Any kid who made it through high school in the States probably knows something about the history of alcohol in America. Like the fact that General Ulysses S. Grant was a bit of a lush, or that the original settlers drank a lot of beer, or that Prohibition was a miserable failure that gave rise to bathtub gin and organized crime and the current scourge of speakeasy-inspired cocktail bars.
What you might not know is just how indelibly drinking—and opposition to drinking—has touched some of the most important moments in our country’s timeline. And for that we have Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America: Our Secret History, a look at how alcohol and alcoholism has played into 14 major chapters of American life. “The interesting truth, untaught in most schools and unacknowledged in most written history,” writes Cheever in her prologue, “is that a glass of beer, a bottle of rum, a keg of hard cider, a flask of whiskey, or even a dry martini was often the silent, powerful third party to many decisions that shaped the American story from the 17th century to the present.”
It’s Cheever’s goal to reinsert those tipples back into the history from which they’ve been excised. A perfect image for that mission: a Currier & Ives print from 1848 of George Washington standing in front of his troops with a glass of madeira in hand and a bottle of refills on the table. That engraving was later amended in the early years of the temperance movement, reimagined sans glass and with the bottle morphed into a tricorne hat.
From the moment the Mayflower Pilgrims, wanting for beer, decided to land on Cape Cod rather than their chartered destination in northern Virginia, our national obsession with alcohol was born, argues Cheever. “The decision to land illegally on Cape Cod had a huge effect on the later fate of the Pilgrims and the way in which the American character was formed. An illegal landing in a hostile place, partially caused by a shortage of beer, was not an auspicious beginning.”
Since then, our country’s tolerance for drinking and drunkenness has swung back and forth between periods of massive, near-ubiquitous indulgence—the 1830s and the mid-20th century were particularly sodden ages—and periods of crackdown. In the early 18th century, the American colonies became world famous for their drinking, both in terms of quantity—the average colonist, Cheever cites, spent a quarter of his income on booze—and in terms of prevalence: Everyone drank, from toddlers up. By 1820, drinking peaked, with the average American consuming more than triple what we do today.
But soon, that excess created a backlash: By 1834 there were roughly 5,000 nationwide temperance societies (most famously the Washingtonians), claiming 11 million members. With the rise of industrialization, the realization that drunk workers were not ideal, and the simultaneous rise of the women’s suffrage movement, national attitudes toward drinking began to shift. A century later the country had gone whole hog in the opposite direction, passing the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and launching Prohibition in 1920. It was an attempt to legislate against drinking that had the opposite effect, giving birth to another hedonistic era in the decades that followed. Our association of writing with alcoholism, a topic that has sparked several books, is a direct result of Prohibition, Cheever argues: an extrapolation based on a handful of examples of prominent hard-drinking, mid-century writers whose behavior was a reaction to their experience of that dry decade. But though Prohibition is largely regarded as a miserable failure, Cheever detects that the country may be swinging back in that direction again: Our increasingly health-and-longevity-focused society, she concludes, may soon lead to another misguided attempt to legislate against alcohol addiction.
Cheever uses these sociological and historical trends to create a loose architecture for her book, but she’s best when writing about the way alcohol—its abuse and its rejection—affected personal lives, and when she digs up fascinating historical nuggets. Like the fact that George Washington lost his first election to the Virginia assembly in 1755, and then won two years later after he delivered 144 gallons of booze to the polls. Or the fact that early physician and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush believed in both the disease theory of alcoholism and in the lurking danger of spontaneous combustion.
Alcoholism haunts American history, and has shaped it, for better or worse. The Adams line may have boasted two presidents, but the family was also plagued by what must have been the alcoholism gene: Two of John and Abigail’s sons and two of their grandsons died tragically in early alcohol-related deaths. Ulysses S. Grant is criticized for his drinking, but perhaps, Cheever speculates, it was his drunken bravado that actually led to his success in the Civil War. (Lincoln, a famous nondrinker, seemed to think so.) Meriwether Lewis, the man responsible for opening up the American West, descended into alcoholism upon his return from his famous expedition to find a water route to the Pacific. But the West, Cheever argues, was won at least in part by teetotalers, like Wyatt Earp, who had a terribly adverse reaction to alcohol and may have used his sobriety to his advantage in running gambling games, investing in silver mines, and shaping his own legacy in Hollywood.
More recently, Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist reign of terror may have succeeded for the time it did only because the Internet wasn’t available to disseminate images or videos of his belligerent antics—including physically assaulting a Washington Post columnist in public—which were, at least in part, spurred on by the alcoholism that eventually killed him. (“Kiss my ass” was McCarthy’s response to a friend who pleaded with him to cut out the drinking mere months before he kicked the bucket.) The gunman who killed JFK may have had an unwitting assist from Kennedy’s secret-service agents, many of whom were hungover and slow to react after a late night of knocking back booze. And when, in 1969, a TWA flight was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and diverted to Syria, a very drunk Nixon, partying with friends in Florida, repeatedly instructed Henry Kissinger by phone to bomb the Syrian airport. In the morning, writes Cheever, the president had no memory of the incident. And many of us have no memory that Nixon, who started drinking only in adulthood and whose tolerance was unusually low, was likely an alcoholic.
It’s clear when I get on the phone with Cheever that she feels empathy for the people about whom she writes, even the ones—Nixon, McCarthy—whose behavior and politics have been judged harshly by the history books. After all, she’s been there herself. Drinking in America is something of a passion project for Cheever, who is a recovering alcoholic (she’s been sober more than 20 years), a memoirist about her addiction (Note Found in a Bottle), and the daughter of John Cheever, one of the 20th century’s more famous alcoholics. Cheever references her family history at various points in the book, something she initially intended to avoid but added at the insistence of her editor. Now she’s glad she did. “The history books that we revere, you never know who the writer is, where he—or Doris [Kearns Goodwin],” she jokes, “is coming from. They don’t reveal their own biases. History is deeply biased. If you don’t reveal your biases, it’s hard for me to connect in the same way. I want to know where the writer is standing.”
Read on for more from Cheever about the boozy tidbits that most surprised her, why alcohol gets written out of the history books, and whether the beer-swigging Pilgrims were severely dehydrated. Read more “Vogue”…