The Surprising Drinking Habits of Our Founding Fathers

As president, Thomas Jefferson imported more than 20,000 bottles of wine for his personal collection
Staff Writer
The Surprising Drinking Habits of Our Founding Fathers

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Ben Franklin authored The Drinker’s Dictionary, which delineates over 200 euphemisms for getting tore up.

My fellow Americans, we live in a time of political gridlock, of discord and intractability within the storied halls of government. Both sides of the aisle will often resurrect our Founding Fathers to beef up their positions, quoting them (or, more often, misquoting them) in support of one thing or another. If you were to believe many politicians, Washington and Jefferson had opinions on topics ranging from internet surveillance to legalizing pot. No matter how you interpret the framers’ intentions, the fact is that our current political machine is a rusty junker that’s ground to a halt. Perhaps now, on our nation’s 238th birthday, we should remember one very important lesson passed down from the Founders: every good machine needs a certain amount of lubrication to function well.

The Surprising Drinking Habits of Our Founding Fathers (Slideshow)

On top of being statesmen and revolutionaries, men like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington also knew how to drink — and drink they did. In the 13 years between our declaration of independence in 1776 and the election of our first president in 1789, these men were tasked with creating a new nation from scratch. There were fierce debates, false starts, and terrible failures before a Constitution was finally ratified and a president elected. Aiding the framers through the birth of modern democracy was an astronomical amount of booze.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Your average colonist guzzled about seven gallons of alcohol per year. That’s a lot. In comparison, a contemporary American downs just over two gallons each year. Back then, by lunchtime, most people were two or three beers into their day, and by bedtime — after more beer, an extravagant portion of hard cider, wine and Madeira, and probably a few healthy tipples of rum — the totality of America must’ve been pretty slurry.

Some attribute the high rate of boozing back in the day to the scarcity of potable water. Others say that’s just drunken rationalizing; that, in fact, our British heritage was a lot more to blame. The popular belief in England at the time was that water, clean or not, was bad for your health. Beer and cider weren’t even categorized as alcohol, but rather as food, and as status symbols. Only the most destitute drank water because they had no other choice.

In fact, the colonists considered alcohol to be much more than just a recreational part of daily life. It was a cure-all for the sick and enfeebled, a restorative for the weak and elderly, and an important ingredient in the communal glue that held colonial society together.

Today, we’ve come to understand that drinking from dawn into the wee hours isn’t necessarily the healthiest way to live our lives, but there’s a lesson to be learned here that perhaps current American politicians should clue into: amazing things can be accomplished when people who disagree come together over a few beers and hash it out. Just ask Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (okay, bad example).

Check out the slideshow for more teachable moments brought to you by the founders of our nation, and may God blesh ‘Merica *hic*.

George Washington

The Surprising Drinking Habits of Our Founding Fathers

We’re taught to think of Washington as the stoic, sober, wooden-toothed patriarch of our nation, but nothing could be further from the truth. Washington was known for tying one on with about four bottles of wine and dancing the night away. After his presidency, he opened one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country at Mount Vernon that produced 11,000 gallons in 1799, the year he died.

John Adams

The Surprising Drinking Habits of Our Founding Fathers

It’s tough to say, but John Adams may have been the biggest drinker of the Sons of Liberty. He began every day with a draft of hard cider before breakfast. He drank three glasses of Madeira, a wine fortified with rum, every night before bed. During the bad old days under British taxation, Adams wrote to his wife, “I am getting nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this cause alone.” He died at 90. Of old age.

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Correction: This story was originally improperly attributed. The author is Adam Boles, founder and proprietor of Sauce Culinary Travel

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