How America Learned to Love Whiskey

Attempts to control the fermentation and sale of alcohol are older than the republic itself.

National Journal
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Clay Risen
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

In Oc­to­ber 1794, Al­ex­an­der Hamilton took time out from his reg­u­lar du­ties as sec­ret­ary of the Treas­ury to lead 13,000 mi­li­tia­men in­to west­ern Pennsylvania. Res­ist­ance to a tax on whis­key pro­duc­tion, in­ten­ded to help pay down the gov­ern­ment’s $45 mil­lion Re­volu­tion­ary War debt, had been grow­ing since it went in­to ef­fect in 1791. Tax col­lect­ors had been at­tacked, and at least one was whipped, tarred, and feathered. By early 1794, some 7,000 men had joined the re­bel­lion, and talk swirled about de­clar­ing in­de­pend­ence from the United States. But in the face of fed­er­al bay­on­ets, the re­volt col­lapsed; many of its lead­ers were ar­res­ted, and the rest fled in­to neigh­bor­ing states.

The Whis­key Re­bel­lion was a crit­ic­al mo­ment in the life of the new re­pub­lic. Pres­id­ent Wash­ing­ton’s use of the mil­it­ary to force pay­ment of the tax demon­strated that the fledgling fed­er­al gov­ern­ment had real power — and was will­ing to use it.

But to Hamilton, who con­ceived it, the tax was about more than rais­ing cash or as­sert­ing the cent­ral gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­ity. It was also a way to re­duce al­co­hol pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion. Hamilton wrote in Fed­er­al­ist 12 that a tax on whis­key “should tend to di­min­ish the con­sump­tion of it,” and that “such an ef­fect would be equally fa­vor­able to the ag­ri­cul­ture, to the eco­nomy, to the mor­als, and to the health of the so­ci­ety. There is, per­haps, noth­ing so much a sub­ject of na­tion­al ex­tra­vag­ance as these spir­its.” Wash­ing­ton agreed: Drink­ing, he said, was “the ru­in of half the work­men in this Coun­try” — even though, as the own­er of one of Amer­ica’s largest dis­til­ler­ies, he con­trib­uted his share to that ru­in.

Not every­one fell in line, though. Al­bert Gal­lat­in, a Pennsylvania politi­cian who would later be­come one of Hamilton’s suc­cessors as Treas­ury sec­ret­ary, called the levy a hy­po­crit­ic­al at­tempt by elites to “tax the com­mon drink of the na­tion,” even as they con­tin­ued to en­joy their im­por­ted fine wines and brandies. Geor­gi­ans launched a pe­ti­tion to ex­empt peach brandy as “ne­ces­sary of life “… in this warm cli­mate.” And Thomas Jef­fer­son, who was known to en­joy a drink, led a suc­cess­ful ef­fort to re­peal the tax shortly after he was sworn in as pres­id­ent.

It is hard, today, to com­pre­hend just how im­port­ant the ques­tion of al­co­hol — who could make it, and who could drink it — was to co­lo­ni­al and early re­pub­lic­an polit­ics. The young na­tion was, as his­tor­i­an W.J. Rora­baugh put it, an “al­co­hol­ic re­pub­lic”: Most grown men and wo­men drank at least four ounces of hard li­quor every day. At­tempts to lim­it al­co­hol pro­duc­tion af­fected nearly every­one. Ima­gine a na­tion­wide cam­paign against caf­feine.

The move­ment to re­strict al­co­hol con­sump­tion reached its apo­gee in 1919 with the rat­i­fic­a­tion of the 18th Amend­ment, which wrote na­tion­wide Pro­hib­i­tion in­to the Con­sti­tu­tion. But de­bates like that one — and even the drug-de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion move­ment today — had their ori­gins long be­fore the 20th cen­tury, in battles like the Whis­key Re­bel­lion. At the time, it was the largest-ever of­fi­cial front in the war on booze, but it was only just the be­gin­ning of Amer­ic­an am­bi­val­ence about liberty and tem­per­ance — about how much gov­ern­ment can reg­u­late what we do to our own bod­ies, es­pe­cially what we put in them.

FIRST FERMENTATIONS

Amer­ica was a drink­ing cul­ture from the start. The Ar­a­bella, which car­ried John Win­throp and his Pur­it­ans to the Mas­sachu­setts Bay Colony in 1630, also trans­por­ted 10,000 gal­lons of beer, 120 casks of malt, and 12 gal­lons of gin.

