Customer Review

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Were the Founding Fathers Blotto?, May 31, 2008
This review is from: The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Paperback)
Given the drinking habits of Americans of all social classes in the 18th Century, as described by Prof. Rorabaugh, there's a good chance that some or many of the leaders who gathered in Philadelphia for various momentous decisions were "under the influence" a good part of every day. But then, so was everyone, man, woman, and child, with the probable exception of slaves. No stigma attached to the drinking of mild alcoholic beverages, such as the universal hard cider, although a few smart fellows - Ben Franklin and Ben Rush inter alia - had come to recognize some of the health issues of drinking hard liquors. There are amusing tales about the drinking habits of Chief Justice John Marshall. Before he took his seat on the Court, a tradition had been established of allowing an open bottle of fortified wine on each justice's desk on cold and rainy days. Supposedly Marshall, a life long heavy drinker, declared 'the USA is a large enough country that it must be raining somewhere every day' and thereafter allowed the bottles at all times.

Rorabaugh's writing style is a blend of down-home aw-shucks anecdote and solid scholarship, a combination that makes his book highly enjoyable but that somewhat distracts attention from the serious social history he is delivering. Changes in drinking habits, and in attitudes toward drinking, had a lot more to do with increasing hostility to certain immigrant populations - German and Irish - and with rapidly increasing class consciousness and economic inequality. Those are very significant threads in the social history of ante-bellum America, and Prof. Rorabaugh's account of the temperance movement can be seen as a synechdoche for the polarization of all American public life and politics. In the long run, the same impulses that led earnest citizens to campaign for temperance were also the impulses that led to abolition, women's suffrage, civil service reforms, sanitation committees, and the "Social Gospel" movement - every progressive reform, in short, in American history before the repeal of Prohibition.

Don't let the cover of this book deceive you! This is substantial historiography, well researched and more insightful than inebriating.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 21 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 31, 2008 5:45:24 PM PDT
H. Schneider says:
Didn't know that, but am also not really surprised. Remember the drink rations in O'Brian's sea stories? Alcoholic stuff as basic drinks, not as add-ons. If the English navy did that, it must have been a wider habit. I am always surprised in Western movies when the men step up to the bar and drink whisky because the 'are thirsty', or they pass a bottle around when drying up in the desert. Water wasn't invented yet, it seems. Must have been different with the Puritans though.

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2008 6:11:35 PM PDT
J says:
How unfair. The slaves deserved a drink more than anyone.

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2008 6:44:44 PM PDT
No, the Puritans drank hard cider also, for three very sound resaons. They thought it was healthier, their water supplies were as contaminated by horse and cattle as anywhere, and they needed a way to make use of their apples, to preserve them. Then they learned to drink rum...

In reply to an earlier post on May 31, 2008 7:16:21 PM PDT
Since Mr. Bruno wrote in another comment that I am a young immature 64 year old man, I will use the excuse that I never have my ID when I am in a liquor store. This is a good review. Another reason I do not drink alcholic beverages is that I make such a fool out of myself that I do not need to drink.

Posted on May 31, 2008 11:14:56 PM PDT
Thank you, Gio, for such an interesting review. Who ever said that politics was a 'dry' topic?

Posted on Jun 1, 2008 8:38:26 AM PDT
Jay Young says:
Congratulations on getting into the top 1,000, Gio! I think that the drinking had something to do with the raucousness of the early legislative sessions; fights were known to break out frequently, if I'm not mistaken.

Posted on Jun 1, 2008 12:51:51 PM PDT
Not only is the US basically alcoholic, it is also more likely to admonish people about it. What a strange dichotomy

Posted on Jun 1, 2008 8:02:12 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 1, 2008 8:14:09 PM PDT
Interesting review. It seems to me, however, that one could say the same thing about many times and places in the days before water became safe to drink. Or is the author arguing that these Americans bent the elbow more liberally? Not all of the alcoholic drinks were full strength, e.g. 'small beer' refers top watered beer and the Romans watered their wine to fit the time of day or occasion. I recall reading a biography of Churchill during WW Two - and holy smokes! he drank all day and all evening; one assumes his drinks were 'watered'.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2008 9:46:45 PM PDT
The author traces a curve of increasing consumption, up to fairly incredible levels per paita in the 1820s and 1830s. Once again there were oddly practical factors: Ohio Valley farmers could not possibly make much money on shipping whole grain or even flour to the east, but once distilled in whiskey their crops were both transportable and secure against spoilage. Thus the cost of whiskey plunged. Then when the Germans began making and selling beer, they used the sour mash to feed milk cattle and sold the milk, which was of course extremely dangerous before the discovery of pasteurization. Once more, the alcoholic drink was the safest around, as well as the cheapest.
I had a thesis advisor once upon a time who drank sherry from morning until 5:00 pm, and whiskey thereafter, never watered. He never showed a sign of being fuddled. He did die of cirrhosis in his early fifties, however, so I haven't followed his example.

Posted on Jun 1, 2008 10:20:13 PM PDT
Sweden used to be a very alcoholic country as well. Swedes in the 19th century drank on average 50 liters of alcohol per year. That corresponds to 125 liters of vodka per person and year (167 bottles of vodka per person and year). I wonder how many brain cells died (billions and billions I bet).

Let's celebrate you getting into the 1,000's. Skål! , Skål!, Hej tomtegubbar slå i glasen och låt oss lustiga vara,..och så en sängfösare, Skål igen!
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