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A Nation of Sots

When drinking was a patriotic duty

There is nothing new about the three martini lunch. More than 150 years ago Americans customarily gulped down three or four drinks with lunch. They drank just as heartily at dinner; a good many took eye-openers at breakfast. But, you say, what about the temperance movement? Weren't those God-fearing Americans of 1820 dry as dust? Not at all. We're talking about life in the United States before the temperance movement, before the WCTU, before Carrie Nation, and even before the idea of prohibition existed. There was a time before all those things when Americans drank as much hard liquor as they could get their hands on as often as possible. The average adult drank about three times as much alcohol in the 1820s as adults do now. And the consumption of alcohol had been growing vigorously. Between 1790 and 1830 the annual amount of hard liquor—primarily whiskey—that an average American drank nearly doubled. 

All of this hearty drinking attracted a great deal of attention. The founding fathers were quite concerned. It was not so much the use of alcohol that worried them—they all drank—as its excessive use, George Washington, a whiskey distiller himself, thought that distilled spirits were “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country,” John Adams, whose daily breakfast included a tankard of alcoholic hard cider, asked, “Is it not mortifying that we Americans should exceed all other people in the world in this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance?” And Thomas Jefferson, wine connoisseur and inventor of the presidential cocktail party, feared that the use of cheap, raw whiskey was “spreading through the mass of our citizens.” In 1821 George Ticknor, a Harvard professor, warned Jefferson, “If the consumption of spirituous liquors should increase for thirty years to come at the rate it has for thirty years back we should be hardly better than a nation of sots.” This phrase and others like it were used over and over to describe what was happening to the United States in those years.

The typical American was drinking heartily, but not all Americans drank their share. It is impossible to obtain an exact accounting, but the American Temperance Society estimated that during the late 1820s nine million women and children drank 12 million gallons of hard liquor; three million men, 60 million gallons. At this high point the average adult male was imbibing nearly a half pint a day. And there were virtually no abstainers. To refuse a drink was, at best, bad manners, at worst, an insult, A guest at an evening party might be dragged to the sideboard and forced to down glass after glass. A refusal to drink under such circumstances was viewed as proof that the abstainer thought himself better than other people. And refusing could be downright dangerous. A gang of lusty Kentuckians angry with an abstinent comrade allegedly roasted him over a fire. 

Although men were the heartiest topers, women were not faint-hearted abstainers. Little, however, can be learned about the reputed 100,000 female drunkards or the more numerous women who consumed from one-eighth to one-quarter of the nation's hard liquor. The subject received scant attention because, as one magazine explained, it was “too delicate” to be discussed. Certainly the ideal of femininity did discourage tippling, for a woman was supposed to show restraint consistent with virtue, prudence consonant with delicacy, and a preference for beverages agreeable to a fragile constitution.

The notion of feminine delicacy led women to drink alcohol-based medicines for their health. Many women who regarded hard liquor as vulgar happily downed highly alcoholic patent medicines. One could swig Lydia Pinkham's elixir for female complaints (18 percent alcohol) without feeling that one was actually drinking. Furthermore, there were some social occasions when it was proper for women to imbibe freely and openly. For example, ladies who lived in large eastern cities drank in mixed company at society dinners, suppers, and evening parties. On the frontier at pioneer dances the “whiskey bottle was passed pretty briskly from mouth to mouth, exempting neither age nor sex.”

Americans began to drink as children, even as babies, “I have frequently seen Fathers,” wrote Thomas O. Larkin, “wake their Child of a year old from a sound sleep to make it drink Rum, or Brandy.” As soon as a toddler was old enough to drink from a cup, he was coaxed to consume the sugary residue at the bottom of an adult's nearly empty glass of spirits. Many parents intended this early exposure to alcohol to accustom their offspring to the taste of liquor and to encourage them to accept the idea of drinking small amounts. Such exposure was supposed to protect children from becoming drunkards. But children grew up imitating their elders' drinking customs, and many a proud father glowed when his son became old enough to accompany him to the tavern, where they could drink as equals from the same glass. 

Men from all walks of life drank lustily, if it was water that made the corn crops grow, it was corn liquor that watered the farmer. In thrifty, conservative New England, farm laborers would not work in the harvest season unless each received, in addition to his pay, a daily allowance of a half pint of hard liquor. Other parts of the country were, if anything, less sober. It was the tradition in the West for farmers to come into town on Saturday for the purpose of getting drunk. They drank and debated politics, drank some more and quarreled, until at the end they engaged in drunken brawls. The goal in a fight was to bite off the other fellow's nose or ear or to root his eyeball out of its socket and display it to the cheering crowd. All over the West one-eyed, one-eared, half-nosed combat veterans drunkenly reeled down the streets showing off their battle scars as badges of honor.

Drinking was part of southern life, too. The slaves were prohibited from drinking by law, but it was a law not often enforced. Nevertheless, liquor was more readily available to the planter. He clutched the cold glass of a mint julep in his hand on the hot veranda as a reminder that all was well with the world. Drinking was so well established that one planter was able to maintain his good standing in the Methodist Church by pledging that he would restrict his daily intake of alcohol to a quart of peach brandy.

