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The Founding Fathers are viewed as distinguished gentlemen, perhaps enjoying an adult beverage every once in awhile, but certainly not alcohol dependent. And while making actual diagnoses would require a lot of time and expertise, it’s probably fair to say that, like everyone else during their time in America, they drank a lot more than most people believe.

How Common Was Alcohol?

Alcohol in early America has an interesting history. The Mayflower brought over more beer than water, and that sentiment continued for a while. One of the pressing issues for colonists was establishing breweries, as continuously importing alcohol from England would have been too expensive. But exactly how dependent were colonists?

 

In the morning, drinking beer with breakfast was not uncommon, even for children. Adults would usually continue drinking throughout the day, with at least one drink when rising and another when going to bed. Wine was also guzzled daily; Thomas Jefferson was a connoisseur, reportedly drinking three or four glasses a night, and this was all considered normal. If the bar tab from Washington’s farewell party is anything to go by, early Americans could put even the stoutest modern drinker to shame.

Why Was Drinking so Prevalent?

Common English wisdom was that beer was safer to drink than water, which, given the water sanitation at the time, isn’t necessarily untrue. Waterborne diseases like cholera or typhoid were best avoided by relying on beer. Unlike water, beer was stored safely away from channels of waste, human or otherwise.

 

Beer was seen as a status symbol, separating those who could only drink water from those who could afford a proper beverage. Not to mention, life in early America was rough. It allowed for laborers to get through long days and everyone to make it through miserable winters or sweltering summers.

 

Not everywhere was suitable to grow beer, and rum in particular was a economic powerhouse for 1700s colonies. Americans were drinking 4 gallons per person annually around that time. Beer’s supposed health benefits transferred easily over to wine and spirits. In fact, many believed that whiskey could cure laryngitis, and hot brandy could aid against cholera. It was more than socially acceptable; it was glorified.

What About Dissenters?

However, that is not to say that everyone supported this excessive drinking. Many Puritans disagreed with alcohol’s prevalence. The first temperance society in America was established in 1789, although this movement obviously did not catch on. While most did not see as alcoholism as an addiction, Benjamin Rush was one of the first to really connect addiction and alcohol dependence. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, his words might have carried more weight, but they were ignored until the nineteenth century. It’s obvious to us now that many of the colonists’ beliefs about alcohol’s health benefits are nonsense, but even today we aren’t sure whether alcohol is strictly harmful or not. Given their lack of access to modern scientific understanding, their habitual reliance on alcohol is not surprising.

 

Although eventually many temperance or prohibition movements would sweep the nation, the beginnings of America were hazy and perhaps slightly off-kilter. While we view our Founding Fathers as stoic intellectuals, the truth is that they were just as tipsy as the rest of nation. American attitudes towards alcohol evolved with time, but they definitely started off enthusiastic about it to say the least.