Today we’re going to discuss alcohol consumption in early America. Alcohol was very important to early Americans and it flowed freely through the colonies. Adults and children alike drank alcoholic beverages for a variety of reasons. One being that it was one of the few things that were safe to drink at the time. However, by the time of the Early Republic period, roughly 1790 to 1830, Americans were consuming more hard liquor per capita than any other country in the world. So today we’ll explore drinking in early America, ask why Americans drank so much, and how such drinking affected the new republic.


Today we’re going to discuss alcohol consumption in early America. Alcohol was very important to early Americans and it flowed freely through the colonies. Adults and children alike drank alcoholic beverages for a variety of reasons. One being that it was one of the few things that were safe to drink at the time. However, by the time of the Early Republic period, roughly 1790 to 1830, Americans were consuming more hard liquor per capita than any other country in the world. So today we’ll explore drinking in early America, ask why Americans drank so much, and how such drinking affected the new republic.

I’m Elizabeth

And I’m Sarah

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig.

Alcohol arrived in North America with the arrival of European settlers. Except for a few indigenous nations in the Southwest that used alcohol in seasonal rituals, Native Americans did not drink alcohol. It was European settlers who introduced alcohol to North America. In 1630, the Puritans packed more beer than water onto their boats. They also brought a ton of brewing malt, to make more beer in the new world.

Alcohol was very important to colonists and flowed freely in the English colonies. Adults and children drank all day, even at breakfast. People drank from sun up to sun down and any event was punctuated by a dram of drink.

English colonists of both sexes drank beer and ale. However, importing beer to America was expensive and the ingredients were hard to find in the colonies. Many colonial brewers got creative and made alcoholic drinks from spruce branches, pumpkin, pine, and ginger. Later in the 17th century, brewers got better at beer making and many households made “small beer,” a weaker beer made by soaking grain in water that spoiled quickly because of its low alcohol content. Strong beers, brewed with malt and sugar, was still expensive and hard to come by.

beore,” (beer)

Colonists learned to make a variety of wines from local fruits, including strawberry, blackberry, and currant wines. They also made wine from dandelions, goldenrod, and vegetables.

Hard cider was a popular drink in England, but apples were not native to New England. So, colonists brought apple seeds from England and promptly planted apple orchards. These orchards provided fruit to make hard cider. In fact, the children’s tale of Johnny Appleseed is based on a real man. His name was John Chapman who said he was visited by an angel that told him to head out west. And to be clear, “west” during his time was like western Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was an interesting character, who by today’s standards we would probably be considered insane. He tramped around barefoot in the wilderness, singing hymns and planting apple seeds. But families living on the frontier welcomed him because the crabapple orchards he planted meant they could make hard cider.

Rum was also an important spirit to early Americans. In the Triangle Trade, manufactured products from England were shipped to Africa where they were exchanged for enslaved Africans. Those Africans were taken to the West Indies where their lives were traded for molasses. That molasses was shipped to New England distillers where they made it into rum, which was shipped back to England and consumed in the colonies. By 1770, America was importing 4 million gallons of rum and made 5 million gallons of rum per year.

Madeira wine in wicker casket
Madeira Wine in Traditional Wicker Cask

Many gentlemen were importing and drinking Madeira, which is a strong and expensive imported wine that was made in the Portuguese Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa. However, whiskey ultimately became the drink of the common man in America.

Why did they drink so much whiskey and very little beer? A lot of it has to do with technology. This is an era before refrigeration or even ice boxes. Whiskey doesn’t spoil as easily as beer. If you were going to drink beer it must be freshly made, and it has got to be drunk quickly before it goes bad. Additionally, people were moving around a lot so they needed something that was portable, something they could put in a flask and carry in their pocket. Whiskey was perfect for this because it will keep for a very long time and it packs a punch. Additionally, whisky has a warming effect and America was an agrarian nation. There were a lot of people working outside, and they believed that it was beneficial to drink while working, that it would help you get your work done. Alcohol in general was understood as nourishment and medicine.

