Drinking in Early America: Beliefs about Alcohol Changed

The story of drinking in early America began before the Revolutionary War and continued after it.

Moderate Drinking in Early America Before the Revolutionary War

Colonial Americans approved of drinking in moderation. But they condemned its abuse.  They believed that “Drink is in itself a creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness.” (1) The colonists considered regular consumption healthful for everyone. So toddlers drank beer, wine, and hard cider with their parents. (2)

Because of this belief, for more than 30 years abstainers had to pay one life insurance company higher rates than did drinkers. People considered the abstainer “thin and watery, and as mentally cranked, in that he repudiated the good creatures of God as found in alcoholic drinks.” (3) Today, medical research has shown that moderate drinkers have a longer life expectancy than abstainers.

Alcohol Was Pervasive

A historian made this observation about drinking in early America.

Alcohol was pervasive in American society. It crossed regional, sexual, racial, and class lines. Americans drank at home and abroad, alone and together, at work and at play, in fun and in earnest. They drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn. At nights taverns were filled with boisterous, mirth-making tipplers. Americans drank before meals, with meals, and after meals. They drank while working in the fields and while traveling across half a continent.

He continued.

They drank in their youth, and, if they lived long enough, in their old age. They drank at formal events, such as weddings, ministerial ordinations, and wakes. And on no occasion – by the fireside of an evening, on a hot afternoon, when the mood called. From sophisticated Andover to frontier Illinois, from Ohio to Georgia, in lumber camps and on satin settees, in log taverns and at fashionable New York hotels, the American greeting was, “Come, Sir, take a dram first.” Seldom was it refused. (4)

Social Controls Were Strong

Drinking in early America was carefully regulated by effective social controls. There were both informal and formal controls. Together, they maintained the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. There was a clear consensus that while alcohol was a gift from God its abuse was from the Devil. “Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion.” (5)

Informal Controls

Informal social controls operated both in the home and in the larger community.

Central to the drinking culture of colonial life was the tavern (any establishment where alcohol was served on the premises). The role of the tavern in colonial America and the attitudes toward it were quite different from what they would become in the nineteenth century. The tavern was considered an integral part of community life. It was second only in importance to the meetinghouse, which served as the church, town hall, and courtroom. The laws of most colonies required towns to license suitable persons to sell wine and spirits. Failure to do so could result in a fine. (6)


Historians describe what surprises most people today.

drinking in early AmericaContrary to the modern practice of keeping alcohol outlets a certain distance from schools and churches, colonial taverns were often required to be located near the meetinghouse or church. In towns that lacked a meetinghouse or in those where the meetinghouse did not provide sufficient warmth in winter, “religious services and court sessions were held in the great room of the principal tavern. There, ecclesiastical affairs were managed, the town selectmen and county justices met to conduct the business of government, and the voters assembled for town meetings.” (Popham, 1978, p. 271). Those who attended these gatherings naturally took advantage of the hospitality of the tavern, the expenses not infrequently being paid out of town funds.

And there was much socializing.

People also came to taverns to see plays and concerts, to attend lodge meetings, to participate in lotteries, to read newspapers, and to engage in political debate. In fact, taverns were more important as centers of social activity than as places in which to drink. Most drinking took place in the home or at communal gatherings. (7)

Tavern owners were expected to disperse food, drink, and hospitality. But they were also to monitor behavior and keep their customers in check. (8)

Formal Controls

When informal controls failed, there were always legal ones. Alcohol abuse was treated with rapid and sometimes severe punishment. Although infractions did occur, the general sobriety of the colonists suggests the effectiveness of their system of informal and formal control. Especially noteworthy is that this was  in a population that averaged about three and a half gallons of alcohol per year per person. (9) Thus, that rate was dramatically higher than the present rate of consumption.

Change Created Problems of Drinking in Early America

drinking in early AmericaAs the colonies grew from a rural society into a more urban one, drinking patterns began to change. Rum became increasingly popular. And as the American Revolution approached, economic change and urbanization occurred. They were accompanied by increasing poverty, unemployment, and crime.

