America’s first president was known for many impressive accomplishments. He was the first to sign the Constitution, he fearlessly led American troops during the Revolutionary War, and he set the standard for presidential term limits. But one of George Washington’s vital characteristics never made its way into U.S. history curricula: He had an affinity for rum.
Not only did the former president use the Caribbean spirit — which, during his day, was the most popular drink in America — to gain voters in a 1758 election, he even pushed for the Continental Congress to institute a national rum distillery during the Revolutionary War. This was a subject Washington referred to as “of infinite importance, and to have a claim to their serious attention” in a 1777 letter to John Hancock.
Washington saw rum as a necessity, as the spirit was stronger and kept longer than beer. Plus, he felt it helped to lift the spirits of despondent troops: “The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in All Armies, and are not to be disputed,” he wrote. So, when his troops found themselves with a shortage of rum, he feared a downturn in morale.
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To alleviate the problem, Washington propositioned Hancock to put in place a state-run rum distillery. “This is a source of much Complaint, and, I should hope, may be removed by appointing proper persons to buy Grain & distill it for the Army, large Quantities of which may be easily procured & on reasonable terms in many of the States.” he wrote.
When that didn’t pan out, he wrote letters to government officials back in the colonies, ordering that rum — which then was used for medicinal purposes — be removed from hospitals and be given to troops. He even encouraged soldiers to steal rum if “necessities are so great.”
Whether or not his methods were moral, Washington’s commitment to keeping his troops’ thirsts quenched clearly paid off, winning him the war and two subsequent terms as president.