Taverns were central to colonial American life. They were often the only place for people to congregate for miles around, except for maybe the church. Taverns were the nerve centers for official public life in the colonies. You could eat, drink, and rest at a tavern but they were also one of the main ways the people learned what was happening in the rest of the world. The early name for taverns was public house, which turned into the pub. At the public house people talked with traders and travelers and developed political opinions. In many towns, the tavern would also double as the courthouse.

By the eve of the American Revolution, nearly ½ of Boston’s tavern keepers were also elected to official offices. These tavern keepers became prominent revolutionaries. Tavern owners were uniquely situated to organize informal resistance to the colonial government. Taverns were a perfect place to learn and spread revolutionary news and great places to organize and influence militias. You also had a bunch of drunken, angry Patriots all in one place, so taverns were essentially the incubators of the Revolution. In fact, 1 in 5 Sons of Liberty were drink sellers.

The American republic was a radical, grand experiment for its time and so this is a risky venture because it expects a lot of people. In a monarchy, the duty of the people is essentially to obey but, in a republic, the citizens must participate. They need to vote, they should follow issues, they should be involved in campaigns, and so a republic asks much more of people.

Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia. Old architecture.
Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia

However, this foundational period for this new American republic is also the high point for alcoholic consumption in America. There is a paradox in that this is a period where political ideology said that we need an electorate where the people are committed of the wellbeing and common good of the country. The republic needs its citizenry to set aside self-interest to advance that common good. This political ideology relied on what they called virtue, this ability to be level-headed and put oneself aside for the common good. And yet this is also a period where people are drinking like it’s going out of style.

In 1790, so roughly two years after the Constitution was ratified, Americans were drinking 3.5 gallons of 90 proof alcohol per capita per year. 90 proof means about 45% alcohol, so we’re talking hard liquor like whiskey. I went into my liquor cabinet just to look, and my gins were all between 44-47% alcohol. In comparison, most wine is around 11% alcohol and beers range 4-7%, so we’re talking the hard stuff here.

In the US population, per capita means everyone including children and babies, so these numbers take the whole quantity of alcohol consumed in 1790 and divide it by the total population, which came out to 3.5 gallons per person. Now, it’s fairly safe to say that men were the ones that were drinking most of this alcohol. We base this on documents discussing drinking at the time and general understandings of biology. Children of course couldn’t drink as much as adults and when they did were often drinking “small” or lightly fermented beers and ciders, in Bavaria what you’d call a kinder-beer. Then, by elements such as body weight and cultural rules of comportment, it’s safe to say that women were not drinking as much as men on the whole. When we consider these factors, the average consumption of alcohol for a grown man in 1790 was roughly 16 gallons per year of the equivalent of 90 proof alcohol.

These Early Republic numbers were higher than estimates made for the colonial period, but they continued to rise. By 1830 it was up to 4 gallons per capita in the U.S., or 7 gallons per adult. Again, considering men were probably drinking more than women, that’s about 18 gallons per adult male.

Just to put this in perspective, Americans drink about 2 gallons per capita today. So, the numbers we are talking about are astounding. And although many people in Europe also drank a lot during this period, it is notable that American drinking habits were important enough to for foreign travelers to comment on. One English visitor said that Americans were “certainly not as sober as the French or Germans but perhaps about on the level with the Irish.”[1] This was a period of intense subjugation of the Irish by the English, so this coming from an Englishman was a severe put-down.

However, some Americans acknowledged their own heavy drinking. John Addams found it “mortifying that we Americans should exceed all other people in the world in this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance.”[2] Intemperance meant drunkenness in the language of the time. And we should point out that Addams’ breakfast consisted of a tankard of hard cider every day. For these early Americans however, it’s important to note that they were drinking steadily throughout the day, which built up a strong tolerance. So, although many people probably had a blood alcohol ratio that would astound us, they weren’t all binge drinking and acting crazy. In this period, intemperate referred to someone who basically couldn’t handle their liquor.