City dwellers also had their sprees and frolics. It was customary for workmen to drink not only during midmorning and midafternoon breaks but also on a great number of special occasions. The shop must drink when a new man arrived or an old one departed, when a man married or had a child, or when an apprentice came of age. There were numerous fines—levied in alcohol—as a consequence of shop rules that the employees had enacted for the purpose of obtaining liquor. Nor was imbibing limited to business hours. Shops had their favorite watering holes. At the end of the day many workmen went directly from work to the tavern, where they spent their wages, stayed late, and often brawled in the streets afterward. On the weekends, after work had ended on Saturday afternoon, many drank so heartily that they missed work on passengers that whiskey kept them warm and protected them from the winds that whipped across the drivers' exposed position atop the stages. River raftsmen were notorious sots, steamboat crews were no more sober, and sailors, perhaps, were worse. One tar recalled a voyage during which an Atlantic storm had so tossed about the deck cargo that a barrel of rum broke open. As the rum flooded the deck, the crew “went down on their stomachs and drank their fill and more.” Sailors in the U.S. Navy were so attached to their four-ounce-a-day ration of rum and water grog that Congress refused, until the Civil War, to abolish a custom deemed essential to recruitment.

The middle classes were scarcely more sober, U.S. Customs officers boarded ships while intoxicated, and there were congressional clerks who could not write legibly until they had steadied their hands by taking liquid refreshment. Inebriation was so prevalent among the nation's lawyers that one supply of hard liquor in her kitchen. She found it an excellent preservative and an important ingredient in her cooking. Liquor was also found in the home medicine chest, A swig of whiskey may not have had much medical benefit, but it was less harmful than many of the prevailing forms of medical treatment. Physicians frequently cast the bottle aside in favor of leeches—and promptly bled their patients to death.

Leaving home did not require an American to forgo his favorite beverage. When journeying by stagecoach, travelers could obtain whiskey at the inns where the horses were changed. During one arduous trip across Virginia that covered 66 miles in 17 hours, the stage stopped 10 times. Two of the passengers had drinks at each stop: 10 drinks apiece. Such habits led one foreign traveler to conclude that “the American stage coach stops every five miles to water the horses, and brandy the gentlemen!” 

Americans drank on all occasions. Every social event demanded a drink. When southerners served barbecue. they roasted hogs and provided plenty of whiskey. Guests were expected to obey the barbecue law, which held that everyone drink to intoxication. The only excuse for refusing a drink was having passed out. At city dances and balls the participants were often intoxicated. So were the spectators at horse races. In the West it was the custom to present newlyweds with a bottle of whiskey to be drunk before bedding down for the night. Liquor also entered into moneymaking and business affairs. When a bargain was struck, a deal made, or a contract signed, it was sealed with a drink. In rural areas whiskey accompanied such traditional community activities as house-raisings, huskings, land-clearings, and reaping. Building a new church called fora barrel or more of hard liquor for the workmen, and when a minister was ordained plenty of alcohol was provided. Whiskey was even served when women gathered to sew, quilt, or pick the seeds out of cotton.

Rivers of liquor also flowed at public meetings. Militiamen elected their officers with the expectation that the elected officers would treat the men at the militia musters held four times a year. One newly elevated colonel pledged, “I can't make a speech, but what I lack in brains I will try and make up in rum.” At trials it was common for the bottle to be passed among spectators, attorneys, clients—and to the judge.

Alcohol played an even more important role at elections. Voters demanded and received liquor in exchange for their ballots. That liquor elected incompetents and the lack of it defeated able men was widely conceded, “I guess Mr, A, is the fittest man of the two,” said one South Carolina woman, “but t'other whiskies the best.”

Why did Americans in those days drink so much? One reason was a hearty drinking tradition that dated back to the earliest colonial days. While it is true that the Puritans did not approve of public drunkenness, they were not abstainers. “Drink,” said Increase Mather in 1673, “is in itself a creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness.” The Puritans thought rum, gin, and brandy to be nutritious and healthful. These distilled spirits were viewed as foods that supplemented limited and often monotonous diets. They were seen as medications that could cure colds, fevers, snakebites, frostbitten toes, and broken legs. The Puritans even believed hard liquor to be a recreational drug that would relieve depression, reduce tension, and enable hard-working laborers to enjoy themselves. These old ideas about the virtues of alcohol were popular in the 1820s.

Americans had another important reason to drink highly alcoholic distilled liquor. In the years after the American Revolution pioneer farmers had begun to settle the Ohio River valley. This region was destined to become America's great corn belt. But in those first years of settlement the pioneers had no local market for their corn and no easy way to transport it across the Allegheny Mountains to the cities of the East. A horse would eat more grain on his trip to the East than he could carry on his back. The western farmers discovered that if they distilled their corn into whiskey, they could then ship it to the East at a profit. But as more and more farmers distilled their corn into whiskey, a whiskey surplus developed. The price of whiskey then fell. By the 1820s in some places whiskey cost less than 25 cents a gallon—under a nickel a fifth. Whiskey was cheaper than beer, wine, milk, coffee, or tea. Indeed, the only beverage that was cheaper was water, which was often dangerously polluted, Americans who believed the old Puritan ideas that hard liquor was nutritious and healthful found all this cheap, abundant whiskey to be a godsend. A patriotic cult enveloped whiskey. It was, after all, a native American product made from corn, a native American grain “Why,” asked distiller Harrison Hall, “should not our countrymen have a national beverage?” 

Why not, indeed. Whiskey became the national beverage. Its abundant and even overabundant use crossed regional, sexual, racial, and class lines. What happened to change all this? About 1825 a number of Americans became alarmed by all the drinking. The doctors announced that alcohol was not nutritious and healthful. The ministers denounced alcohol as the devil's work—the Demon Rum. Industry was just starting up, and factory owners were convinced that drinking was dangerous for the health of their workers, as well as for their profits. The factory owners told their workmen to quit drinking, and, to set an example, they had to quit themselves. The drunken steamboat crews who had played with the lives of their passengers gave way to sober railroad locomotive engineers who had to be abstainers in order to qualify for their jobs. The job became more important, and Americans began to view drinking as a waste of money. Liquor was charged with creating poverty, poor health, and immorality. So Americans stopped drinking so heartily. We did not become a nation of sots. At least not yet.