Al­co­hol was a ne­ces­sity to the first set­tlers, not just for pleas­ure but also for health: Wa­ter was no­tori­ously un­hygien­ic, par­tic­u­larly in settled areas, where waste and drink­ing wa­ter in­ter­mingled, and even chil­dren drank mildly al­co­hol­ic “small” beer in­stead. Drunk his­tory: Wash­ing­ton leads troops in the Whis­key Re­bel­lion. (Lib­rary of Con­gress)

Some of the earli­est dis­patches back home from Eng­lish col­on­ists in­clude re­ports on suc­cess­ful dis­til­la­tions; in 1620, Capt. James Thorpe wrote from Vir­gin­ia that he had man­aged to dis­till al­co­hol from corn, a nat­ive crop. These early ac­counts re­cord a wide vari­ety of in­gredi­ents — not sur­pris­ing, giv­en the poor per­form­ance of European grapes in Amer­ic­an soil and the rich bounty of loc­al plants. Everything from wild ber­ries to pump­kins went in­to the still. Ap­ple­jack was par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar, as was pear brandy and meth­eglin, a type of mead flavored with cin­na­mon, chamo­mile, and oth­er herbs and spices.

For the first dec­ades of the 17th cen­tury, col­on­ists either brewed or dis­tilled their own spir­its for per­son­al use, or im­por­ted it. It wasn’t un­til 1640 that Willem Kieft, the dir­ect­or-gen­er­al of the Dutch New Neth­er­land colony, opened the con­tin­ent’s first com­mer­cial dis­til­lery on what is now Staten Is­land. Still, most harder al­co­hol was im­por­ted — rum from the Carib­bean or madeira and port from Europe — and most of it was too ex­pens­ive for the av­er­age col­on­ist. Those who couldn’t af­ford it made do with beer, fer­men­ted fruit and ve­get­able juice, and oth­er, weak­er forms of homemade li­quor. Drink­ing among the up­per classes wasn’t just tol­er­ated, it was prac­tic­ally re­quired. A Mary­land doc­tor trav­el­ing in New York in 1744 found that a “repu­ta­tion for hearty drink­ing was es­sen­tial for ad­mis­sion to the best so­ci­ety.”

As the sup­ply of molasses — the base in­gredi­ent in rum — ex­pan­ded in the late 17th and early 18th cen­tur­ies, do­mest­ic dis­tilling picked up. The earli­est re­cord of rum dis­tilling in the fu­ture United States shows an op­er­a­tion in New Lon­don, Conn., in 1654. By the end of the cen­tury, the re­gion was flush with rum pro­du­cers, turn­ing out thou­sands of gal­lons of cheap, high-proof booze.

The in­dustry was centered in the Mas­sachu­setts cit­ies of Bo­ston, Med­ford, and Salem; by 1750 the Bay State had 63 dis­til­ler­ies alone. Molasses was easi­er to trans­port than raw sug­ar cane, and it be­came a staple in the “tri­angle trade,” in which slaves, cash crops, ag­ri­cul­tur­al products, and man­u­fac­tured goods cir­cu­lated among the West­ern Hemi­sphere, Bri­tain, and West Africa.

Dis­tilled al­co­hol, which had been a lux­ury good, was now cheap enough for all to con­sume. Dur­ing the 1720s and 1730s, the price of a gal­lon of rum in Bo­ston fell from 3 shil­lings 6 pence to a mere 2 shil­lings — af­ford­able for even the low­est un­skilled work­ers. By the end of the cen­tury, Amer­ic­an dis­til­ler­ies poured forth al­most 5 mil­lion gal­lons of rum a year, more than the 3.8 mil­lion gal­lons the coun­try im­por­ted.

The ex­pand­ing avail­ab­il­ity of cheap li­quor also brought at­tempts to con­trol it. In cit­ies, clergy and oth­er self-ap­poin­ted mor­al guard­i­ans of­ten had de facto veto power over tav­ern li­cens­ing, giv­ing them a say as to who got to sell li­quor and who got to buy it. But the grow­ing busi­ness led elites to be­lieve that, if they wanted to con­trol the sup­ply, they’d need the power of gov­ern­ment. In place of eco­nom­ic and re­li­gious bar­ri­ers rose leg­al ones; in the 1730s, James Og­leth­orpe, the founder of Geor­gia, tried to ban rum en­tirely from his new colony, while in 1760, John Adams began a cam­paign for laws to lim­it the num­ber of tav­ern li­censes in Mas­sachu­setts. Oth­ers pushed to ban Sunday li­quor sales.

Oth­er ef­forts fo­cused on ex­clud­ing cer­tain classes from drink­ing. As his­tor­i­an Shar­on V. Sa­linger notes in her book Tav­erns and Drink­ing in Early Amer­ica, au­thor­it­ies in Bo­ston de­creed that selling li­quor to an In­di­an, a slave, or a ser­vant “prom­ised the per­pet­rat­or a stiff fine or three months in jail.”