We do see a differentiation of class here though. George Washington thought that alcohol was “the ruin of half the workmen in this country.”[3] But wasn’t just workmen who were drinking heavily, it was also gentlemen. For example, in 1790 the governor of the New York, George Clinton, gave a public dinner in honor of the French ambassador. The guest list consisted of 120 gentlemen. In all, this party of 120 consumed 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of beer, and approximately 15 bottles of rum at this dinner alone.

People were drinking everywhere and for all occasions. They drank at taverns, they drank at work, they drank at weddings and they drank at funerals. They drank to celebrate, and they drank to numb pain. Many people drank from sunup to sundown, with many men imbibing in what was known as an eye opener. This was a shot of whisky, rum, or gin mixed with bitters, and then they would continue to drink through the rest of the day. A British navy officer and novelist said, “the Americans can fix nothing without a drink. If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink, because it is hot; they drink, because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear;—they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave.”[4]

So why were Americans drinking so much during the New Republic? One reason is that the water quality still wasn’t very good. There was almost nothing in the way of public purified water at the time. If you lived near a town or a city, you might get your water from a common well but this meant traveling, sometimes up to a few miles, in order to get your daily water supply. So, water wasn’t something that you’d want to waste. Not to mention, I’m sure you can only imagine how filthy those public water spots could get. If you were able to get your water from a nearby river or stream, you better make sure you were upriver from any larger settlements as waterways doubled as sewers. Needless to say, drinking water was not the first option for many people.

Alcohol was very inexpensive. During the 1720s and 1730s, the price of a gallon of rum in Boston fell from 3 shillings 6 pence to 2 shillings, making it affordable for even the lowest paid workers. By the end of the century, American distilleries produced 5 million gallons of rum a year, in addition to the 4 million gallons they imported. Whiskey was cheap in the United States because people were mostly consuming domestically produced alcohol. Whiskey is made from grain and Americans grew a ton of grain. America was the number one grain producing country in the world, so they had a lot of surplus grain.  Often, the grain growers were at a distance from markets. For example, if they were in western Pennsylvania and they had to get their produce over the mountains to the market in Philadelphia, they needed something that was more portable and higher value per volume. Distilling their crop into whiskey made it much more marketable in the East. This meant there was more whiskey being produced in the United States than in any other country in the world. And since there was such a high supply, the price was very low. By 1810, whiskey far outpaced rum as the national drink.

Another factor that made it so cheap was that governments didn’t tax whiskey. Today if you go to the liquor store and pick up a bottle of whiskey, it’s not very cheap. A lot of the cost is going to state and federal taxes. But in the 18th and early 19th century, there was no tax on whiskey. So, you had a very common product with virtually no taxation on it. And so, it was cheaper to get drunk in America than in any other country in the world. And many Americans felt that was their primary liberty.

The federal government actually tried to tax whiskey in the early republic. It didn’t go so well. In 1791, in an attempt to recoup some Revolutionary War debt, Alexander Hamilton and the federal government put a 25% excise tax on whiskey. Many on the frontier saw the tax as favoring larger whiskey producers based in the east as well as being an affront to their way of life. Collectors sent to collect the taxes on whiskey were harassed. Robert Johnson, a western Pennsylvania tax collector, was assaulted by a group of 16 men dressed as women. He was beaten, stripped, shaved, tarred and feathered. Tensions peaked in 1794 when Federal Marshall David Lenox and John Neville served summons to more than 60 distillers who had evaded the whiskey tax. After they arrived at the home of William Miller to serve a summons an argument broke out and shots were fired. An angry mob began to form. In the coming days, a group of rebels who were against the tax swelled to over 7,000 men.

On September 25, 1794, President Washington led 12,000 members of the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia militias to quash the insurrection. What came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion was substantially important because it marked the first time that the national government exerted military control over American citizens, all over a tax on whiskey.

