The Freedom to Imbibe

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The Freedom to Imbibe


Rum . Alcohol was a feature of the American table and, in some form, appeared at every meal. Americans imbibed freely of beer, cider, wine, whiskey, and rum. The greatest change in American drinking habits in the 1750s through the 1770s was the increased consumption of New England rum. Rum declined in price because of the booming trade in its basic ingredientWest Indies molasses. The merchants of New England bought molasses in the Indies, shipped it home, and manufactured it into rum in more than 150 distilleries. They hauled their rum casks to Africa, where they exchanged them for slaves, who were in turn shipped to the West Indies. New England produced enough rum for export and for home consumption, and it became the favorite drink of poor men. The Sugar Act of 1764 threatened the New England trade in molasses and rum, and some observers claimed that it was the endangering of this trade, far more than trade in tea, that aroused American ire toward Great Britain.

Temperance . A few voices in favor of temperance began to be raised in the 1770s; Anthony Benezet, a Quaker and antislavery activist, compared slavery to Americas dependency on Great Britain and asserted that both forms of bondage were akin to the tyranny of the rum shop. Benezet and other reforming Quakers made great headway in getting the Society of Friends to reject the use of distilled beverages. Dr. Benjamin Rush noted the potentially harmful physical effects of strong drink in his 1772 pamphlet Sermons to Gentlemen upon Temperance and Exercise. Rush proposed the novel ideas of moderate drinking, eating, and exercise.

Rum and Lead Poisoning . In the 1740s doctors identified a crippling illness they called the West Indies Dry Gripes. This debilitating disease was a form of lead poisoning

caused by drinking rum made in lead stills. It caused intense stomach pain and could leave a victim paralyzed. It was not until 1768 that Massachusetts passed a law forbidding the use of lead still heads.

Tavern Regulation . Wealthy and influential Americans raised objections to the social consequences of drinking in the 1750s and 1760s, if not to drinking itself. Public houses, or taverns, were a nuisance in colonial cities, catering to a rough mixture of patrons and often became the scenes of fights and riots. Benjamin Franklin in 1764 called taverns a Pest to Society. English common law recognized the right of citizens to sell drink from their houses; anyone could set up a barrel of rum in his house and call himself a tavern keeper. John Adams tried to pass laws regulating taverns in Braintree, Massachusetts, but found little enthusiasm for his cause. Sales of liquor on Sundays, gambling in taverns, sales to slaves, drinking off premises, and other abuses continued despite efforts at regulation. Alcohol remained at the center of social life in homes and taverns. When George Washington ran for the Virginia legislature in 1758, he had his agent dole out three and three-quarters gallons of beer, wine, cider, or rum to every voter. Washington had second thoughts about this tactic, worrying that he had not been generous enough.

Drink and the Revolution . Public houses became increasingly important with the approach of the Revolution as meeting halls for Patriot committees and as places where all social classes could gather to discuss the issues of the day. Coffeehouses were patronized mainly by wealthy merchants, many of whom had loyalist sympathies. Militia commanders used taverns as headquarters for recruiting, mustering, and paying soldiers. Patriots constructed liberty poles in front of taverns in celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the repeal of the Stamp Act. British authorities called taverns nests of sedition but could do little to eradicate them. The success of the Revolution increased the prestige of the taverns in which committees and militiamen met, and Americans came to associate their political freedom with the freedom to imbibe as they wished. With the development of political life after the Revolution taverns became centers of electoral politics, and dispensing liquor to voters was an enduring tradition.


C. C. Pearson, Liquor and Anti-Liquor in Virginia, 1619-1919 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967);

W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (Ox-ford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1979);

Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Stein & Day, 1973).

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The Freedom to Imbibe

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