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God, Guts and Rum

God Guts and RumHave you noticed how few people drink with pride?

Of that small number, almost no one will claim they do it for fun, and fewer still will declare the vital part alcohol plays in their lives. As has been recently noted in this very magazine, the number of Public Figures (our cultural lamp posts, for good or ill) who will own up to their drunken exploits are few, or of marginal importance. Too many people use drunkenness as an excuse, or make excuses for their drunkenness. Something has gone to vinegar here in the Land of the Free.

Our so-called Founding Fathers (where was John Hancock’s mother, I ask, with such sloppy penmanship?), usually depicted as a gaggle of sober-minded political theorists and high-hearted revolutionaries, were dedicated, rampant boozers. Granted, a whole different world view guided social discourse in the early days of our nation. Alcohol was respected to a higher degree back then, deemed an important aspect of society. Today it’s been relegated to the status of “pastime” or “occasionality”.

The Mayflower pitched and yawed across the Big Deep, its passengers longing for a land where they could freely display their beliefs outside the gaze of intrusive Kings and Courts. The scribes of history have spin-doctored the manners and mores of those plucky invaders, glossing over the ickier aspects of Pilgrim Consciousness (with the matte-black finality of a Binx gun), and marketed the remainder as a package of bland aphorisms. As a result, the Pilgrims now seem as clean and sterile as a Bing Crosby movie.

All most people recall about the Pilgrims is the myth of the First Thanksgiving, whereupon our incredibly decent and Godly forebears gave turkey and yams to starving Indians, thereby teaching the ignorant heathens how to make full use of the land (which they’d only lived on for 10,0000 years, or so). The fact of the matter is the Pilgrims would have starved to death after rejecting food offered by the “savages,” had they not resorted to a little cannibalism. That they also ran out of beer must surely have ruined the First Christmas, too.

But, setting aside their moral frailty for a moment (we shall return), Colonial love for drink is the most telling fact glossed-over as the Pilgrims mutated from Sectarian Hermits to Inviolable Edifices of History. Their affinity for a good buzz is well documented, even if most historians treat it like the Carter’s treated Brother Billy, which is to say ignore it because it doesn’t fit the concept.

The keepers of America’s past have an issue with boozing, but I ask you, is there any difference at all between doing a thing, and doing the identical thing while drunk? If we acknowledge the boozedog nature of our forebears, do we somehow lessen them? Not hardly. Given their post-Plymouth savagery, the fact that they pounded enough liquor to stock a wedding reception at the Kennedy compound is one thing to be said in their favor.

Beer was the intoxicant of choice in the Colonies, just as it had been back in England. Colonists referred to beer as the “Good Creature of God.” They knew wine, which had its occasions, and spirits — called, charmingly, “ardent waters” — but beer and ale got them going, primed the Happy Pump, and transformed shoe buckles into a seventeenth-century cousin to Rubik’s baffling Cube. They packed thousands of gallons of beer for the voyage — twice as much beer as water, in fact — and love for beer was one tradition from the Isles they left intact.

About a half-second after landfall, urgent attention was given to getting a batch of beer on the cooker. While some folks erected shelter, and others wandered around shooting things, a lucky few searched for beerable plant life. Brewing skills were prized among the Colonists, right up there with a green thumb and a brilliant sermon (not to mention inventing unconscionable exchange rates for wampum). Most households brewed their own, using recipes handed down through many generations, and a person’s standing in the community could be linked to the quality of his beverages.

Things didn’t start out very well, though, for Colonial brewers. They were shocked — shocked! — and consternated to discover that the “New World” (their little hunk of it, anyhow) didn’t exactly teem with quality ingredients. Refusing to be kept from their heart’s desire, they set about experimenting with what they had at hand. If it grew — and didn’t have hair, fangs, feathers, or scales — it found its way into their trial-and-error brew pots. These included pumpkins, blue berries, milkweed, molasses, and various kinds of bark. None of these, singly or mixed (oak-bark beer…yummy), were at all satisfactory, and after many horrific failures, a small-scale panic set in among the populace.

“First we got cold weather, then red-skinned pagans, then we had to eat John Proctor, and now no ale? We know not what we did to cause thee offense, O Lord, but if you could see your way clear to provide a little hint we’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. Hello? Lord? Isn’t this just swell… Makes a fella wish he’d stayed in Derbyshire.”

Jonesing for a frothy mug, and having tried and rejected about every foul concoction of the later micro-brew scene, the Colonists faced serious choices. They could A) cease tippling, B) rely on erratic shipments from England, or, C) they could adapt. They chose C. It wasn’t as if it was beer or nothing, after all. They adored the stuff, sure, but beer is a rather smallish segment of the whole Alcohol Universe. The unavailability of ale was not a go-home-and-kiss-the-king’s-ass sort of problem. The land around them (recently cleansed of “savages”) sprouted grains as if fertilized with God’s Holy Manure. Everyone planted grain because of its abundant uses, and everyone knew of its delightful penchant for fermenting into spirits. God willing, they’d be mellow, warm-bellied, and swimmy-headed by spring.

A simple decision, yes? Beer, spirits, wine, they all pull the cord of your internal buzz motor, right? So what’s the big deal? Just this: the change from beer to spirits was a vital first step in the creation of a truly American psyche.

