George Washington

George Washington: Boozehound

Prodigious alcohol consumption by Washington and his fellow founding fathers has been whitewashed from American history.

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Washington's farewell
Alonzo Chappel/Public Domain

Reason TV's Meredith Bragg informed us of George Washington's whiskey production. He didn't tell us, however, about Washington's alcohol consumption, which was, at times, prodigious. That consumption by Washington and his fellow founding fathers has been whitewashed—sometimes literally—from American history by the intervening Temperance movement, whose effects still drive us. For instance, the classic picture of Washington taking his farewell from his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York—which, of course, involved a toast—was painted with a serving flask clearly visible. This container was painted out of these same pictures later, in the nineteenth century, reminiscent of Soviet photos with purged former leaders excised.

It is impossible for Americans to accept the extent to which the Colonial period—including our most sacred political events—was suffused with alcohol. Protestant churches had wine with communion, the standard beverage at meals was beer or cider, and alcohol was served even at political gatherings. Booze was served at meetings of the Virginian and other state legislatures and, most of all, at the Constitutional Convention.

Indeed, we still have available the bar tab from a 1787 farewell party in Philadelphia for George Washington just days before the framers signed off on the Constitution. According to the bill preserved from the evening, the 55 attendees drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.

That's more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a number of shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate. That seems humanly impossible to modern Americans. But, you see, across the country during the Colonial era, the average American consumed many times as much beverage alcohol as contemporary Americans do. Getting drunk—but not losing control—was simply socially accepted.

By contrast, the Temperance movement insisted that alcohol was a beverage whose use inexorably progressed to alcoholism. I sport in my apartment the eight illustrations of George Cruikshank's "The Bottle." In the first, "Frances Latimer brings the bottle out for the first time; he induces his wife to take a drop." By the fourth plate: "Unable to obtain employment, they are driven by poverty into the street to beg, and by this means they still supply the bottle." And four more plates remain where (spoiler alert) things get "progressively" (as in alcoholic progression) worse.

Note: Cruikshank was English, and provided the illustrations for Charles Dickens' early books. But Dickens, who favored the workingman's right to drink (as well, certainly, as his own!), grew alienated from Cruikshank, the Temperance nudge.

This type of Temperance propaganda has so suffused our consciousnesses that even the most liberated among us view alcohol and drugs as leading to the kind of addictive progression represented by Cruikshank's illustrations. At the time Temperance held sway in the U.S., opiates were widely dispensed to men, women, and children in tincturated forms such as laudanum. Yet, today, we are convinced by every drug scare that comes down the pike that we cannot possibly control the effects of narcotics and other drugs, let alone alcohol.

As Ilse Thompson and I note in Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict:

Here's the story: a way of thinking about addiction has grown up in the United States based on our temperance history. It is furthered by our modern "brain revolution," supposedly steeped in the biology of behavior and reinforced by an economic juggernaut, that purports to find in neuroscience a full and tidy explanation for addictive behavior. Unfortunately, these cultural beliefs bear little resemblance to the reality of addiction and are not just unhelpful—but detrimental—to people who develop addictions. This is because both the 12 steps and the "new" neuroscience strive to convince you that you are an addict and will always remain an addict, which, by and large, isn't true. And if you dispute any part of this story, you are in denial, proof positive of everything they say.

And, come on, even the most radically permissive substance users among us are horrified by the amounts drunk at that Philadelphia tavern by our nations' leading political figures 227 years ago.

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  1. If only Congress would drink some of the booze they had at the Constitutional Convention!

    1. and alcohol was served even especially at political gatherings.

      FTFY

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  2. That wine would have been much weaker than today’s wines, of course.

      1. Oh, a marijuana reference.

        Big Red Truck.

        1. Actually, I could swear to having read that wine from centuries ago was weaker than the wine of today.

          It was also common to water down wine back in the day.

          1. Not sure why it would be, Fermentation is fermentation, no?

            1. No, it’s not. Final sugar content determines how much of a given volume of whatever the hell you are fermenting is turned into alcohol. Stronger wines were often better wines because they had the best grown grapes with the highest sugar content at harvest and so, chapitalization became common. Basically adding sugar to the grapes to yield a higher alcohol content on par with better wines. Unfortunately this makes shitty wine. With better farming and more consistent yields chapitalization is usually reserved for crap simply because it’s cheap.

