The Colonial Americans Were Big Drinkers

Unless you want to start living a life of stealing, swindling, and perjury stop what you’re doing and put down that gin and tonic. A little much? Maybe. But back in the days of George Washington, these were common results attributed to sipping the waters of “Temperance” and “Intemperance” as told by Benjamin Rush in his pamphlet An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body. We agree, that title’s a mouthful.

Who does this Rush guy even think he is?

Hold your horse and carriage. Our friend Rush was a big time doctor back in the Revolutionary Era and was also a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He had a pretty solid reputation and his 1784 pamphlet made a big splash. Let’s take a look at the two ends of his “moral and physical thermometer.”



The document splits alcohol consumption into two parts; temperance and intemperance. According to his chart, if you have a small beer or water you shall embrace a serenity of mind and even a long life. If your cup is splashing with wine or a cider, expect cheerfulness and strength (however only when sipped during meals). As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. But what about those “ardent spirits” Jefferson warned of? If you’re knocking back “drams of gin, brandy and rum, in the morning,” you can expect to commit perjury leading to a stint in state prison. Repeat that routine “during day and night” and it’s off to the gallows for you.

But what made young America need a slap on the wrist for sipping on the harder spirits? It was hard for your casual colonial to get clean drinking water, thus alcohol was the best way to stay decently hydrated. In 2013, Americans were drinking an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol in total. Back in 1830, that number was 7.1 gallons per American. That’s nearly three times as much alcohol per person compared to Americans today. 

We can’t hate on Rush too much though. He wasn’t for complete prohibition; rather he just wanted to spread the word that different kinds of alcohol had different effects, some good, some bad. Perhaps Rush is really just one of the first cocktail snobs. We’re going to sip on our vodka soda and salute to him anyway.

h/t The Atlantic