ArticleEmpire and Alcohol: A Brief Survey
Books mentioned in this essay:
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton Continuum, 211 pages, $24.95
The Prohibition Hangover, by Garrett Peck Rutgers University Press, 309 pages, $26.95
Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages, by Patrick E. McGovern University of California Press, 348 pages, $29.95
The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, by Linda Himelstein HarperCollins, 384 pages, $29.99
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, by Tom Gjelten Viking, 413 pages, $27.95
The conservative philosopher and wine columnist Roger Scruton writes in I Drink Therefore I Am: “A visitor from another planet, observing Russians under the influence of vodka, Czechs in the grip of slivovitz or American hillbillies blotto on moonshine, would surely favor prohibition”. He then goes on to explain why the same alien would revere and applaud the same people’s relishing of a fine Burgundy.
Alcohol is a subject that can chill or burn a conversation. As do sex and drugs, it uneasily resides on an index of both pleasure and transgression. From prehistoric times, people have appreciated drink and its effects, so much so that many rulers throughout the ages have suspected the stuff is too good and too dangerous for the lower orders. And alcohol’s potency can be seen in the way it generates rituals. Sometimes this is rather literal, in the case of both the Christian sacraments and the ancient Greeks and Romans who, in taking their libations, liked to splash some wine on the ground for the gods before taking their own sip. Or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of wine lovers like Scruton, a man who sharply distinguishes between his own savoring of fifty-year-old vintages and the redneck glugging of the “guaranteed fresh” beers of the American supermarket.
Perhaps nowhere outside the Islamic world is there a nation quite so conflicted as the United States about pink-eyed Bacchus’s gift to us mortals, where drinking, as opposed to being drunk and incapable, still carries a stigma. Long before the Bolshevik airbrush reshaped the photographic history of the Russian Revolution, strong American prejudices were at work reshaping the national view of the past—a process culminating with the passing of Prohibition in 1920. The legislation would not be repealed until 1933 under Franklin Roosevelt. As with all great moral panics, it was not just the liquor itself that became spiritually contaminating; all favorable, or even neutral, references to alcohol became a form of thought-crime.
In this new, filtered version of history, Founding Fathers such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and indeed George Washington have been stripped of their actual historical callings as distillers or tavern keepers. Modern-day attention on the underlying causes of the American Revolution has focused almost entirely on the Boston Tea Party. This obscures what was quite possibly a more significant issue: the British Parliament’s insistence on taxing molasses—the substance that New England merchants and distillers like Sam Adams preferred to smuggle in order to make rum.
American independence cut ties with the Caribbean even as it opened up the West, in particular, the fertile landscape of Kentucky. Not surprisingly, whiskey became the American drink of choice. Rum’s rhetorical assonance with Romanism and rebellion and its imperialist associations led to the elision of its role in the revolution. Temperance supporters carried on campaigning against “demon rum,” even as most of the targets of their solicitude were more likely to be swigging whiskey. But even more damning was the association of liquor with both slavery and overindulgence. The Northern victory in the Civil War saw an evangelical fervor for abolitionism often marching hand in hand with a passion for temperance, paving the way for Prohibition. Tellingly, the Union Navy ended the grog ration. The Confederate fleet didn’t.
The raging heat of evangelical fervor distilled out from American history the important role of alcohol in its various forms. Currier and Ives, the ubiquitous nineteenth-century printmakers who chronicled nineteenth-century American life, epitomize this Orwellian redrafting of history. Compare their antebellum print Washington’s Farewell to His Officers in Fraunces Tavern in New York with its postwar equivalent. Their original 1848 print has him raising a glass for a toast in front of his chest while a decanter stands on the table behind him. By 1867, the glass had disappeared to leave him with his hand clutched to his bosom in Nelsonian mode, and the decanter on the table behind him was deftly reengraved as an ornately feathered hat.
Temperance soon mutated into outright prohibitionism. After all, the Puritan heritage of New England had always felt that still-small voice of conscience was all very well, but the bellowed instructions of ordained authority were more reliable.