The Alcohol Republic: Why Did the Founding Fathers drink So Much?

Samuel AdamsIf you received the typical American education, you probably were never told how much alcohol our Founding Fathers consumed. And why would you have been? The drinking habits of various individuals is not something relevant to a sixth-grade education. Yet the fact remains that our country’s Founding Fathers drank quite a bit.

We’re not implying that George Washington and John Adams were the forerunners to Andy Griffith’s Otis Campbell or even famous real-life drinkers like W.C. Fields and Dean Martin. But they were known to tip back a few with regularity.

Was alcohol preferable to water?

The first thing to consider when discussing the drinking habits of the Founding Fathers is the quality of water to which they had access. An obvious lack of proper sanitation and water treatment meant those who lived in cities didn’t have the cleanest water to drink. And without the Internet, they couldn’t even check Wikipedia to find out how to purify the dirty water they did have.

According to 18th-century history website Archiving Early America, alcoholic beverages like beer, rum, and wine were much preferred over plain water. Beer was even considered a food rather than a beverage, and was a common substitute for water at many a meal. Apparently, not much has changed!

But here’s the thing: Back then, people believed water was bad for your health. So, if you were given the choice between a tasty alcoholic beverage and water that may, or may not, be free of certain contaminants known to collect where human beings reside in large numbers without indoor plumbing, which would you choose? Exactly.

The other thing to remember about alcohol vs. water is the fact that booze could be stored for years, if necessary. If there was ever a water shortage or any sort of water-borne epidemic, the booze was there to consume. It was also available to take the edge off certain uncomfortable procedures like tooth extractions, amputations, and wedding anniversaries.

Was there a social aspect to drinking back then?

Back in the day, our forefathers lived in a culture where consuming alcoholic beverages was part of a larger social experience. Take the gathering held just two days before the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787, for example. According to research offered by Stanton Peele of the Huffington Post, there was quite a party thrown at a local tavern and attended by dozens of Constitutional Convention delegates.

Drinking for social reasons was observed on a more personal note as well. For instance, retiring to the parlor for a glass of sherry after dinner was quite common. As for the Founding Father’s social drinks of choice, Jefferson was known for his love of fine wines while rival John Adams was very fond of hard cider.

Alcohol consumption was so normal back then that different drinks were divided according to the time of day they should be consumed. Beer was appropriate with every meal and while working (you should be so lucky); hard cider was consumed at lunch; port or sherry for dinner; and a glass of wine before retiring at the end of the evening.

How often did the Founding Fathers get drunk?

With all this alcohol flowing, one is forced to ask whether or not our Founding Fathers were drunks. In all likelihood, they were not. Though the occasional drunken stupor was observed, there was an important difference between the men of old and today’s twenty-something frat brothers or the group of guys hanging out at the neighborhood bar watching the game.

What was that difference? Alcohol was such a normal part of life it was usually consumed in moderation. In other words, we tend to confine our imbibing to drinking binges on the weekends. More often than not, our habits result in a hangover the next morning. Our Founding Fathers consumed alcohol on a daily basis, as a matter of course, instead of other beverages.

Alcohol was so common it was even given to children at a very young age. That might be why ADHD is a relatively new phenomenon in America. Then again, maybe not.

Remember that beer was considered the best substitute for water. When you start drinking moderately as a child, you build up a certain tolerance for alcohol. Furthermore, when you consume alcohol as a standard beverage you’re not likely to binge drink on the weekends.

If the Founding Fathers were religious, how could they drink so much?

Today we associate temperance with religion, thanks to the efforts of various movements throughout American history. But alcohol and religion are not incompatible; it’s drunkenness and religion that don’t mix. It’s entirely possible to consume moderate amounts of adult beverages and still be faithful to one’s religious beliefs.

Without 24-hour cable TV, social media, and annoyingly addictive games you play on your cell phone, it’s easy to assume the Founding Fathers turned to alcohol because they had nothing better to do. And, while their lives may have been dull by modern standards, their drinking habits were more out of necessity and social norms than anything else.

So, next time you drink a cold one at a July 4 party, just remember this: You’ve got nothing on the Constitutional Convention. Except for the possible distinction that you have some pretty cool drinking apps on your phone.