The colonization of America brought about many new ways of life: new living conditions, new skills to be learned, and new land to explore and settle. Relations with the natives provided food and basic skill sets, and it also paved the way for new colonists arriving in such a foreign land. However, life for colonists coming to settle America was no vacation. Depending on your family’s background and where you decided to settle, daily life was an adventure. In Virginia, rapscallions, who had never worked a day in their life, squandered their days drinking and gambling.
New Hampshire set up actual town squares; churches, schools, town halls. Soon enough, however, a similar theme started to become more and more apparent as well as more and more concerning. Alcohol and excessive drinking became extremely prevalent in early Americans’ lives. There are many factors that led to such alcoholism, and many factors that led into the increasing numbers of Americans to embrace temperance.
Taverns were believed, by the lower classes, to be nurseries of freedom. By the upper classes, they were believed to be seedbeds for rowdy, drunk, and subordinate colonists.
Again, due to many factors, alcoholism witnessed an excessive peak as well as harsh opposition from temperance groups. During the early 19th century, many factors led early Americans to excessive drinking. First, while colonists were developing their own towns and cities, one major economic factor that led to such binge drinking was that of trade routes. Colonists began trading in the West Indies and were receiving rum as part of barter payments. These spirituous liquors were easy to obtain and came in hefty amounts. W. J.
Rorabaugh noted, “Unlike other goods, including molasses, run shipped easily, could be warehoused cheaply, withstood any climate and improper handling, and increased in value as it aged. Rum was the currency of the age. ”1 Such an influx of rum into America caused prices to drop drastically. Such sharp drops in price made it possible for laborers to spend a day’s pay on a week’s supply of rum. Other factors that led to such drastic drinking include the rise of distilling as well as American pride. Farmers, when faced with excess grain, realized that it could be distilled into cheap whiskey in large quantities.
Whiskey itself was easier to ship than cumbersome loads of grain. The success of whiskey was due, in part, to the fact that many Scottish, Irish, and Scotch-Irish grain distillers immigrated to America during the last quarter of the 18th century. 2 While on the topic of immigrants. A sadder side to binge drinking is the fact that many immigrants felt alienated in a nation where every man was to feel the freedom of being a true colonist. Many Irish immigrants came to America for cheap labor but ended up spending their wages on liquor, drinking themselves to death.
One large factor, however, was the sense of pride that accompanied drinking. During colonial times in America, it was not uncommon for men to give their very young children liquor. Many fathers were proud when his son became old enough to accompany him to the tavern where they could drink as equals from the same glass. 3 Amongst hearty drinkers, there was a definite sense of pride. While the wealthy drank expensive liquor, the lower class binged on cheap rum, gin, and whiskey. Americans also often found almost any occasion fit for a drink.
Weddings, births, funerals, new workers, old workers leaving, mid-day, nightcaps, and even electoral events were not off limits. In fact, many of those running for political positions openly shared alcohol in hopes to gain votes (Washington claimed one election was lost due to frugal spending on the liquor to be shared with potential voters). 4 However, the rift between hearty drinkers, the upper class, and the temperate gradually caused for a major decline in the amount of alcohol consumed. Throughout colonization, alcoholism faced many obstacles.
From temperate Quakers to doctors claiming health issues, to the upper class trying to extol power over the lower classes, temperance began to run rampant throughout the nation by the mid 19th century. Lower classes binged on cheap liquor as a sign of independence from the upper class as well as products from the very forces they fought to gain their independence. However, the majority of drinkers chose a particular type of alcohol based on certain personal characteristics. These anxieties depend solely on both the level of motivation for achievement and the level of their aspirations.
Many Americans drank previously to feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow grogs. Those with low motivations had less confidence in their ability to reach targets suffered greater anxiety and this drank more. In the late 1920’s when America began to see accelerating economic growth, the temperance movement flourished. Americans started to realize their vitality and that liquor provided neither happiness for the individual nor a stable society. Temperance leaders used a few techniques to persuade people to quit drinking as well.
They advocated religious faith as a way for people to ease the anxieties that led them to drink excessively. On the other hand, they also showed people that drinking was not only a source of that very anxiety, but it was also a source for additional anxiety. 5 In 1830, the annual per capita consumption of alcohol among Americans stood at its all-time high of 3. 9 gallons. That is to say that, on average, every man, woman, and child in the United States drank almost four gallons of straight alcohol every year.
By 1845, that average had plummeted to 1 gallon even, the lowest figure ever, except for the dozen years of Prohibition. What caused such a rapid and drastic change? To say that it was the result of the temperance movement, though correct, begs the question: Why was the temperance movement so astoundingly successful? Books have been written on the subject, of course; but in brief, the answer has to do with the enormous transformation in American society that took place in the first half of the 19th century.
The industrialization of the economy; the centralization of employment; the revolutions in transportation and communication; the revival of emotion-based religion in what is called the Second Great Awakening – all these factors and more combined to create a society in which needs and desires that had previously been satisfied by intoxication now were satisfied by abstinence (or at least temperance), without the physical and emotional destructiveness that came with intoxication.
Despite the ambiguity of the numbers, there is little doubt that alcohol consumption in the first decades of the 19th century was both widespread and substantial. Americans themselves remarked on it, as did travelers from abroad, and they saw the problem as not only serious but growing. At the same time, contemporary observers suggest that while heavy drinking was common everywhere, it was not common to see Americans drunk.
In other words, Americans were so accustomed to drinking that they had developed a higher tolerance for the effects of alcohol; or, in the words of a Scotsman of the time, they were “in a certain degree seasoned. ” So, while not perhaps technically drunkards, Americans were certainly, in the words of one historian, “enjoying a spectacular binge. ” In the United States, in 1830, per capita alcohol consumption peaked at record levels and then began to decline as the temperance movement worked to curtail American drinking.
Although the goal of a sober nation was laudable, the movement’s fundamental bias toward a white, middle-class audience exacerbated growing tensions with the lower class and called attention to the issues of slavery and racial inequality, ultimately generating social conflicts on par with those it was working to alleviate. Appendix 1. W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 64. 2. Rorabaugh, 69. 3. Rorabaugh, 13. 4. Rorabaugh, 152. 5. Rorabaugh, 192-193.