Booze on the Brain: How Drunk Were Our Founding Fathers?

What do John Adams, George Washington, and James Madison have in common? They were all instrumental parts to the founding and development of our country, and they all loved them a little bit of the bubbly.

Philly's Prohibition Museum Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider, Washington had a distillery on his farm, and Madison consumed a pint of whiskey a day. In 1737, Ben Franklin compiled a list of 228 synonyms for “drunk.” How many can you come up with? It seems safe to say that these historical figures were not afraid of a good time.

Neither were Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and many of the other infamous names we see over and over again that still influence today’s society. Turns out, it was them who were under the influence.

I made a run on a few of the more famous museums in Philly this winter – from the controversial and potentially poached Barnes Exhibit to the dried genitalia of the Mutter Museum (stories to come on Travel and Escape) – but let’s talk about something a little lighter, let’s talk about what I learned at the Prohibition Exhibit at the Constitution Center. Let’s talk about booze!

Before Prohibition began in 1920, Americans were drinking their faces off. But as I laid out above, this had been going on for quite some time. About a hundred years earlier in 1830, the average American over the age of 15 drank seven gallons of pure alcohol per year – the equivalent of 90 bottles of 80-proof liquor a year, or four shots a day. That’s some damn good work, and that’s coming from me, a writer.

Interestingly enough, women’s groups played a part in both starting and ending prohibition. The strong emergence of a drinking culture was taking its toll on family life – apparently men weren’t exactly behaving themselves. But, a few years into the ban, commonsense took over as they realized the only thing prohibition prevented was financial gain and that it created crime and corruption. Although drinking declined, nothing really changed. It’s sort of like the war on drugs today. Anyone who was going to drink was going to drink, you know?

Especially considering it was not illegal to drink, only to sell, make, or transport. If a cop walked into a speakeasy and saw you drinking a beer, the only person who could be penalized was the person who sold it to you. And there were legal loopholes to the whole “do not make” part of the law, including “fruit preservation,” sacramental wine, and “medicinal alcohol.” 

With booze still floating around rather freely, a secret lingo developed for ordering drinks outside of a speakeasy. For example, if you wanted to get a drink in a restaurant, you could ask for an “imported” ginger ale. 

When prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, alcohol became harder, not easier, to obtain because it became more regulated than ever before. I guess, sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.

This exhibit is on display at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia until April 28th, so get moving. Guarantee you’ll be thirsty afterwards. Try a stay at the new Hotel Monaco right there at Independence Hall – the only hotel to overlook the Liberty Bell. Cheers!

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