George Washington on his horse. The Whiskey Rebellion.
The Whiskey Rebellion, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Other reasons Americans drank so much had to do with American’s propensity to travel a lot. Americans were moving around in pursuit of economic opportunity, and they weren’t always finding it. When they moved, either to trade or to push westward, they were forming new social bonds with people. It was custom to share a drink with a new acquaintance. Almost every social occasion featured drinking- the local corn husking, barn raising, funeral, marriage. There was even a special brew for birthing.  

Another factor is what Americans ate. Their diet was very heavy on meat but without refrigeration, meat was preserved with salt or it was smoked. It both cases, if you eat a lot of that you are going to be thirsty. And back then, your choices were water or whisky. Most chose whiskey. There was the belief that after you had a heavy meal of salted or smoked meat, that you need alcohol to settle your stomach.

Americans were notorious for eating massive quantities of food and eating it as quickly as possible. European visitors were just astonished at American eating habits. They would just marvel to see these huge quantities of hams and bacon being scarfed down in five minutes and then they had to settle their stomachs with whiskey. One European noted, “as soon as food is sat on the table the fall upon it like wolves on an unguarded herd.”[5]

There was also a belief that alcohol helped people work outdoors and helped them deal with extremes of temperature. Most Americans worked outdoors because this was an agrarian country, 80% of Americans were farmers. Other common occupations were also outdoors: sailor, logger, fisherman, dock workers. Relatively few Americans worked indoors at desk jobs but even those who worked inside, like shopkeepers, also drank on the job because they believed it helped people do their daily work. It was a common practice and practically universal understanding that employers would provide their workers alcohol. If you were a farmer and you hired farm laborers, those laborers expected that in addition to the pay you were giving them, that you were also going to give them a meal and you were going to provide them with alcohol. If you went into a shoemaker shop, it would be the same story. The master would provide alcohol, it would be a bond between the master and the journeyman or apprentice, and it would keep the work going on. Workmen digging the Erie Canal were paid in part with whiskey. In addition to their daily ration, they were also given whiskey in leu of cash.

Enslaved people were not allowed to have alcohol, with an exception made during harvest season. Harvest was a special season and so as an incentive to get slaves to work harder during the harvest, some masters provided alcohol. However, enslaved people saw free people all around them drinking very heavily, it’s a natural state and priority of being a free person in the new republic. So, it becomes a goal to steal alcohol and share it with your friends in the slave quarters as an act of defiance.

Elections were also punctuated by extreme alcohol drinking. We’d like to think that Americans in the new republic were sober when making very important decisions, but they were not. Friends and supporters of different candidates hung out at the polling places or at taverns, giving potential voters copious amounts of alcohol while telling them to vote for their candidate. An account from 1830 noted “an election in Kentucky lasts three days and during that period whiskey and apple toddy flow through our cities and villages like the Euphrates through ancient Babylon.”[6]

Of course, today we have laws that say you must be a certain number of feet away from a polling station, you’re not allowed to press whiskey on people and then carry them to the polls when their good and saucy. But there weren’t any laws like this in the early republic.

The County Election, George Caleb Bingham, 1846. Colorful painting of drunk voters.
The County Election, George Caleb Bingham, 1846

So, what were the social consequences of this level of alcohol consumption, particularly by men? Remember, alcoholic consumption peaked in the 1830s and social strains developed as the American economy and social structure changed. This period is often called the Market Revolution by historians because the economy and the ways that people worked began to drastically change. The workplace was moving away from the home and into mills and factories. No longer was the home the sole site of production, but now many people were beginning to leave their homes to go work in early factories. This began to put a strain on relations between employers and employees as some employers stopped providing alcohol to their employees and tried to curtail its usage at work.

The addition of machines to the workplace made these tensions worse. It is one thing if you’re making shoes by hand in your workshop home, but when you start making a shoe with machinery you can start to loose fingers and hands and arms pretty quickly. Also, once machines become a staple of manufacturing, then the level of production is more noticeable to the employer. Production started moving at a brisker pace than people were accustomed to. Add being drunk to that mix and you’ve got a problem. This is especially concerning to people who are organizing new workplaces, particularly in factories. Employers in general want to get more work out of their employees because they are engaged in a competitive marketplace. If you competitor reduces the drinking of his workers and you don’t, who is going to produce more product? Your competitor.

