The Role of Alcohol in the Lives of Colonial Americans

How many times do you drink in a week? Do you schedule your drinking binges with friends every weekend? Or are you the type of person who tries to find an occasion to raise a glass with pals and family, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years?

The early Americans, however, didn’t need any occasion to drink liquor because they did it every single day of the year. Many of the Americans who lived during the colonial times believed that alcohol has many health benefits. Others thought it simply made the world a better place. So they toasted and sipped from dawn to dusk.

In fact, alcohol played a significant role in the daily lives of the early Americans. Alcohol was served at mealtimes, hence everyone in the family were drinkers including children. Workers and farmers also drank alcohol during their breaks to ease physical pain and relieve tedium.

The colonial Americans drank a lot of alcohol, that it is said that an average American guzzled about seven gallons of alcohol every year during their time. In comparison, today’s American typically downs a little less than two gallons of liquor each year.

There were three major reasons why alcohol was the preferred beverage during that time:

1. Polluted Water Supply

Though the New World offered fresh and unspoiled water, there were lots of Americans who got sick and even died by drinking water from polluted sources. During that time, Americans drank water taken out of rivers. And even when river water was deemed safe to drink, the water had so much mud that it took a lot of time for suspended material to settle.

So the colonists opted to drink cider and beer instead of water, and soon the native Americans followed. Both cider and beer were also easy to make, as their raw materials were readily available in the New World.

In fact, there was a time when drinking beer and cider was a status symbol. Both were considered as foods and not alcohol. And drinking water was only for the destitute, or those who had no choice but to drink the said liquid.

2. Health Benefits

The early Americans thought that alcohol had numerous health benefits. It not only kept them warm during the winter season, it helped in their digestion. A lot of them thought that drinking increased their strength as well.

Alcohol was also believed to prevent different health problems. The early Americans thought that whiskey was good for colic and laryngitis. They gave hot brandy punch for people who had cholera. And they soaked cherries in rum and gave it to people who had colds. Even women who were in labor were traditionally given a shot to ease discomfort.

3. Storage

The third and final reason why drinking alcohol was so widespread during that time was that booze could be stored for years, if necessary. Booze was readily available during a water-borne epidemic or when there’s a water shortage.

Some of the most distinguished figures in the history of the United States, in fact, were notorious for their drinking habits.

The third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, was a serious wine connoisseur. He toured the vineyards of Bordeaux during diplomatic missions to France. And as president, he was responsible for the importation of more than 20,000 wine bottles which he added to his personal collection. He was also fond of drinking three to four glasses of wine every meal.

John Adams was another liquor lover. He started his day with a draft of hard cider for breakfast, then wine with rum before going to bed. His fascination with liquor may have helped him live long as he died at the age of 90 of old age.

Another founding father, Benjamin Franklin, is notorious for his temperament especially when drunk. He was also known for his wisecracks, like saying that beer is the living proof that God wants to see his people happy. He was a brewer and distiller who came up with The Drinker’s Dictionary.

The first U.S. president, George Washington, was also a drinker but he knew how to control himself. In 1879, he wrote in a letter the inevitable effects of drinking like an aching head, sloth, listlessness, and idleness.

Yet Washington knew that he could make a profit from whiskey distillery, opening one in 1797 at the urging of a Scottish farm manager. His venture became one of the most profitable in Mount Vernon.

There was also some opposition on the widespread use of alcohol during that time, most notably from Dr. Benjamin Rush. In 1784 he published a pamphlet that revealed liquor responsible for both mental and physical illnesses.

Still, liquor consumption in the 18th century buoyed by cheap whiskey prices. It was only in the middle of the century when alcohol consumption dropped to around three gallons per person because of the gains of the temperance movement. It was also during this time when the government passed laws that limited and outlawed consumption of alcohol.

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