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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: Did alcohol...

CONNECTIONS: Did alcohol shape American history?

If you think of our country as Christian and sober, it is probably because you are more familiar with our later history. Taverner Root in Lenox was hauled into court when his customers, well-lubricated, were found dancing on tables, singing and shouting.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Was Berkshire’s cherished Knox Trail awash in alcohol? According to Susan Cheever (“Drinking in America”), the answer is yes.

Surprised? Don’t be; so, too, were the deliberative chambers at other key moments in history. In 1787, two days before signing the United States Constitution, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention had a dinner party at City Tavern, Philadelphia.

Here is a reprint of the menu (all prices rounded off):

To 55 Gentlemen

54 Bottles of Madiera………….20 pounds
60 of Claret…………………….21
8 ditto of old stock (whiskey)……3
22 Bottles of Porter………………2
8 Cyder (cider) ditto……………16
12 ditto Beer…………………….12
7 bowls of punch…………………4
16 Bottles Claret………………….5
5 ditto Madiera……………………1
7 Bowls Punch……………………2

Total……………………..………86 pounds

The interior of the City Tavern.
The interior of the City Tavern.

In addition there were charges for candles, cigars, olives, fruit, and relish for a total of 89 pounds, or $15,000 today. However, the focus is on drink and that bill averages put to 2 bottles, a few shots, plus ample punch and beer for each of the 55 attendees — in one evening.

Were our founding fathers lushes?

The father of our country had a brewery at Mount Vernon and drank beer from a silver tankard at meals daily. John Adams had a glass of hard cider every morning with his breakfast, and Thomas Jefferson was a dedicated oenophile.

The first report of drinking to excess by the English in North America appears in a letter from Jamestown to London prior to establishing the Plymouth Colony in 1620. It stated that drunkenness was interfering with development of the settlement.

To place all this imbibing in context, however, it must be remembered that drinking water was considered unhealthy, even dangerous. They were right: human waste and animal carcasses were thrown in the lakes and rivers from which water was drawn. To drink water was to risk illness and death. Everyone drank beer, hard cider, and wine – men, women and children. Aboard the Mayflower, there was more beer than water.

A City Tavern place setting.
A City Tavern place setting.

Nonetheless, the first law intent upon limiting drinking was passed in Virginia in 1629: “Ministers shall not give themselves to excess in drinking or riot or spending their time idly.”

In Massachusetts, the first attempt to limit drinking was made in1633. That year Plymouth attempted to limit the sale of liquor to two pence-worth at a time. (Look at the prices above: one bottle of beer is one pound, there are 100 pence in a pound, and 12-ounce beer bottles were the most common, so that would limit a customer to one small drink at a time.)

The law failed. Instead, tight regulations were placed on those who poured the liquor. Taverners’ licenses were required and, to secure one, the man must show himself to be sober and respectable. The fine for selling liquor without a license was stiff. In addition, then as now, the tavern keeper was held liable for the behavior of his customers. He could lose his license if his customers were drunk and disorderly on his premises.

In Berkshire, apparently, drinking to excess was less of a problem, perhaps because there was precious little discretionary income. There were ample places to drink — the comment that there were more taverns than churches in Berkshire was often repeated. Still, there were only a handful of court cases related to excessive drinking found in the records. Taverner Root in Lenox was hauled into court when his customers, well-lubricated, were found dancing on tables, singing and shouting. The Widow Bingham in Stockbridge was fined for attempting to sell drinks without a license. Subsequently she did get a license.

Antique spirit bottles.
Antique spirit bottles.

Drunk or sober, Colonel Henry Knox succeeded in bringing 50 cannons to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga through Berkshire County along that now-famous trail. With or without a snoot of beer, General Washington used the cannons to take back Boston from the British.

Were the 55 delegates drunk when they signed the Constitution? Probably not; the signing was two days after the party. Were they hung over? Probably not; tolerance is the continued subjection to a substance without adverse reaction. Tolerance of drugs or alcohol is achieved through constant use. Our forefathers, bless them, drank all day, every day.

History is interesting not the least because it reminds us where we came from. If you think of our country as Christian and sober, it is probably because you are more familiar with our later history. In the mid-19th century, the Temperance Movement took hold. It attempted to wipe out not just drinking but also the memory of drinking. The temperance movement in Berkshire was as ardent as in other places. Susan B. Anthony gave her very first public address to the Daughters of Temperance. She became a crusader for women’s rights when the Sons of Temperance refused to let her speak to them. How alcohol shaped American history: the consequences and the unintended consequences.


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