Another consequence of high levels of drinking alcohol was a high level of violence. Men were surrounded by other men who were drunk, they start arguing about politics, about property lines, about the weather… whatever, and fights break out. There is also a high propensity for domestic violence. Husbands beating wives, fathers beating children, masters beating apprentices. This level of heavy drinking left some Americans to question it because of these social problems. And women in particular, they are not drinking as much as the men, but they are bearing many of the consequences. One negative consequence, poverty. If you husband is drinking up his wages, then there’s not going to be enough food or clothing for the family.

So, women became very concerned that a heavy level of alcohol consumption was leading to high levels of domestic abuse and impoverishing many families. The concept of republican motherhood meant that women felt they had an obligation to teach virtue to their children so that they could continue this grand experiment that was the U.S. But it is hard to teach virtue to your children when the patriarch of the household is drunk a lot of the time. Women argued that their responsibilities as republican mothers meant that they should be heard in the political sphere on issues that affected their household. And they argue that the number one negative issue affecting theirs households was a high level of alcohol consumption. Women argued that if they were going to be the protectors of the domestic sphere, then much less drinking needed to happen in the public sphere. So the fight for temperance took on a gendered element.

Additionally, evangelical religion is spreading during this period we call the Second Great Awakening. Evangelical churches during this period of 1820-1850 were increasingly coming to the belief that drinking any alcohol is a sin, which leads people to other sins. Earlier in the colonial period, churches had tried to reduce drinking a little bit, but they hadn’t really pushed on it. Now you had churches pushing very hard, especially in the period after 1830.

 So elements of republican motherhood, evangelical Christianity, and the growing marketplace and shift to industrial capitalism were all causing friction in what historian W.J. Rorabaugh labeled the Alcoholic Republic. But even with the changes from the New Republic Period to the Market Revolution period, it is important to remember that America was still an overwhelmingly agrarian nation. So even though the workplace was changing, most Americans stayed farmers and a lot of farmers were becoming evangelical Christians. In turn, they wanted to reduce alcohol consumption on moral grounds.  

Additionally, factory employers were not only eliminating the alcohol they provided to workers, they were also telling their workers not to drink their own alcohol on the job. Occasionally employers went even further and told their employees to not bring their own alcohol in. No more drinking on the job.

Clyde Osmer DeLand, “The First Locomotive. Aug. 8th, 1829. Trial Trip of the “Stourbridge Lion,” 1916. Library of Congress.
Clyde Osmer DeLand, “The First Locomotive. Aug. 8th, 1829. Trial Trip of the “Stourbridge Lion,” 1916. Library of Congress.

Some employers went even farther and insisted that if employees wanted to keep their jobs, they needed to take an oath of temperance. This developing tension not only builds between those that drank and those that didn’t, it also became a class divide, particularly in more urban areas. Because the middle and wealthy class were the ones who owned the factories, and they were mostly the people insisting on curbing alcohol consumption. The people who were most resistant to curbing alcohol consumption were the people who felt they most need the alcohol to cope with their harder lives, the working class. There were of course workingmen who joined temperance societies like the Washingtonians. However, most people who cared about temperance and curbing alcohol at this time were middle and upper class.

There was also an ethnic divide in the move to curb alcohol consumption. Americans who were born in the United States, they called themselves natives (not to be confused with actual aboriginal people), were more prone to embrace the temperance movement than were immigrants. And immigrants often felt that the temperance movement was a form of cultural and religious warfare against them. Many of the immigrants to America were Catholics and they didn’t quite see the same problem with alcohol that protestants were identifying. They felt that attempts to reduce their alcohol consumption was a way of attacking their ethnicity and their faith.