Very few Europeans drank hard liquor. Germans, like the English, preferred beer. The French and Italians were tradition-bound to wine. Mead was popular among Scandinavians (as was anything else that killed the taste of lutefisk), and ciders fermented from apples, dates, plums, or pomegranates, were enjoyed across the European continent.

Standing apart from the aleheads and juicers were Scotland and Ireland, tiny countries, each with a profound taste for liquor. Having been trod upon by the Romans and Anglo-Saxons for dozens of centuries, these folks drank hard liquor to match their hard lives. The Prince of Potables was, of course, whiskey. Ranging from 100 to 200 proof (roughly 30% to 100 percent pure alcohol), whiskey is the 800-pound gorilla of the tippling world. Compared to beer and wine, whiskey is a tiger shark free-swimming through The Incredible Mr. Limpet. It’s The Godfather slap boxing with Dude, Where’s My Car?.

In the 1600s (and right up to this very instant, actually), the Irish were considered less worthy than the English — fifth-class people in an empire they never asked for. As a result, their cultural creations were largely scorned. Whiskey drinkers were viewed as uncouth, slovenly, and unrefined. The Colonials were somewhat hesitant about lowering themselves to the level of the Irish, but they needed alcohol, and had all the makings, and so went with the flow. Necessity is the mother of sozzlement. Before very long, a party, barn raising, wedding, or simple random Thursday, just wasn’t complete without (many) bottles of rye, scotch, or bourbon. Rye and bourbon, derived from wheat, rye, and corn, can lay claim to being among America’s first cultural creations. Bourbon in particular is considered the most American of liquors.

As mentioned previously, alcohol consumption was almost inextricable from the larger society. For example, workers throughout the Colonies took morning breaks around eleven. Like we might enjoy coffee and a smoke, the Colonials took a glass of whiskey. “Eleveners,” as they were called, were key parts of the workday in a society that knew a stiff drink made for happy, relaxed employees. One of the first professions to take off in the New World was the sutler, who rode through the land with kegs of whiskey in his wagon, selling intoxicating snorffles far and wide for a penny a dram. (The sutler was, obviously, a precursor of the hot dog vendor, but he sold comfort instead of tube-shaped slaughterhouse mung.) Additionally, workers, tradesmen, and artisans were often paid in liquor. Amounts were standardized. “X” hours of work or completed projects equaled “Y” bottles or casks of whiskey. In a world more self-sufficient than ours, where people farmed or hunted to fulfill their essential needs, what better currency could you ask for? Wouldn’t you, some days, rather have a bottle than a wad of ugly green paper?

Sadly, as with many good things, doom cryers scurried up from their disgruntled burrows, saw people having a good time, and cudgeled the party.

Beginning in the late 1700s, abstinence movements challenged 200 hundred years of Colonial drinking custom. Early prohibitionists apparently felt uneasy about how well boozenomics worked, and decided to dry out the nation. Dozens of rationales were trotted forward to justify their opinions. One group claimed they stood for “home protection.” (Sound familiar?) Prohibitionist “unions” kept registers of the abstemious devout, inking a “T” beside the names of those who pledged total abstinence (and, incidentally, birthing the word “teetotaler”). This practice bears a scary resemblance to the data-mining project recently launched by the Justice Department — mass acquisition of personal information destined for use in making moral judgements and as justification for preemptive actions against those who won’t play along. If you package all abstemious rationales in a box, wrap it in a pretty bow, and tape a card to the top, the card would read: “We believe that this nation functions according to rules and moral obligations that we understand to be true, defined as we see fit, and followed to the letter, despite any evidence to the contrary.”

Prohibitionists, present and past, tend to look upon booze as the Birth Canal of All Evil. To arrive at this conclusion they have to squint their eyes up tight and see only the negative aspects of drunkenness (violence, addiction, etc.), and completely ignore the good parts (camaraderie, revelry, impishness). Intentionally remaining blind to an entire half of any issue is an excellent definition of “irrational thinking.” Addlepated, stick-up-the-butt moralizing is a lame and eerie social agenda. Equally repellent is that the prohibition movement came to glisten with the slime of racism and xenophobia. But, hey, anything to save the children, right?

Ideas about the “way things ought to be” are valuable, but not at the expense of devaluing, or ignoring, the way things are. For every horror story told against drink there exist hundreds more celebrating glee, beauty, mysticism, and just plain fun. If you are honest with yourself you can see both sides of the tap handle.

America was erected on pillars of empty kegs and whiskey burps. Drunkenness itself has a 20,000- year lineage, complete with thousands of customs and rituals that span history and the globe. The actions and accidents of the few should not, and cannot, outweigh the joys of the multitude. For all the questionable — and genuinely foul — tenets espoused by the Founders, they still somehow managed to lay the groundwork for a pluralist society. The enemy of pluralism is needless stricture. Its allies are those who take freedom seriously, and who dance to the bass-beat of 100 proof disobedience. Prohibitionist movements (including our grotesquely shrill anti-drug campaigns) play shotgun politics — the weapon is too big for the target. They take aim, indiscriminately blast away, and if some innocent blood is shed, well, that’s just what happens. It is what happens when the voices of the loudest minority are given the most attention. Drink proudly, friends. You are among the anointed. You are a lock pick, and a sax solo. When you laugh the sound recapitulates the instant before the Big Bang. To paraphrase Socrates: The under-realized life is not worth living.


(Note: The Author is indebted to the works of Mark Lender and James Martin)

—Richard English