Happy Fourth of July! The Founding Fathers Probably Drank Like Fish

Illustration for article titled Happy Fourth of July! The Founding Fathers Probably Drank Like Fish

As we approach Independence Day, let’s all take a moment to remember those colonials turned citizens of a new nation, who fought the British, carved out new political customs, and drank constantly.


The Atlantic looks back at the prodigious alcohol consumption of early Americans. We are talking lots and lots and lots of liquor:

Instead of binge-drinking in short bursts, Americans often imbibed all day long. “Right after the Constitution is ratified, you could see the alcoholic consumption starting to go up,” said Bustard. Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were. Although some colonial-era beers might have been even weaker than today’s light beers, people drank a lot more of them.

Emphasis mine. How did anybody manage to walk? Now, in defense of turn-of-the-eighteenth-century Americans, liquor was sometimes easier to lay hands upon than clean water. But it was enough to worry doctor Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote a pamphlet on the matter in 1784. He warned that it all begins with a few too many, then it escalates into gambling, and if you aren’t lucky the next thing you know it’s jail for you, buddy. He saw an imminent danger to his country:

“It was a pretty common belief among the founders [regarding] America’s experiment with republicanism, that the only way that we were going to keep it was through the virtue of our citizens,” said Bruce Bustard, the curator of a National Archives exhibit on American alcohol consumption.

Too much drinking meant not enough Republic-ing.

Nevertheless, when the cops write you a ticket for an open container at the beach/park this weekend, you just tell them that, God dammit, you were honoring America with that rye whiskey.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

Photo via Getty.



To be fair, there weren’t super consistent proofs in the 18th century, and beers and ciders for regular consumption could be as little as 1-2% abv. Even so, the threshold of acceptable tipsyness was higher. A soldier in the American army in the rev war could drink up to a QUART of whiskey before being considered unfit for duty.


Granted, they rarely got access to that much, and the standard gil (or about two shots) of whiskey in their rations went into the water as antiseptic.

I have fun George Washington and rev war soldier drunk stories, too, if you would like.