              Short: having more sugar in your grapes due to modern farming techniques results in more alcohol during fermentation.

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    1. We’re talking madeira and ports, fortified wines.

    2. +1 bag of ditchweed from the 70s.

    3. I get it.

  3. Alternate joke: But if you asked the Founding Fathers about certain modern federal legislation, they would say, “there isn’t enough whiskey in the world to make us thing that stuff is constitutional!”

    1. think that stuff

      1. I think you were close to having it right the first time.

        I think it would be “…thing that schtufff….”

        After all they were drunk all the time.

  4. Maybe this explains why governing used to be thought of as a burden not a way of life. It interupted their drinking time.

  5. “To comply with the law we buy a brand new barrel, and we dump the alcohol in the barrel, mix it up, and dump it right back out again.”

    Teetotaling puritans with their barrel laws.

  6. The Star Spangled Banner is sung to the tune of a drinking song…written in London in 1776.

    http://www.colonialmusic.org/Resource/Anacreon.htm

    1. Which puts in context the complaints that it’s hard to sing…if you can notice that it’s being sung out of tune you haven’t been drinking enough.

    2. What you talkin’ bout Willis?

    3. We should base any new anthem on another old English drinking song.

      1. I want to see the alternate universe where Noddy replaced Bon Scott.

      2. Never heard that until now, thank you for making my day.

  7. Bless their liberty loving hearts!

  8. True story: Washington supposedly stayed one night in the town I grew up in, traveling from (I think) Boston to New York. It was in an old inn owned by my family physician not far from my house. That place was loaded with secret passages. And a tennis court. Which I was allowed to use whenever I wanted. Sweet.

    1. Your doc was Dick Loudon?

      1. He was my therapist, not my internist. Come on, man. He taught me The Code. To only kill those who deserved it. And to then cut up their bodies and dump them in Bay Harbor.

        1. I don’t think Bob Newhart was in Striking Distance.

        2. True story: a psychiatrist who works at our medical center dated Mary Frann in college. So before she was Joanna Louden she too was with a shrink — so she got to do the Suzanne Pleshette part as well.

          1. Suzanne Pleshette always gave me boners in my youth. That voice….schwing.

  9. Mothers Against Drunk Horseback Riding didn’t exist back in 1787.

    1. You can say that again.

  10. Mothers Against Drunk Horseback Riding didn’t exist back in 1787.

  11. …54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.

    Or what one would call another day at H&R.

    1. During the State of the Union drinking game

  12. OT: How did New York City manage to get “The Tonight Show” to leave Los Angeles and go back to the Big Apple? A special tax credit for NBC!

    New York’s mayor believes the show’s relocation was a triumph with wide-ranging benefits.

    “Bringing `The Tonight Show’ back to our city means we’re bringing more than a hundred jobs to hard-working New Yorkers, and giving travelers another great reason to visit,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

    Golly gee willikers, I thought lowering taxes for wealthy corporations was evil according to guys like de Blasio! Oh well, I guess he’s a situational socialist.

    1. I thought this was pretty old news already… or was there a back and forth about whether they were going to do this?

      DiBlasio really is the worst sort of crony serving progressive, and even my progressive and commie friends here think he’s an asshole. It’s quite amazing, he’s really a unifying force in that sense.

      1. And yet he won in an enormous landslide.

        1. But only 18% of the population voted. I don’t think that will happen next time, once people have seen what results as mayor when they don’t vote.

          1. I don’t think that will happen next time, once people have seen what results as mayor when they don’t vote.

            Bear in mind who he replaced. If Bloomberg didn’t wise up New Yorkers, I can’t imagine DiBlasio will either.

        2. Well it was him or a racist, so there wasn’t much of a choice.

    2. “situational socialist”, I’m so stealing that.

    3. New York has enterprise zones now… 10 years with no taxes, then they zing you.

  13. Some idiotic cunt is on MSNBC bleating about “Stand your ground” laws.

    Because self defense is exactly the same as Nathan Bedford Forrest leading vigilante lynch mobs through the countryside randomly executing black teenagers.