These emerging social problems were often blamed on drunkenness. “This simplistic scapegoating of an intoxicant . . . now seems a predictable accompaniment of social unrest and economic problems. The basic scenario has been repeated often-opium, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, each takes its turn as demon for a day.” (10)

Post-Revolutionary War

Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation experienced great social, political, and economic changes. They affected every segment of the new society. Social control over alcohol abuse declined. And antidrunkenness ordinances were relaxed. Subsequently, alcohol problems increased dramatically.

Drinking in early America had been controlled by the tightly knit family and social fabric in the colonial period. But now it was increasingly  an individualistic activity. It became associated with masculine aggression and antisocial behavior by the early 19th century. (11) Also, alcohol use became segregated by gender and age. Unfortunately, this encouraged excessive consumption. As a result, concern over  immoderate drinking was often expressed. “As community life in the colonies became less cohesive and structured, the social sanctions that had kept drunkenness to a minimum began to lose their power.” (12)



The Revolution had caused a shift in alcoholic drinking in early America. The British blockade had prevented the importation of sugar and molasses. This disrupted rum production. However,  George Washington wanted the beverage for his troops. ‘I have written to the Commissary urging him if possible to have a pretty good stock of rum at the forts to supply more constantly the fatigue parties.’ (13)  Fortunately, whiskey was available. Scot-Irish immigrants who had settled on the frontier widely produced it. (14)


Even before the Revolution, whiskey had become the preferred way to use surplus grains west of the Appalachian Mountains. Because of the expansion of a corn belt in Kentucky and Ohio, there was a corn glut. But there were no roads in the region and most transportation was by packhorse. It cost more to transport corn or grain than it could bring on the eastern markets. So farmers simply distilled it into “liquid assets.” Then, they easily shipped or bartered it. Practically every farmer made whiskey and it became a medium of exchange. (15)

One farmer explained. “Distant from a permanent market, and separate from the Eastern coasts by mountains, we have no means of bringing the product of our lands to sale either by grain or meal. We are therefore distillers.” (16)


By 1810, there were at least 2,000 distillers. They produced over two million gallons of whiskey per year. (17) Due to overproduction, whiskey sold for twenty-five cents a gallon in the 1820s. Thus, it was cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk. (18) Compared to today, drinking in early America was prodigeous. Annual consumption may have been as high as ten gallons per person. (19)  

That level of consumption was over four times the current rate. However, “liquor tended drunk in small quantities throughout the day, often with meals. Instead of a morning coffee break, Americans stopped work at 11:00 a.m. to drink. A lot of work went undone. But in this slow paced, preindustrial age this was not always a problem. A drunken stage coach driver posed little threat, since the horses knew the route and made their own way home.” (20)

Concerns about Drinking in Early America

drinking in early America

Alexis de Toqueville

But not all was well. The famous observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, was writing at the time. He suggested that the sudden disappearance of traditional boundaries left people bereft and disoriented. (21) This had negative consequences for social control.

Normative Drinking

Describing the traditional mechanism that had earlier controlled drinking abuse, Aaron and Musto (22) pointed out an important fact.

Sanctions to regulate conduct, operating within an overall context of civic cohesiveness, were intended to shame the offender before the community. The stocks or the wearing of the letter “D” subjected the drunkard to ridicule, and such ceremonies of public humiliation were assumed to have a deterrent power. However, with frenzied economic and geographic mobility, exile became self-imposed. The rootless individual, seeking his fortune, living by his own wits, and answerable to no social superior, became celebrated as the national character ideal. This demolished the stable, self-policing community. Consequently, the forms of behavioral management that grew out of an inherited concept of reciprocal rights and obligations became obsolete.

