In October 1794, Alexander Hamilton took time out from his regular duties as secretary of the Treasury to lead 13,000 militiamen into western Pennsylvania. Resistance to a tax on whiskey production, intended to help pay down the government's $45 million Revolutionary War debt, had been growing since it went into effect in 1791. Tax collectors had been attacked, and at least one was whipped, tarred, and feathered. By early 1794, some 7,000 men had joined the rebellion, and talk swirled about declaring independence from the United States. But in the face of federal bayonets, the revolt collapsed; many of its leaders were arrested, and the rest fled into neighboring states.
The Whiskey Rebellion was a critical moment in the life of the new republic. President Washington's use of the military to force payment of the tax demonstrated that the fledgling federal government had real power—and was willing to use it.
But to Hamilton, who conceived it, the tax was about more than raising cash or asserting the central government's authority. It was also a way to reduce alcohol production and consumption. Hamilton wrote in Federalist 12 that a tax on whiskey "should tend to diminish the consumption of it," and that "such an effect would be equally favorable to the agriculture, to the economy, to the morals, and to the health of the society. There is, perhaps, nothing so much a subject of national extravagance as these spirits." Washington agreed: Drinking, he said, was "the ruin of half the workmen in this Country"—even though, as the owner of one of America's largest distilleries, he contributed his share to that ruin.
Not everyone fell in line, though. Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvania politician who would later become one of Hamilton's successors as Treasury secretary, called the levy a hypocritical attempt by elites to "tax the common drink of the nation," even as they continued to enjoy their imported fine wines and brandies. Georgians launched a petition to exempt peach brandy as "necessary of life … in this warm climate." And Thomas Jefferson, who was known to enjoy a drink, led a successful effort to repeal the tax shortly after he was sworn in as president.
It is hard, today, to comprehend just how important the question of alcohol—who could make it, and who could drink it—was to colonial and early republican politics. The young nation was, as historian W.J. Rorabaugh put it, an "alcoholic republic": Most grown men and women drank at least four ounces of hard liquor every day. Attempts to limit alcohol production affected nearly everyone. Imagine a nationwide campaign against caffeine.
The movement to restrict alcohol consumption reached its apogee in 1919 with the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which wrote nationwide Prohibition into the Constitution. But debates like that one—and even the drug-decriminalization movement today—had their origins long before the 20th century, in battles like the Whiskey Rebellion. At the time, it was the largest-ever official front in the war on booze, but it was only just the beginning of American ambivalence about liberty and temperance—about how much government can regulate what we do to our own bodies, especially what we put in them.
America was a drinking culture from the start. The Arabella, which carried John Winthrop and his Puritans to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, also transported 10,000 gallons of beer, 120 casks of malt, and 12 gallons of gin.
Alcohol was a necessity to the first settlers, not just for pleasure but also for health: Water was notoriously unhygienic, particularly in settled areas, where waste and drinking water intermingled, and even children drank mildly alcoholic "small" beer instead.
Some of the earliest dispatches back home from English colonists include reports on successful distillations; in 1620, Capt. James Thorpe wrote from Virginia that he had managed to distill alcohol from corn, a native crop. These early accounts record a wide variety of ingredients—not surprising, given the poor performance of European grapes in American soil and the rich bounty of local plants. Everything from wild berries to pumpkins went into the still. Applejack was particularly popular, as was pear brandy and metheglin, a type of mead flavored with cinnamon, chamomile, and other herbs and spices.
For the first decades of the 17th century, colonists either brewed or distilled their own spirits for personal use, or imported it. It wasn't until 1640 that Willem Kieft, the director-general of the Dutch New Netherland colony, opened the continent's first commercial distillery on what is now Staten Island. Still, most harder alcohol was imported—rum from the Caribbean or madeira and port from Europe—and most of it was too expensive for the average colonist. Those who couldn't afford it made do with beer, fermented fruit and vegetable juice, and other, weaker forms of homemade liquor. Drinking among the upper classes wasn't just tolerated, it was practically required. A Maryland doctor traveling in New York in 1744 found that a "reputation for hearty drinking was essential for admission to the best society."