    1. In related news:

      These two recent, racially charged incidents have some wondering if the school affectionately called Ole Miss is still stuck in the old days. …

      In the meantime, the FBI is getting involved in one of the incidents.

      Special Agent Daniel McMullen on Friday said the bureau, along with university police, will expand the investigation to determine whether any federal laws were broken in the incident Sunday, when a noose and a flag bearing a Confederate symbol were found placed on the statue of James Meredith.

      Wait.

      What?

      Are there still some anti-Confederate flag laws dating from Reconstruction knocking around or something?

        1. You would have to stretch the meaning of those laws to the breaking point and into prohibited 1st amendment territory in order to come to that conclusion.

          At best, they could be charged with littering.

          1. I think the argument would be that hanging the noose amounted to intimidation by threat of force. I think you are correct the courts might find constitutional problems with that.

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    1. Go bleat on MSNBC, you idiotic cunt.

  15. For a man, 5 drinks on a single occasion is considered ‘binge drinking’. By the modern standard, we’re *all* alcoholics.

    1. 5 drinks is hardly a warmup before hitting the bar.

  16. Are there still some anti-Confederate flag laws dating from Reconstruction knocking around or something?

    “I am the Stars and stripes, your One True Flag. You shall have no other flags before me.”

  17. Speaking of drinking. I’m heading out right now to meet up with Sloopy and Banjos. We’re gonna’ get drunk.

  18. The culture and various other characters of revolutionary-era America aside, the idea George Washington drank a lot is not correct. Washington was not a teetotaler per se, but he was by no means a drunk. Accounts of him being under the influence of alcohol number in single digits – and I believe there is no direct account of him ever being three sheets to the wind.

    Washington considered habitual drunkenness perhaps the greatest personal vice, judged those around him particularly by that behavior, and used it as a filtering criteria for people he considered for jobs. Indeed, Washington probably had more than a few folks in the Continental Army executed for behavior directly attributed to drunkenness.

    1. [citation needed]

        1. Thanks.

    2. On the other hand, one can still drink a large amount of alcohol over the course of a day without getting drunk or even under the influence. I suspect that is what was going on.

    3. I heard John Paul Jones was 3 sheets to the wind practically every day.

      1. No, I think it was John Bonham.

    4. It is also true that George Washington produced the largest amount of whiskey in the states, at that time, using a still on his farm. He certainly was not above profiting from the sale of alcohol.

  19. was painted with a serving flask clearly visible. This container was painted out of these same pictures later, in the nineteenth century, reminiscent of Soviet photos with purged former leaders excised.

    Riiight, next thing you’re going to tell me is the post office airbrushes out cigarettes from their stamps of famous people.

    1. Wasn’t this uncovered in National Treasure?

  20. the 55 attendees drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer, and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.

    We have a name for this in Ireland: “Tuesday”.

  21. See Chatham Artillery Punch.

  22. Drinking alcohol was definitely a health measure in the 18th century and earlier as city water supplies were iffy at best. The Temperance movement only become viable with the advent of indoor plumbing and sewage treatment. Earlier temperance movements all died of dysentery.

    1. That is very true. Back in Roman days, it was rare to drink wine straight, one used it to ‘cut’ water to some varying degree. The wine made the fetid lukewarm water palatable, and probably on some level disinfected it with the alcohol.

      I’ve always thought it would be fun to go back in time to a place like ancient Rome with, among other things, all the fun naughty chemistry known to the 21st Century. You’d show up with all kinds of stuff from Bacardi 151 to cocaine to sugared chocolate etc.

      You’d be a god.

      1. You’d have to hold your nose.

      2. “The glory that was”

    2. Exactly. I was going to comment on this myself. Too many people commenting on historic alcohol consumption take potable water for granted.

      1. Then we could easily compare to, say, modern Mexico.

  23. Given the picture, I thought this post would be about the “Secret Gayness of the Founders”.

    Way to throw me a curve, Norman Vincent Stanton.