Normless Drinking

Aaron and Musto elaborated. (23)

The combination of precipitate and bewildering change unmoored people from their sense of place, both social and physical. Consequently, there was more drinking in settings that no longer even offered the pretense of other activities. Thus, the tavern or inn, where food and lodging provided a milieu that militated against intense drinking, gave way almost exclusively to the grogshop, essentially an early version of the saloon. Drinking became detached from earlier safeguards. And whereas before this process of detachment had provoked attempts to reassert controls, efforts at regulation became increasingly listless and ineffectual.

Excessive Drinking

Solitary drinking, unencumbered by social control, increased during this time. “A sizeable number of Americans for the first time began to drink to excess by themselves. The solo binge was a new pattern of drinking. Periods of abstinence were interspersed every week, month, or season with one to three-day periods of solitary inebriation.” (24)

Social psychologist Dr. Stanton Peele has described the problem. “Middle- and upper- class Americans cut back their drinking drastically. It was no longer considered appropriate for an industrious life. As alcohol was eliminated from the ordinary daily routines of the middle class, when people did drink, they were more likely to go on binges where they drank all out.” (25)  For more on societal disorganization and alcohol abuse, visit What Causes Alcohol Abuse.

We’ve seen alcohol and drinking in Early America. Drinking began in moderation. But with rapid social and economic changes, drinking patterns also changed. That led to the beginning of the temperance movement.    


  1. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1985, p. 10.
  2. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion: an Informal History of Prohibition. NY: Greenwood, 1968, pp. 3-4.  Sinclair, A. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown,1962, pp.  36-37.
  3. Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits.  NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1973, p. 26.
  4. Rorabaugh, W. The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979, pp, 20-21.
  5. Aaron, P., and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America: an Historical Overview. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Washington: Nat Acad Press, 1981. Pp.127-180, p. 132.
  6. Prendergast, M. A History of Alcohol Problem Prevention Efforts in the United States. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Control Issues in Alcohol Abuse Prevention. Greeenwich, CT: JAI, 1987. Pp. 25-52, p. 27. Popham, R. The Social History of the Tavern. In: Israel, Y., et al. (Eds.) Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems. NY: Plenum, 1978, v. 4. Pp. 255-304.
  7. Prendergast, ibid. Popham, ibid.
  8. Aaron and Musto, pp. 132-133. Tavern owners typically enjoyed high status in the community. This is indicated by the early records of Harvard. There, The college listed the names of students according to the social position of their fathers. For this reason, tavern owner’s sons preceded those of the clergy. (Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition. NY: Knopf, 1925, p. 44.)
  9. Rorabaugh, W. Alcohol in America. OAH Mag Hist, 1991, 6, 17.
  10. Mendelson and Mello, ibid.
  11. Peele, S. The limitations of control-of-supply models for explaining and preventing alcoholism and drug addiction, J Stud Alco, 1987,  69.
  12. Schlaadt, R. Alcohol Use & Abuse. Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1992, p. 9.
  13.  George Washington to Major General Alexander McDougall, June 28, 1779. In: Crackel, T. (Ed.) The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition. Charlottesville: U Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.
  14. Aaron and Musto, p. 135.
  15. Roueche, B. Alcohol: Its History, Folklore, and Effect on the Human Body. NY: Grove, 1962, pp. 39-40.
  16. Rorabaugh, 1979, p. 54.
  17. Roueche, p. 42.
  18. Rorabaugh, 1991, ibid.
  19. Clark, N. Deliver Us from Evil: an Interpretation of American Prohibition. NY: Norton, 1976, p. 20. Asbury, p. 12.   “Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton saw the whiskey makers as a good potential source of revenue to pay the enormous debt inherited by the Young Republic. So in 1791, Congress enacted an excise tax on distilled spirits, a tax that fell heavily on the mountain distillers of western Pennsylvania. This led to the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion.” Mendelson and Mello, p. 17.
  20. Rorabaugh, 1991, p. 17.
  21. Aaron and Musto, p. 136.
  22. Aaron and Musto, p. 137.
  23. Aaron and Musto, ibid.
  24. Rorabaugh, 1979, p. 144.
  25. Peele, S. Diseasing of America. Lexington, MA: Lexington, 1989, p. 36.