The Magazine

Spirits of ’76

First in war, first in peace, and last to refuse a shot of whiskey.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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The George Washington Temperance Society was started in a Baltimore bar in 1840. Its six founders—William K. Mitchell, John F. Hoss, David Anderson, George Steers, Archibald Campbell, and James McCurley—were not raging evangelicals; nor were they dissolute gutter-loungers. They were middle-aged men who had done well in business and five of whom had families. But as John Troy, a future member, wrote,

they found themselves in the power of a monster, bound hand and foot in chains, the slaves of their own appetites. And now they frequented the public taverns; and oft at night, or during the day, and even on the Sabbath, instead of being at their business, or with their families, or at church, they were to be found at the Hotel or Grogshop.

So there and then, the sodden six drew up the society’s constitution, and pledged “not to drink any spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider.” The society saw in George Washington a model of sobriety. Its members wore ribbons bearing Washington’s image and the slogan “We bear a patriot’s honored name, our country’s welfare is our aim.” Washington had freed Americans from British oppression; the Washington Temperance Society would liberate them from the tyranny of booze. The society’s membership grew rapidly, but it was short-lived; within a decade, many of its chapters dissolved.  

Which is probably for the better, because there was a problem with the society’s choice of mascot: George Washington was an unabashed drinker and distiller. Indeed, as Dennis Pogue’s comprehensive volume illustrates, alcohol was very much a part of Washington’s life. He enjoyed alcoholic beverages in moderation, and he took them regularly. Washington consumed a variety of distilled spirits and wines, and he was especially fond of Madeira (a fortified wine). Thus, although George Washington was exceptional in many particulars, he was also much like his countrymen: He drank.

Early Americans’ thirst for alcoholic beverages, as Pogue points out, “was boosted by the general unavailability of trustworthy drinking water.” Indeed, some colonists viewed water as positively perilous. A 1767 household guide warned against drinking cold water when one was hot:

[It] produces quinseys, inflammations of the breast, cholicks, inflammations of the liver and all parts of the belly, with prodigious swellings, vomitings, suppression of urine, and inexpressible anguish.

The belief that alcoholic beverages were both safe and salubrious was commonplace. A 1764 Virginia Almanack advised taking a teacup of rum steeped with huckleberries “night and morning” to cure dropsy. Brandy was gulped to settle the nerves and to tamp down dyspepsia and fevers. Washington himself directed a friend suffering “ague” to take three or four cups of wine at midday and one in the evening.

Politics was a wet vocation; so, too, was war. Washington provided plenty of stiff drink to voters when he ran for the Virginia House in 1758: 47 gallons of beer, 70 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, along with hard cider and brandy. All told, each of the 310 men who voted for Washington received about one-half gallon of drink. As a general, Washington implored Congress to supply booze to his 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. He thought that government distilleries should be erected around the country. When Washington bade farewell to his officers in the Continental Army in 1783, he did so at a tavern with a glass of wine in hand.

George Washington has long had a reputation as being remote and aloof; Pogue shows the truth was otherwise. Though reserved among strangers, Washington entertained guests relentlessly at Mount Vernon. He stocked eye-popping quantities of alcoholic beverages. In 1787, he bought 491 gallons of rum. Two years later, he acquired 312 bottles of Champagne and claret. Washington also had drink accoutrements custom-made, such as a 16-bottle mahogany liquor chest and wheeled coasters on which wine bottles could be shunted about the dinner table. Fellow Virginia statesman Richard Henry Lee found Washington garrulous and “quite merry” after a few glasses.