THE ALCOHOLIC REPUBLIC: An American Tradition by W. J. Rorabauah


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Between 1800 and 1830, Americans consumed alcohol in record quantities (three times today's levels) and in new patterns. The dally drams and medicinal uses popular in the 18th century declined, while ""participation in group binges increased."" Solo binges, called ""sprees"" or ""frolics,"" grew widespread and, for the first time, there were reports of the ""DT's."" Rorabaugh (History, Univ. of Washington) offers a serious analysis of the economic, social, and cultural changes that brought on this national intoxication and the sobriety which followed. Not only had rum been a vital part of the colonial economy, but taverns had been the ""seed beds of the Revolution"" and the ""nurseries of freedom."" Drinking was invested with a libertarian and egalatarian ethos--every man was equal before the bottle. After the Revolution, whiskey became the country's ""principal industry."" Since ""grain could not be sent profitably by land more than twenty miles,"" and because there was no system of water transportation, ""the grain surplus. . . could be marketed only as distilled spirits."" With the coming of steamboats, canals, and a national market in the 1830s, the reliance on whiskey declined. Rorabaugh shows that the whiskey glut was a symptom of the changes that occurred as ""a localized rural seaboard economy was beginning to be transformed into a modern national industrial economy."" He describes the importance of spirits in America's ""hog and hominy diet"" (corn bread, corn-fed meat, and cornmade drink) as well as its importance to election meetings and fur-trader fairs. The people who most felt the dislocating social changes--stage drivers, lumberjacks, boatmen, canal workers, schoolmasters--were the heaviest drinkers. By the late 1820s, however, the idea that ""to be drunk was to be free"" was replaced by a new ideal of freedom based on self-control and productivity--the temperance society answer to the pressures of American life. A sober study that puts both temperance and drinking in a new light.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press