As the supply of molasses—the base ingredient in rum—expanded in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, domestic distilling picked up. The earliest record of rum distilling in the future United States shows an operation in New London, Conn., in 1654. By the end of the century, the region was flush with rum producers, turning out thousands of gallons of cheap, high-proof booze.
The industry was centered in the Massachusetts cities of Boston, Medford, and Salem; by 1750 the Bay State had 63 distilleries alone. Molasses was easier to transport than raw sugar cane, and it became a staple in the "triangle trade," in which slaves, cash crops, agricultural products, and manufactured goods circulated among the Western Hemisphere, Britain, and West Africa.
Distilled alcohol, which had been a luxury good, was now cheap enough for all to consume. During the 1720s and 1730s, the price of a gallon of rum in Boston fell from 3 shillings 6 pence to a mere 2 shillings—affordable for even the lowest unskilled workers. By the end of the century, American distilleries poured forth almost 5 million gallons of rum a year, more than the 3.8 million gallons the country imported.
The expanding availability of cheap liquor also brought attempts to control it. In cities, clergy and other self-appointed moral guardians often had de facto veto power over tavern licensing, giving them a say as to who got to sell liquor and who got to buy it. But the growing business led elites to believe that, if they wanted to control the supply, they'd need the power of government. In place of economic and religious barriers rose legal ones; in the 1730s, James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, tried to ban rum entirely from his new colony, while in 1760, John Adams began a campaign for laws to limit the number of tavern licenses in Massachusetts. Others pushed to ban Sunday liquor sales.
Other efforts focused on excluding certain classes from drinking. As historian Sharon V. Salinger notes in her book Taverns and Drinking in Early America, authorities in Boston decreed that selling liquor to an Indian, a slave, or a servant "promised the perpetrator a stiff fine or three months in jail."
The campaign to restrict drinking to the elite crested with the Revolution. The revolt against English rule was more than just a political event; for many Americans, it also signaled a social upheaval. Liberty was more than a question of politics: Colonial society was strictly regimented and stratified, but for a brief period, the Revolution threw all of that into the air. The poor were not about to become rich, but the social strictures that bound them were suddenly loosened. The narrow-minded moralism of English class society was overthrown. And at the forefront of that new, postrevolution liberty was the freedom to drink.
An egalitarian ethos took hold as democracy advanced from the ballot box to the bar. The public house—where the Revolution had been fomented, debated, and plotted—became intimately tied to the emerging American identity. Far from being regulated, it was a place to be celebrated, at least by the newly enfranchised masses.
As historian David. W. Conroy has documented, pubs continued to be the centers of dissent against the new republic. William Shepard, a Revolutionary general and later representative from Massachusetts who put down Shays's Rebellion in 1786, singled out taverns as "the common rendezvous for the councils and comfort of the people," and said that any tavern keeper who facilitated seditious talk at his tables should face "total disqualification for a limited time or forever of enjoying those privileges."
But proposals like Shepard's were rarely put into action: Political leaders recognized that public sentiment favored loosened controls over social life, and that they would suffer at the polls should they try to enforce them. "The gentry risked being branded with the new epithet 'aristocrat' if they did not adopt democratic manners," Conroy wrote in his book In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts."Intemperance and democracy seemed to proceed and deepen hand in hand after 1790."
The Revolution changed not only how Americans drank but also what they drank. War with Britain, and the continued bad blood even after the fighting stopped, meant that the flow of molasses into New England essentially dried up by the start of the 19th century. This was aided by congressionally imposed import duties, the expansion of distilling industries in the Caribbean, British bans on American rum, and the prohibition against slave trading. In 1770, the 2.1 million American colonists consumed some 8 million gallons of rum; 20 years later, a population that had nearly doubled, to 3.9 million, drank only 7 million gallons.
