On Rum and Revolution

Cover of Cheever's book

Cover of Cheever’s book

The American Revolution has come in for a beating lately.  Gerald Horne’s ground-breaking The Counter-Revolution of 1776, reviewed here earlier, shows that the colonial revolt was at bottom a rear-guard action to preserve a bastion of slavery in a world where England and other European powers had already moved forward to abolition.  Seen from London, where slavery was outlawed, the libertarian rhetoric of Jefferson came across as so much hypocritical gasbaggery.

Reflecting on this gap between words and realities, I wondered occasionally how it was possible for intelligent leaders to write stuff like “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while keeping so many people in chains.  Along comes Susan Cheever’s new book, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, with a plausible answer: they were drunk.  The American revolution, she says, was fueled by rum. The chief constituent of rum was molasses that slaves wrung from cane in Caribbean sugar plantations.

James Madison drank a pint of whiskey daily.  John Adams downed a tankard of cider before breakfast every morning, just to get going, and drank whatever was available the rest of the day.  He wrote, “I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.”  Two of his sons died of alcoholism, as did several of his grandchildren.  Jefferson, Cheever writes, penned the Declaration of Independence in a tavern.  He was obsessed with fine wine.  He ran for election in 1800 calling for repeal of the whiskey tax.

The Boston Tea Party was hatched in the Green Dragon tavern. The original plan was to nail the tea crates to the deck to prevent their unloading the next day, the last day on which the tea tax could be levied.  But that was too complicated because the raiding party had got drunk, so they threw the crates overboard instead, creating a major incident. That set off an unforeseen spiral of reprisals and escalations.

Paul Revere stopped at several taverns during his ride and fortified himself with rum. Drunk, he was captured by the British but talked his way out of captivity.  When the British infantry arrived at Lexington Green at five in the morning, they faced a ragtag assembly of locals who had been drinking since midnight in Buckman Tavern. The British fired the first shots of the Revolutionary War against a drunken mob.

Ethan Allen was a notorious drunk.  In a partnership with Benedict Arnold, he captured Fort Ticonderoga out of sheer drunken audacity.  He died of exposure on a cold night in 1789 after a night of heavy drinking.

George Washington won his first electoral office by distributing 144 gallons of alcoholic drink at the polling places. He motivated his soldiers by doubling their rum rations and getting them drunk. He drank with enthusiasm, favoring rum made with molasses from the Barbados.    After the war his slaves planted rye and corn on his plantation and built a distillery that produced eleven thousand gallons of whiskey a year.  It was one of the largest buildings in America at the time. He then added a vineyard and distilled brandy, and had a brewery built to make beer.  He spent his days drinking.

Cheever’s cruise through American history begins with the Mayflower, which stopped at Plymouth because it was running out of beer, and ends with Richard Nixon, who was drunk and unconscious at crucial moments.  Her thesis is that alcohol played an important role in the lives of key actors and in shaping pivotal events, a role that most writers of history ignore.

The book’s vibrancy dulls toward the end, when Cheever slip-slides into a hackneyed endorsement of Alcoholics Anonymous, as if that organization had made any salutary impact on American drinking behavior. Per capita consumption of alcohol only went up when AA was founded. The long and only partially written story of AA’s symbiosis with the alcoholic beverage industry belongs in a muckraking book of this kind, and Cheever’s failure to even glimpse the issue is a major lapse.  Still, for its earlier chapters, it’s well worth reading.

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