  24. If George Washington and the other founders were boozehounds, by all means find out what they were drinking and send daily carloads of it to Congress, the President, and anyone else in power on the Potomac.

  25. Bear in mind, most people in history drank a lot of alcohol, because throughout much of history, the water wasn’t safe to drink.

  26. Drugs and alcohol don’t make your life better. Millions of lives and families have been ruined by both. The cost to the economy and the social fabric has been enormous. And yet, Libertarians are obsessed with promoting them. Get fucked.

    1. Prohibition doesn’t make your life better. Millions of lives and families have been ruined by it. The cost to the economy and the social fabric has been enormous. And yet, statists are obsessed with promoting it. Get fucked.

    2. Nothing says you care like storming into someone’s house in the middle of the night, trashing the place, beating the crap out of them and shooting their pets.

      Something that “libertarians” just don’t get at all, with their leave me alone nihilism.

    3. Libertarians don’t “promote” any behavior, dickweed. Libertarians just believe in leaving people alone who aren’t hurting others with their personal choices. Do you think you can discern the difference?

    4. The cost to the economy and the social fabric has been enormous.

      I always love this bullshit line, attributed to smokers as well. I once read where a group of economists did a study on the effect our economy would have, if everyone quit smoking tomorrow. It would bankrupt the country, by having so many people living longer as seniors.

      Rarely have I met a an unfriendly person next to me at a drinking establishment. And he never told me to ” Get Fucked!”

    5. “The cost to the economy and the social fabric has been enormous.”

      Care to explain where you get this? Because most of the studies I’ve seen that take this line do so on the grounds of lost productivity. To get to that claim, though, you have to start from the premise that the economy (or more accurately, society) “owns” people’s labor. If we’re going to go there, though, why not just plain laziness. Should we insist that everyone who doesn’t spend every minute of their waking day in productive activity are bad people who are creating an enormous cost to the economy? Or how about religion? How many people take Sunday off because of their religious beliefs. How DARE they cost the economy all that lost production just so they can sit around in church and listen to someone yammer about God?

    6. If it’s not prohibited, it promoted!

      /derp

  27. He had dental problems for practically his whole life, so I wouldn’t fault his taste for whiskey.

    1. Yeah, Washington wasn’t a boozer, he was high on meth most of the time.

  28. Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with it, thats all.

    http://www.RealAnon.tk

  29. We always white-wash history. Like the folks who opposed a casino about a mile from the Gettysburg battlefield as dishonoring those who fought there. But gambling and whoring was rife in both armies as was booze – about a million gallons of liquor was provided the Union army before it marched to Bull Run (per railroad freight records.)

  30. So you’re saying that the American Revolution for independence was begun and won by a bunch of rampaging drunks? I’m ok with that…

    1. That the American Revolution for independence was begun and won by a bunch of rampaging drunks is best part of the whole story and, for the good of all, is something a great many drug warrior supporting Americans really should learn.

    2. Drunks pretty much drive history. Some of the greatest leaders in history were raging drunks.

      Also, we got to remember, before a century ago — less even — it was far safer to drink beer/wine than water. ‘Tipsy’ was pretty much a constant state of being.

      1. Bog only knows how much advancement the human race has carelessly tossed away by allowing the ignorant tyrants of temperance to place themselves into positions of political power.

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  32. Of all the various flavors of highly destructive do-gooders the temperance Nazis are the very worst.

  33. I question the tally keeper of all the alcohol supposedly drank at all these meetings. Back then keeping a record like this would be unthinkable. Writers tend to put into print what they think happened and after a time it is considered fact.

    1. I’d be willing to be that even back then, a receipt would be provided for an event of this scale.

  34. Back during the founding of the nation everyone drank alcohol of some sort because most water was bad. alcohol also helps if your food has gone bad.

  35. I would like to say thanks very much for sharing this amazing interview here… Thanks and Keep posting!!!

  36. if you asked the Founding Fathers about certain modern federal legislation, they would say, “there isn’t enough whiskey in the world to make us thing that stuff is constitutional!”

  37. Cool. And it’s so nice to hear about the Founding Fathers as real people and not some sainted apparitions floating down the halls of history.

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