadets. Talk about a total disregard for honor and commitment.
I wonder what he would think today when women make up almost 15% of the country’s gun-toting armed forces. Does he know that there are combat-deployed women presently working along the front lines of the war in Afghanistan? Does he know the contributions that I and my sisters have made in Iraq? I doubt it. I also doubt that the Old Virginia Blog folks do. I do not know if any of these women in combat went to VMI, but I am sure that all of the women who choose to go there are better off for it.
For these gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, to hold such disparaging and bigoted opinions on the matter shows there is still a long way to go. Thank you again for your courage to speak up on behalf of us. Perhaps there will be a day when Mr. Williams and his brethren will evolve enough to catch up with the rest of the world.
In two weeks we officially open our books at All-Access Battlefield Tours. I cannot express how excited I am about this project, nor convey how much work it is to open a small business. Requirements include securing a National Park Service permit, commercial liability insurance, guest waivers, custom wheelchairs, portable ramps, guide-shirts, battlefield maps, handouts, a website, brochures, vehicle magnets, and of course press releases, media promotions, and advertising. We are the first and only Civil War battlefield tour service in the country to exclusively cater to wheelchair travelers and the support that we have received thus far has been extraordinary. Look for upcoming articles on us in The Free Lance-Star, Civil War Traveler (VA), the Civil War Trust website, and more.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of taking some visiting friends and their children down to the Sunken Road at the Fredericksburg Battlefield for an impromptu tour. They were familiar with the movie I produced with Clint Ross, The Angel of Marye’s Heights, and wanted to see the actual site where Richard Kirkland’s act took place. Two of my younger children joined two of theirs and this was the first time that I had a group of kids in attendance that were 10 or younger.
We began our journey at the Visitors Center so the boys could see the guns. (Boys like guns and swords more than anything else on earth.) After a brief explanation of the battle, we all took a page from the Von-Trap Family and hiked up the steep hill to the National Cemetery. Once there, I introduced the kids to General Humphrey’s statue and the Washington Artillery’s cannon. Everyone in our group was immediately stuck by the sheer number of headstones and equally impressed with the view from the heights towards the city. I was very pleased with the children’s attention span and astonished at how many good questions they asked.
The fact that the adults on this trip were outnumbered by children presented me with a unique challenge as a guide. At the same time you are trying to tell the story to your peers, you must find a way to incorporate “cool stuff” for the kiddos. The Innis House or original sections of the stone wall aren’t very exciting to a child, but when you point out the bullet holes in them, they suddenly become captivating. The depiction of damage seemed to grab the kid’s attention. I found this to be true throughout the tour. From the museum's diorama of the city in ruins, to the destruction photos on the tabletops and battle scars on the standing relics, the sheer destruction of this event really had an impact on the kids.
To think that a bunch of adults would kill and destroy everything in sight has to be a little overwhelming and a tad scary too. What I really found striking was how these kids (50% southern and 50% northern) never once implied that there was a good or bad guy in this fight, or interjected their own partisanship or politics into the discussion. They never once insinuated that their lineage was nobler in their chosen cause than the opposing army’s, or accused their counterpart’s ancestors of practicing treason or tyranny. They simply absorbed the history.
It was refreshing to say the least and perhaps 'we adults' could learn a lesson from our kids... Shut up. Listen. Learn.
Friday, 12 August 2011
Ladies and not-so-gentlemen
This week I foolishly attempted to participate in a debate over the 1997 decision to include women cadets at the Virginia Military Institute. Personally, I’m all for it. VMI is a top-notch school and if any of my daughters wanted to attend there, I would encourage them. Not surprising, Old Virginia Blog’s regulars quickly revealed their own chauvinistic-insecurities by stating among other things that VMI's gender-normaling was quote: “an in-your-face affront to God's Design.”
Who talks like that in 2011? I should have realized that these gentlemen are quite set in their ways and could have saved a lot of mental energy if I just walked away. As irritating as it was, this discussion got me thinking about the combat role that some women have played, specifically during the Revolutionary War.