DIS­IN­HIB­ITED

The cam­paign to re­strict drink­ing to the elite cres­ted with the Re­volu­tion. The re­volt against Eng­lish rule was more than just a polit­ic­al event; for many Amer­ic­ans, it also signaled a so­cial up­heav­al. Liberty was more than a ques­tion of polit­ics: Co­lo­ni­al so­ci­ety was strictly re­gi­men­ted and strat­i­fied, but for a brief peri­od, the Re­volu­tion threw all of that in­to the air. The poor were not about to be­come rich, but the so­cial stric­tures that bound them were sud­denly loosened. The nar­row-minded mor­al­ism of Eng­lish class so­ci­ety was over­thrown. And at the fore­front of that new, postrevolu­tion liberty was the free­dom to drink.

An egal­it­ari­an eth­os took hold as demo­cracy ad­vanced from the bal­lot box to the bar. The pub­lic house — where the Re­volu­tion had been fo­mented, de­bated, and plot­ted — be­came in­tim­ately tied to the emer­ging Amer­ic­an iden­tity. Far from be­ing reg­u­lated, it was a place to be cel­eb­rated, at least by the newly en­fran­chised masses.

As his­tor­i­an Dav­id. W. Con­roy has doc­u­mented, pubs con­tin­ued to be the cen­ters of dis­sent against the new re­pub­lic. Wil­li­am Shep­ard, a Re­volu­tion­ary gen­er­al and later rep­res­ent­at­ive from Mas­sachu­setts who put down Shays’s Re­bel­lion in 1786, singled out tav­erns as “the com­mon ren­dez­vous for the coun­cils and com­fort of the people,” and said that any tav­ern keep­er who fa­cil­it­ated sedi­tious talk at his tables should face “total dis­qual­i­fic­a­tion for a lim­ited time or forever of en­joy­ing those priv­ileges.”

The pub­lic house — where the Re­volu­tion had been fo­mented, de­bated, and plot­ted — be­came in­tim­ately tied to the emer­ging Amer­ic­an iden­tity.

But pro­pos­als like Shep­ard’s were rarely put in­to ac­tion: Polit­ic­al lead­ers re­cog­nized that pub­lic sen­ti­ment favored loosened con­trols over so­cial life, and that they would suf­fer at the polls should they try to en­force them. “The gentry risked be­ing branded with the new epi­thet ‘ar­is­to­crat’ if they did not ad­opt demo­crat­ic man­ners,” Con­roy wrote in his book In Pub­lic Houses: Drink and the Re­volu­tion of Au­thor­ity in Co­lo­ni­al Mas­sachu­setts. “In­tem­per­ance and demo­cracy seemed to pro­ceed and deep­en hand in hand after 1790.”

The Re­volu­tion changed not only how Amer­ic­ans drank but also what they drank. War with Bri­tain, and the con­tin­ued bad blood even after the fight­ing stopped, meant that the flow of molasses in­to New Eng­land es­sen­tially dried up by the start of the 19th cen­tury. This was aided by con­gres­sion­ally im­posed im­port du­ties, the ex­pan­sion of dis­tilling in­dus­tries in the Carib­bean, Brit­ish bans on Amer­ic­an rum, and the pro­hib­i­tion against slave trad­ing. In 1770, the 2.1 mil­lion Amer­ic­an col­on­ists con­sumed some 8 mil­lion gal­lons of rum; 20 years later, a pop­u­la­tion that had nearly doubled, to 3.9 mil­lion, drank only 7 mil­lion gal­lons.

But as rum con­sump­tion sank, whis­key con­sump­tion ex­ploded. By 1810, whis­key far out­paced rum as the na­tion­al drink. Between 1800 and 1830, an­nu­al per cap­ita con­sump­tion of li­quor, primar­ily whis­key, hovered around 5 gal­lons, the highest in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

And yet the few at­tempts to re­strict drink­ing, like the sup­pres­sion of the Whis­key Re­bel­lion, demon­strated not the gov­ern­ment’s power but its lim­its. It was simply un­able to keep up with the flow of set­tlers — and their stills — in­to the in­teri­or. By the time Hamilton’s men ar­rived in west­ern Pennsylvania, dis­til­lers had set up shop even farther in­land, across the up­per Ohio Val­ley. Eco­nom­ics and geo­graphy made dis­tilling a core part of a farm­er’s busi­ness op­er­a­tion. Without good roads, it was hard to move bulky grain to mar­kets; dis­tilled in­to whis­key, though, that grain was easi­er to store and move, and more valu­able to sell. Pubs and tav­erns were re­l­at­ively rare on the sparsely pop­u­lated fron­ti­er, while per­son­al stills were ubi­quit­ous. By 1810, some 10,000 were in op­er­a­tion na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­an Gor­don S. Wood.