But as rum consumption sank, whiskey consumption exploded. By 1810, whiskey far outpaced rum as the national drink. Between 1800 and 1830, annual per capita consumption of liquor, primarily whiskey, hovered around 5 gallons, the highest in American history.
And yet the few attempts to restrict drinking, like the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, demonstrated not the government's power but its limits. It was simply unable to keep up with the flow of settlers—and their stills—into the interior. By the time Hamilton's men arrived in western Pennsylvania, distillers had set up shop even farther inland, across the upper Ohio Valley. Economics and geography made distilling a core part of a farmer's business operation. Without good roads, it was hard to move bulky grain to markets; distilled into whiskey, though, that grain was easier to store and move, and more valuable to sell. Pubs and taverns were relatively rare on the sparsely populated frontier, while personal stills were ubiquitous. By 1810, some 10,000 were in operation nationwide, according to historian Gordon S. Wood.
What's more, families moved frequently, and men often traveled alone for long periods in search of work. By 1810, some 15 percent of Americans lived west of the Appalachians, "apart from the influences of traditional society," Rorabaugh writes. "It should not be surprising that these isolated and lonely Western pioneers had a reputation for drinking." Men who couldn't pair off with women to form families were left to wander. "This anomic existence, lawless and alienated from society, gave rise to acute drinking." Solo drinking was a widespread social malady, notes Wood in his book Empire of Liberty, whose consequences included "absenteeism, accidental deaths, wife-beating, family desertion, rioting, and fighting." An 1815 newsletter from the Greene and Delaware Moral Society gave a sense of the panic among temperance advocates: "The thing has arrived to such a height," it reported, "that we are actually threatened with becoming a nation of drunkards."
And then, suddenly, the national binge was over, brought to an end not by government control but simple economics. By 1830, the Ohio and Mississippi valleys were dominated by booming urban centers like Cincinnati and Louisville, where factories soaked up excess labor and the forces of social constraint—family, church, and reformist movements—could put a damper on excess drinking. Religious revivalism found fertile soil in which to root.
And so the American ideology changed once again; freedom no longer meant the right to excess but the right to control one's body for profit and personal salvation. And that meant controlling what one put into it. Annual per capita alcohol consumption dropped to about 2 gallons, and has more or less stayed there—today it hovers around 2.3 gallons.
The agricultural sector changed, too. Better roads and the advent of rail and the steamboat meant that excess grain in its original form could get to market—and didn't need to be converted to alcohol. And whereas thousands of personal stills produced drink in the first decades of the century, after 1830 a powerful commercial industry was in place, which concentrated production and once again put a price, and thus a natural point of control, on liquor.
Nevertheless, two patterns had emerged. First, the urge to drink was clearly endemic to the American character, hindered only by periods of economic and social calm. When that calm was broken—by economic depressions, the Civil War, tumultuous expansion westward—Americans returned to the bottle. During the Civil War, according to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, consumption was above 2.5 gallons per capita, about a 20 percent jump from the previous decade; it then dropped to below prewar levels, only to rise again during the economic tumult of the early 1890s. Drinking also rose significantly during World War II, going from 1.5 gallons per capita in 1939 to 2.25 in 1945.
The second pattern involved attempts to control that drinking. Strategies that used government power to tamp down on alcohol had peaked with the Whiskey Rebellion; for much of the 19th century, the controlling forces would be the church, the community, and the economy.
For the first decades of the temperance movement, activists eschewed the government and made their case for sobriety directly to the people. It was only after the Civil War, and with the founding of groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, that activists began to push for a new wave of government regulation of alcohol—and, eventually, prohibition, culminating in the ratification of the 18th Amendment on Jan. 16, 1919.
But while Prohibition seems like a singular folly in retrospect, it was hardly unexpected. American society had been grappling with the issue of how to control alcohol—if at all—from the beginning.
This article appears in the December 7, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as A Nation Weaned on a Stiff Drink.