Alcohol Use and Abuse America

Two of the main characteristics of alcohol consumption in colonial America were frequency and quantity. Stated simply, most settlers drank often and abundantly. Alcohol consumption was a normal part of personal and communal habits, and in colonial homes beer and cider were the usual beverages at mealtime, including for children. Communal projects such as clearing the fields or raising buildings were usually accompanied by a public cask to fortify the laboring citizens, and farmers usually took a generous ration into the fields. Though this policy may seem foolhardy by modern standards, the rationale in colonial times was that the backbreaking labor required in these pursuits was somewhat allayed by the effects of alcohol. Drinking became institutionalized in other spheres as well. Both the Anglican and Puritan churches, for example, used communion wine. New England towns held ordinaries, or weekly community gatherings where the citizens prayed, ate, drank, and gossiped. In the South, alcohol mixed with politics in the practice known as treating, where candidates for local office provided the electorate with plentiful libations, presumably in return for their vote. In addition to political events, weddings, baptisms, funerals, holidays, ministerial ordinations, and militia musters were normally wet occasions. Most drinking, however, occurred in inns and taverns, which were often among the first structures constructed in colonial towns, and they remained prevalent and popular throughout the colonial period. Despite the heavy drinking, there was little public outcry against alcoholism, and certainly no prerevolutionary equivalent of the temperance or prohibition movement. Extreme intemperance was held largely in check by traditional cultural and societal norms that stressed common loyalty and standards of individual conduct. If individual willpower wavered, families, friends, ministers, and magistrates served to guard against deviant behavior. The church, especially, played a central role in defending community values, as Increase Mather, the Puritan preacher from Boston, made clear in his sermon Woe to Drunkards (1673), which warned against the sin of drunkenness. Civil officials addressed more temporal concerns when alcohol consumption led to crime, and each colony developed extensive legal codes to combat all aspects of liquor violations. Colonial magistrates, however, rarely let concerns over excesses in drinking spill over into general attacks on the consumption of alcohol, which was recognized as a fundamentally necessary product. Two important exceptions to this rule involved Native Americans and African Americans. Strict regulations were enacted to limit alcohol consumption by members of these two groups, who differed both ethnically and culturally from the European settlers. Native inhabitants of North America had no prior experience with alcoholic beverages before the Europeans arrived, but they quickly learned of its debilitating powers, especially from European fur traders on the frontier. Colonists became convinced that the native people could not hold their liquor, and a long-standing stereotype was born concerning their propensity to alcoholism (some modern anthropologists have termed this the firewater myth). Evidence suggests that reactions to alcohol and drinking behavior varied widely from tribe to tribe, but the stereotype held firm, and regulations were enacted in most colonies that strictly limited the sale of liquor to Native Americans, though enforcement was sometimes lax. Like Native Americans, blacks were often perceived as inferior heathens, and alcohol consumption among African American slaves was generally limited by what the masters would allow. Notwithstanding this general rule, on holidays, Sundays, and special occasions, some masters rewarded their slaves with liquor rations. Overall, however, the discipline and demands placed upon the slaves, as well as white fears of intoxicated blacks, severely limited the amount of alcohol consumed for other than medicinal purposes. In the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, slaves who were caught in taverns without their masters’ permission were often flogged, and fines were assessed upon the tavern proprietors who served them. After the New York slave revolt of 1741, anyone caught selling liquor to a free African American was severely fined. Thus, from the earliest settlements to the American Revolution, alcohol was firmly integrated into colonial life. Though beverage choices and consumption patterns were initially carried over from the Old World, American colonists soon developed beverages and drinking habits different from those of the European world they had left behind. Kevin P. McDonald See also: Agriculture; Corn; Grain; Inns and Taverns (Public Houses); Sugar; Triangle Trade; Document: Connecticut Blue Laws (1650). Bibliography Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625 1742. London: Oxford University Press, 1971. Conroy, David W. In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Lender, Mark E., and James K. Martin. Drinking in America: A History. New York: Free Press, 1987. Salinger, Sharon V. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Module 1: Epidemiology of Alcohol Problems in the United States The Science of Addiction: Drugs, Brains, and Behavior About Addiction

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