Deborah Samson of Plympton, Massachusetts disguised herself as a young man and enlisted in the Continental Army in October of 1778. She remained for the whole term of the war under the name Robert Shirtliffe and served in the company of Captain Nathan Thayer of Medway, Massachusetts. For three years Deborah acted in various combat capacities and was wounded twice, the first time by a sword slash to the head and later, by a shot through the shoulder. Amazingly, she was able to keep her true sexual identity hidden until she fell ill with a severe brain fever that was sweeping across the army. The attending physician, Dr. Binney of Philadelphia, discovered that 'he' was a 'she,' but did not reveal the charade. After the war Deborah married Benjamin Gannett of Sharon and they had three children together.
Molly Pitcher (pictured above) is a familiar legendary figure of the American Revolution although there is no proof that she actually existed. Her story is associated with the Battle of Monmouth and since 1876, she has been tentatively identified with a woman veteran of the war, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, who lived in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. We do know that Margaret Corbin stepped up to the artillery during the attack on Fort Washington after her husband fell by her side and unhesitatingly performed his duties.
Sisters Rachel and Grace Martin disguised themselves as men and assailed a British courier and his guards. They then took his important dispatches, which they speedily forwarded to General Greene. Nancy Morgan Hart, another dedicated patriot, managed to kill British soldiers who invaded her cabin in Georgia. Mary Hagidorn, upon hearing the order by a Captain Hager, for the women and children to retire to the long cellar, said: “Captain, I shall not go to that cellar should the enemy come. I will take a spear which I can use as well as any man and help defend the fort.” She then did.I wonder what these ladies would think about this sexist-driven controversy? The irony is that the very nobility that these men claim to practice would be summarily rejected by the very women they pretend to protect. In retrospect I can’t help but wonder why these guys are so adamant about retaining an all-male environment that is completely free from women...unless maybe they fall in line with this post. :)
Support the CWT
'Union Col. Charles Collis' charge at the Slaughter Pen Farm' by Carl Rochling
The following is a letter I sent to the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors in support of the Civil War Trust's plans to purchase the abandoned GM Powertrain plant adjacent to the Slaughter Pen Farm. I encourage everyone to voice their support and help retrieve and protect this pivotal part of the Fredericksburg Battlefield.
August 8, 2011
Benjamin T. Pitts
Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors
Post Office Box 99
Spotsylvania, VA 22553
Dear Chairman Pitts,
I would like to take this occasion to voice my absolute support for the proposed purchase of the General Motors Powertrain plant on Tidewater Trail by the Civil War Trust. As a Civil War author, guide and documentary filmmaker, I am well aware of the historical significance of this location. The fact that we now have a chance to properly preserve it during the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War presents the County with a tremendous opportunity.
As a local small-business owner providing battlefield tours to wheelchair travelers and disabled veterans, I rely on the continued protection of our region’s hallowed grounds. The Slaughter Pen Farm — just northwest from the GM plant — is one of the most pristine and unique spots on any of our area’s battlefields. Visitors routinely comment on how it is one of the few remaining places where they can truly “go back in time.” Together with the GM site, which the Civil War Trust plans to restore to its 1862 appearance, Spotsylvania County will have a true cultural — and economic — treasure, complete with interpretive signage and walking trails. This investment will further showcase our area as a historical gem while strengthening our visitation numbers.
I understand that since GM closed the plant last year, there has been little to no interest by other commercial entities to purchase it. Unfortunately, there is simply no market for large industrial structures in this economy. By razing the abandoned plant and transforming the property into a new destination park, the Civil War Trust estimates that this will translate into $1.2 million in heritage tourism benefits to the county per year.
This purchase appears to me to be the right decision on all counts — for our historical and economic benefit alike. Spotsylvania County has a wonderful opportunity to expand on its already stellar draw in heritage tourism and, at the same time, boost the many local businesses which rely on the visitors to our historic sites for our well-being. In today’s economy, we must embrace what sets us apart from other places and find ways to capitalize on them. Allowing the Civil War Trust to buy and restore the GM property is exactly what Spotsylvania needs.
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