The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)


Drink permeated and propelled the social world of early-nineteenth-century America—first as an unquestioned presence and later as a serious and divisive problem. “Liquor at that time,” recalled the builder and architect Elbridge Boyden, “was used as commonly as the food we ate.” Before 1820 the vast majority of Americans considered alcohol an essential stimulant to exertion as well as a symbol of hospitality and fellowship. Like the Kentuckians with whom Daniel Drake grew up, they “regarded it as a duty to their families and visitors…to keep the bottle well replenished.” Weddings, funerals, frolics, even a casual “gathering of two or three neighbors for an evening’s social chat” required the obligatory “spirituous liquor”—rum, whiskey, or gin—“at all seasons and on all occasions.”

Northern householders drank hard cider as their common table beverage, and all ages drank it freely. Dramming—taking a fortifying glass in the forenoon and again in the afternoonwas part of the daily regimen of many men. Clergymen took sustaining libations between services, lawyers before going to court, and physicians at their patients’ bedsides. To raise a barn or get through a long day’s haying without fortifying drink seemed a virtual impossibility. Slaves enjoyed hard drinking at festival times and at Saturday-night barbecues as much as any of their countrymen. But of all Americans they probably drank the least on a daily basis because their masters could usually control their access to liquor.

To get through a long day’s haying without drink seemed an impossibility.

In Parma, Ohio, in the mid-1820s, Lyndon Freeman, a farmer, and his brothers were used to seeing men “in their cups” and passed them by without comment. But one dark and rainy night they discovered something far more shocking, “nothing less than a woman beastly drunk…with a flask of whiskey by her side.” American women drank as well as men, but usually much less heavily. They were more likely to make themselves “tipsy” with hard cider and alcohol-containing patent medicines than to become inebriated with rum or whiskey. Temperance advocates in the late 1820s estimated that men consumed fifteen times the volume of distilled spirits that women did; this may have been a considerable exaggeration, but there was a great difference in drinking habits between the sexes. Americans traditionally found drunkenness tolerable and forgivable in men but deeply shameful in women.

By almost any standard, Americans drank not only nearly universally but in large quantities. Their yearly consumption at the time of the Revolution has been estimated at the equivalent of three and one-half gallons of pure two-hundred-proof alcohol for each person. After 1790 American men began to drink even more. By the late 1820s their imbibing had risen to an all-time high of almost four gallons per capita.

Along with drinking went fighting. Americans fought often and with great relish. York, Pennsylvania, for example, was a peaceable place as American communities went, but the Miller and Weaver families had a long-running quarrel. It had begun in 1800 when the Millers found young George Weaver stealing apples in their yard and punished him by “throwing him over the fence,” injuring him painfully. Over the years hostilities broke out periodically. Lewis Miller remembered walking down the street as a teenaged boy and meeting Mrs. Weaver, who drenched him with the bucket of water she was carrying. He retaliated by “turning about and giving her a kick, laughing at her, this is for your politeness.” Other York households had their quarrels too; in “a general fight on Beaver Street,” Mistress Hess and Mistress Forsch tore each other’s caps from their heads. Their husbands and then the neighbors interfered, and “all of them had a knock down.”

When Peter Lung’s wife, Abigail, refused “to get up and dig some potatoes” for supper from the yard of their small house, the Hartford, Connecticut, laborer recalled in his confession, he “kicked her on the side...then gave her a violent push” and went out to dig the potatoes himself. He returned and “again kicked her against the shoulder and neck.” Both had been drinking, and loud arguments and blows within the Lung household, as in many others, were routine. But this time the outcome was not. Alice Lung was dead the next day, and Peter Lung was arrested, tried, and hanged for murder in 1815.

In isolated areas it was not uncommon to meet men who had lost an eye in a fight.

In the most isolated, least literate and commercialized parts of the United States, it was “by no means uncommon,” wrote Isaac Weld, “to meet with those who have lost an eye in a combat, and there are men who pride themselves upon the dexterity with which they can scoop one out. This is called gouging.”


Slaves wrestled among themselves, sometimes fought one another bitterly over quarrels in the quarters, and even at times stood up to the vastly superior force of masters and overseers. They rarely, if ever, reduced themselves to the ferocity of eye gouging. White Southerners lived with a pervasive fear of the violent potential of their slaves, and the Nat Turner uprising in Virginia in 1831, when a party of slaves rebelled and killed whites before being overcome, gave rise to tighter and harsher controls. But in daily reality slaves had far more to fear from their masters.