What’s more, fam­il­ies moved fre­quently, and men of­ten traveled alone for long peri­ods in search of work. By 1810, some 15 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans lived west of the Ap­palachi­ans, “apart from the in­flu­ences of tra­di­tion­al so­ci­ety,” Rora­baugh writes. “It should not be sur­pris­ing that these isol­ated and lonely West­ern pi­on­eers had a repu­ta­tion for drink­ing.” Men who couldn’t pair off with wo­men to form fam­il­ies were left to wander. “This anom­ic ex­ist­ence, law­less and ali­en­ated from so­ci­ety, gave rise to acute drink­ing.” Solo drink­ing was a wide­spread so­cial mal­ady, notes Wood in his book Em­pire of Liberty, whose con­sequences in­cluded “ab­sent­ee­ism, ac­ci­dent­al deaths, wife-beat­ing, fam­ily deser­tion, ri­ot­ing, and fight­ing.” An 1815 news­let­ter from the Greene and Delaware Mor­al So­ci­ety gave a sense of the pan­ic among tem­per­ance ad­voc­ates: “The thing has ar­rived to such a height,” it re­por­ted, “that we are ac­tu­ally threatened with be­com­ing a na­tion of drunk­ards.”

HANGOVER

And then, sud­denly, the na­tion­al binge was over, brought to an end not by gov­ern­ment con­trol but simple eco­nom­ics. By 1830, the Ohio and Mis­sis­sippi val­leys were dom­in­ated by boom­ing urb­an cen­ters like Cin­cin­nati and Louis­ville, where factor­ies soaked up ex­cess labor and the forces of so­cial con­straint — fam­ily, church, and re­form­ist move­ments — could put a damper on ex­cess drink­ing. Re­li­gious re­viv­al­ism found fer­tile soil in which to root.

And so the Amer­ic­an ideo­logy changed once again; free­dom no longer meant the right to ex­cess but the right to con­trol one’s body for profit and per­son­al sal­va­tion. And that meant con­trolling what one put in­to it. An­nu­al per cap­ita al­co­hol con­sump­tion dropped to about 2 gal­lons, and has more or less stayed there — today it hov­ers around 2.3 gal­lons.

The ag­ri­cul­tur­al sec­tor changed, too. Bet­ter roads and the ad­vent of rail and the steam­boat meant that ex­cess grain in its ori­gin­al form could get to mar­ket — and didn’t need to be con­ver­ted to al­co­hol. And where­as thou­sands of per­son­al stills pro­duced drink in the first dec­ades of the cen­tury, after 1830 a power­ful com­mer­cial in­dustry was in place, which con­cen­trated pro­duc­tion and once again put a price, and thus a nat­ur­al point of con­trol, on li­quor.

And then, sud­denly, the na­tion­al binge was over, brought to an end not by gov­ern­ment con­trol but simple eco­nom­ics.

Nev­er­the­less, two pat­terns had emerged. First, the urge to drink was clearly en­dem­ic to the Amer­ic­an char­ac­ter, hindered only by peri­ods of eco­nom­ic and so­cial calm. When that calm was broken — by eco­nom­ic de­pres­sions, the Civil War, tu­mul­tu­ous ex­pan­sion west­ward — Amer­ic­ans re­turned to the bottle. Dur­ing the Civil War, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute on Al­co­hol Ab­use and Al­co­hol­ism, con­sump­tion was above 2.5 gal­lons per cap­ita, about a 20 per­cent jump from the pre­vi­ous dec­ade; it then dropped to be­low pre­war levels, only to rise again dur­ing the eco­nom­ic tu­mult of the early 1890s. Drink­ing also rose sig­ni­fic­antly dur­ing World War II, go­ing from 1.5 gal­lons per cap­ita in 1939 to 2.25 in 1945.

The second pat­tern in­volved at­tempts to con­trol that drink­ing. Strategies that used gov­ern­ment power to tamp down on al­co­hol had peaked with the Whis­key Re­bel­lion; for much of the 19th cen­tury, the con­trolling forces would be the church, the com­munity, and the eco­nomy.

For the first dec­ades of the tem­per­ance move­ment, act­iv­ists es­chewed the gov­ern­ment and made their case for sobri­ety dir­ectly to the people. It was only after the Civil War, and with the found­ing of groups such as the Wo­men’s Chris­ti­an Tem­per­ance Uni­on, that act­iv­ists began to push for a new wave of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of al­co­hol — and, even­tu­ally, pro­hib­i­tion, cul­min­at­ing in the rat­i­fic­a­tion of the 18th Amend­ment on Jan. 16, 1919.

But while Pro­hib­i­tion seems like a sin­gu­lar folly in ret­ro­spect, it was hardly un­ex­pec­ted. Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety had been grap­pling with the is­sue of how to con­trol al­co­hol — if at all — from the be­gin­ning.

Clay Ris­en is a staff ed­it­or of The New York Times op-ed page and the au­thor of Amer­ic­an Whis­key, Bour­bon & Rye: A Guide to the Na­tion’s Fa­vor­ite Spir­it.

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