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Were the Founding Fathers Alcoholics?

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A recent bestseller has taken up the cudgels of a longstanding political and religious controversy: Were our founding fathers really religious and, more specifically, Christian? On the one side, humanists point out remarkably little specific mention of Christ in the fathers' (including Lincoln's) public utterances. Rather, they refer to an all-inclusive, generic deity. But advocates for Christianity maintain this should not be taken to dispute our founders' deep, underlying faith in God and belief in the divinity of Christ.

Leaving that contentious debate aside, I want to talk about how much the founding fathers drank. The answer: quite a bit. The New York Times on Sunday published an account of how Jefferson (according to writer Ann Mah he was "a lifelong oenophile") spent a lot of his time in France while representing the United States inspecting the vineyards of Burgundy.

Was Jefferson a closet drinker? He had no reason to hide his love of wine -- no founding father thought it unusual in this pre-Temperance era to love the fruit of the vine or, for that matter, hard cider, beer, or even whiskey and rum. Take Jefferson's primary rival, John Adams. According to a descendant of his, "To the end of John Adams' life, a large tankard of hard cider was his morning draught before breakfast." Get the man to the Betty Ford Center!

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.

That changed in the following centuries, when America became a Temperance nation. We went on to become one of only two Western countries to make alcohol illegal for a time. The other was Finland, but the Finns dared this experiment for nowhere nearly as long as our 14 years.

One lesser founding father planted the seed for our current attitudes: Benjamin Rush (although he was not at the Constitutional Convention to ruin the party). Rush was a physician when there was little medical knowledge, a devout Christian, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a member of the Continental Congress.

Rush was the first to develop the idea that chronic excessive drinking was an uncontrollable disease. But his disease theory would not be recognizable to today's Alcoholics Anonymous members. First, Rush (and the Temperance movement as a whole) believed that any regular drinker was likely to become a drunkard (they didn't call them alcoholics). Moreover, Rush felt that the disease could only come about through continuous drinking of distilled spirits -- cider, beer, and wine were irrelevant.

Nonetheless, Rush's idea was adopted and expanded by the Temperance movement in the 19th century to include all alcohol. In a way that we today cannot visualize -- but which has implications for every drink we take -- 19th century America was awash with posters, lectures, songs, books, prints, paintings, cartoons and broadsides (flyers) about the evils of alcohol.

There were several results of this change in thinking. One was to whitewash the founders of any references to drinking. One example is Alonzo Chappel's famous painting of Washington taking a sad farewell from his officers, which took place at a tavern in which a bottle of alcohol is clearly visible on a table. The bottle was retroactively painted out of the picture during Temperance.

That the farewell party was held at a tavern (Fraunces Tavern is still open in New York) is significant -- but not unusual. Most public meetings were held in taverns, which were the center of the community, more so than churches. And, while we're at it, sacramental wine was served at Colonial Protestant services. Indeed, alcohol was served in meetings of state legislatures and at the Constitutional Convention itself. And, yes, the famously buttoned-down Washington was quite a drinker in the day. In other words, he was definitely a partier (no, that wasn't tea) whether or not he was a prayer.

The other, more important result is ... well, just think what would happen if a politician were found to have drunk anywhere near as much as the average delegate did at that Constitutional party. Today we view alcohol with fear and apprehension that our inebriated founding fathers (except for that party-pooper Rush) could never conceive of. And a central component of this benign view of drinking was the absence of any idea that alcohol could take control of your being.

What's the point? By definition, it's one humans find it hard to wrap their minds around: that even the most powerful human experiences are defined and experienced in completely different ways depending upon where a human is situated in historical time and cultural space. This is true not due to the science of alcohol and diseases, but to the science of what being human entails.

Classic references on this topic: W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition; H.G. Levine, "The discovery of addiction: Changing conceptions of habitual drunkenness in America."