This all transpires into a political divide. There was a new pair of political parties operating in the 1830s and 40s. The old Federalists were gone. The Jeffersonian Republicans had changed and evolved. And so the parties in play during this period are the Democrats and the Whigs. The Whigs drew very heavily upon those social groups that favored temperance. It was a party strong in the northeast, strong among business owners, and strong among evangelical Christians, so it embraced temperance. The Democrats drew support from those who tended to be against alcohol reform, so immigrants, the working class, and rural Americans. So, the cultural divides over alcohol were having political consequences.

During the 1830s and 1840s, most temperance organizations began to call for total abstinence from all alcohol, instead of just a decrease in consumption. It is also during this period that temperance groups started to have a real impact on drinking levels in the U.S. They initially achieved change through moral suasion, which persuades people to make the choice themselves to change their behavior. It essentially became disrespectable to be a middle-class person and to be a heavy drinker. In response, drinking levels decreased among the middle class, particularly in the northeast and the mid-west. It was no longer fashionable or “proper” to be a drinker in some middle-class circles but drinking among immigrants and the working class was still, oh the whole, acceptable behavior.

However, temperance groups were finding that there was a cap as to how far they can go to achieving a reduction in drinking if they just relied on moral suasion. So the alternative was to get localities and states to pass laws that would forbid the sale, the consumption, and the production of alcohol. And there were a number of states that take up this question of should they ban the production, the sale, and the consumption of alcohol. The first state to do this is the state of Main. In 1846, Maine passed the first state-wide law in the U.S. prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. Only alcohol made for industrial or medicinal use could legally be sold, making alcohol the first prescription medicine. Main passed a second law in 1851, which strengthened restrictions on alcohol. During the next four years northern states adopted their own version of the Maine law. All the new England states adopted similar laws, as did New York and about half of the states in the Midwest.

No southern states passed temperance laws, which highlights how the country was dividing over the issue of temperance, and particularly over the attempt to use political prohibition to force people to change their behavior. There were a few reasons for this. The South didn’t have as many factories as the North did. Also, the South didn’t attract immigrant populations like the North. The South was still a very rural, agrarian part of the country. Additionally, there was also a developing suspicion about the North and any kind of social movement that developed there. That’s not to say there weren’t southerners who favored temperance, there were. But there weren’t enough of them to pass any laws.

These so-called Main laws that swept through the northeast and parts of the midwest caused a lot of social chaos. Immigrants saw these laws as a bold-faced affront against their religion and their culture. In many ways, these temperance laws became about racism, not alcohol. When an anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” party member was elected as mayor of Chicago and tried to close taverns on Sundays and increase the cost of liquors licenses, the city erupted in riot, known as the Lager Beer Riots.

Courts began striking down these prohibition laws in the late 1850s. If they weren’t struck down completely, they were greatly weakened. The fire and passion of the early temperance movement died down throughout the 1850s and 60s. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the temperance crusade started up again with a fervor, spurred on by a woman’s crusade in the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. You can hear more about that movement in my episode For Heart and Hearth… and the Rights of Women: Radical Christianity in Pursuit of Conservative Ends in the Nineteenth Century. I guess we’ll also have to do an episode on the 18th Amendment, the Prohibition Amendment, at some point but for now that’s all for us today.


[1] Rorabaugh, 7.

[2] Rorabaugh, 6.

[3] Rorabaugh, 6.

[4] Frederick Marryat, A Diary in America With Remarks on Its Institutions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), 389.

[5] Rorabauch, 118.

[6] Claude S. Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 184.


Claude S. Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 184.

David W. Conroy, In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

David Herzberg, Notes from “History of Drugs and Alcohol in the United States,” taken by E.G. Masarik, 2014.

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Peter Thompson, Rum Punch and Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).

Peter Way, “Evil Humors and Ardent Spirits: The Rough Culture of Canal Construction Laborers,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Mar., 1993): 1397-1428.

W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979

William Kerrigan, “The Invention of Johnny Appleseed,” The Antioch Review, Vol. 70, No. 4, 2012: 608-625.


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