Consider this a “trigger warning”: The following essay may disturb and upset your view of American history, a history mostly written by scholarly types who distill vast amounts of research into erudite narratives. The trouble with their reverence and their gravitas is that they tend to leave out the interesting bits: sex, food and, especially, alcohol.
The effect of drinking on our national story begins with the Pilgrims, a desperate group of scrappy immigrant refugees who landed illegally on Cape Cod, although their charter from King James was for Virginia. They had to land; they were running out of beer.
“We could not now take time for further search and consideration,” explained William Bradford, who would become governor of the Plymouth Bay Colony, “our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” If the Pilgrims had succeeded in going to Virginia, perhaps the American character would be slow-moving and gentlemanly instead of feisty, flinty and Yankee.
Abigail Smith Adams is often hailed as a Colonial stalwart, a smart wife who reminded her husband, President John Adams, to remember the ladies. You may have learned in school that she inoculated her family against smallpox, a gutsy move in the 18th century. But your teacher probably didn’t mention that she was surrounded by alcoholics.
Her hard-drinking brother, William Smith, succumbed to liver disease. Two of her sons – Charles and Thomas – died of alcoholism in their 30s. Like most alcoholics, Charles and Thomas Adams destroyed themselves, grieving their families and ruining their finances before they died. Two of Abigail’s grandsons also died of alcoholism.
“Vices are hereditary in families,” wrote a surviving Adams brother, Charles Francis. “Our family has been … severely scourged by this vice.”
There are more upbeat moments in the history of alcohol in America. The tide of the Civil War may, in fact, have turned when Abraham Lincoln got rid of a sober general and hired a man who had been previously fired from the Army for drinking. “What if Abraham Lincoln had not gotten around to replacing the sober General McClellan with the heavy-drinking General Grant?” political philosopher Strobe Talbott asked in his 2008 book, “The Great Experiment.” “Would the Union have lost to the Confederacy and would some distant cousins of mine in Texas be living in a separate country?”
As Lincoln, who did not drink, understood, alcohol might well help a man become a warrior. When advisors complained to him about Grant’s habit, Lincoln replied by saying he would like to get some barrels of what Grant was drinking to give to all of his generals.
One of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – was also affected by a bottle. The Secret Service agents who guarded the president and the first lady, and who rode in the car behind them in the Dallas motorcade, had been out until the early hours of the morning at the local press club and at a free-wheeling nightclub called the Cellar Coffee House. Some had been drinking. Did this impair their ability to protect the president at a moment that changed American history?
Chief Justice Earl Warren certainly thought so. “Don’t you think that if a man went to bed reasonably early, and hadn’t been drinking the night before, he would be more alert than if he stayed up until 3, 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, going to beatnik joints and doing some drinking along the way?” he demanded of Secret Service head James Rowley.
Warren noted that some bystanders had seen Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun barrel pointed out of the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. How did the Secret Service men miss that, he wanted to know. Wouldn’t they have been more likely to notice what was going on if they were “free from any of the results of liquor and lack of sleep?”
Drinking is often invisible. It is a powerful, mostly unnoticed force shaping history and current events. Because it is legal and, because it is woven into the American grain, drinking goes unnoticed, even when its effects are obvious. We drink to celebrate, to calm our nerves, to borrow courage, to mourn and just because it feels so good to take the edge off.
There’s nothing wrong with drinking, but its role in human events should be recognized. People’s lives were changed by what they drank and this has changed who we are today.
Susan Cheever is the author of several books. Her latest is “Drinking in America: Our Secret History.”