Alcohol: The Fuel that Drives America

 

Joseph Coll

 

            According to the recent popular television commercials, the What's New slogan of Dunkin’ Donuts is: “America runs on Dunkin’.” The slogan is an attempt to lure people into their store for overpriced coffee and greasy egg sandwiches, feeding into the idea that Americans are being somehow properly nourished by these sorry excuses for daily energy. However, the real question is, “what exactly is fueling America?” As little as anyone wants to believe it, the answer is: alcohol. For hundreds of years, alcohol has been the substance that keeps America going and has brought us to where we are today.  Since alcohol has played a fundamental part in the lives and decision making of so many important Americans, it follows that this country could never have established itself without its fine fermented drinks.          

Benjamin Franklin once said, “my Christian brother, be kind and benevolent like God, and do not spoil his good work. He made wine to gladden the heart of men.”[1] Historians have characterized Franklin as the father of America and both an architect of and an archetype for that ill-defined “American dream.”[2] Franklin is also often characterized as the prototypicalAmerican citizen for these reasons. Living in the revolutionary era, Franklin inherited from the earlier English settlers had a very favorable outlook on alcohol that pervaded prerevolutionary America, who “brought with them a well-developed taste for intoxicating beverages, and drinking became an important part of life in the What's New World.”[3] Alcohol was consumed regularly at social events, just as it is today. Alcohol was also given to the workers on farms and plantations, where “most farmers provided liquor for their hired hands, and those who failed to do so were likely to find themselves short of workers.[4] The majority of the business in early America was focused on the production of goods that were grown on farms. But so engrained was the alcohol break that without alcohol present for the workers, the farms may have failed. 

Other famous people joined Benjamin Franklin in arguing that alcohol was fundamental to American society. The Puritan Reverend Increase Mather was well known for saying that while intoxication was sinful, “Wine is from God.[5] In Puritan society, there was no tolerance for any type of behavior that would be considered conducive to “entertaining the Devil, but the regular consumption of alcohol in moderation was not one of them.  Jeff Hill, a scholar who has done research into American drinking habits, has noted that “even the morally strict Puritansdid not see fit to “outlaw alcohol.[6] They accepted the fact that alcohol was present and they did not try to change the fact that people did drink. Hill went on to say that “a person who did not drink was usually viewed with more suspicion than someone who did.[7] Alcohol was being used so frequently that people began associating themselves with others that drank.
           
The history of America has also been profoundly affected by American bar and tavern culture and the many sigificant discussions that have occurred in their midst. Some of the more famous ones are the Green Dragon Tavern and the Tun Tavern. The Green Dragon Tavern is where Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and other famous patriots met to discuss topics surrounding the oppression from Britain. To say that these men were drunks would be inaccurate. However, it would be ignorant to say that these men did not drink at all. The meetings were held in places that served alcohol and that may have been the spark which turned the gears of the Revolutionary War. Because of this, the tavern was “hailed as the Headquarters of the American Revolution’” and was known as the headquarters of the Sons of Liberty.[8] Without these taverns, the space in civil society that fueled the discussions that led to the Revolutionary War may have never started, and we could still today be under British rule.
            The Tun Tavern is another famous bar from the colonial period. Tun Tavern is the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps. On November 10, 1775,
according to the Marine Corps Press, “the Continental Congress commissioned Samuel Nicholas to raise two Battalions of Marines. That very day he set up shop in Tun Tavern . . . Prospective recruits flocked to the tavern lured by (1) cold beer and (2) the opportunity to serve in the What's New Corps of Marines.[9] It would be fair to say that alcohol and the Marine Corps are extremely closely related. The Marines are identified as the people who serve and protect this country the best, and without alcohol, there would never have been a tavern in which to start the group of people who have been fighting for this country for hundreds of years.
            Recently, alcohol has had a stigma of being a substance that is abused by people throughout the world. However, during the Colonial period,
liquor was believed to provide a boost of energy, ward off disease, and cure a variety of ailments.[10] For wounded soldiers of war, alcohol was used as an anesthetic, and was therefore “generally regarded as a ‘Good Creature of God.’ It was used as a medicine, and praised for its contribution to a sense of warmth, relaxation, and good fellowship.”  As a part of these important social, medical, and cultural rites, “drinking was part of the social fabric of colonial America.10 Alcohol in colonial America was not abused as much as it is in some places today. This may be one reason why “the prevailing attitude” about alcohol in the colonial and revolutionary eras “was one of acceptance—people needed breaks from their everyday life, and alcohol was readily available, so drinking was tolerated or even encouraged.[11]
 
           Given how deeply into the fabric of American economics, history, and culture alcohol was, is is not surprising that America could not function without the availability of alcohol. Prohibition, which took place in America from 1920-1933, was the ban on the sale, production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol.  Historians agree that prohibition was counterproductive; it led to a backlash by the American people and this led to people handling their alcohol needs personally.[12]  Presented without any option to obtain alcohol, one of the major affects of the ban was “an immediate surge in attempts to import alcohol illegally from abroad.”[13] People started to make their own alcohol (known as moonshine), particularly in the South. This is where the term "bootleggers" came from; people used to hide bottles of homemade alcohol literally in their boots. Organized crime was always existent during this time, but the Prohibition Acts allowed the Mafia to become notorious. For years in the United States, as Jeff Hill has noted, “criminal syndicates have existed only as a means of providing illicit goods and services. Thanks to Prohibition, an extremely popular substance—alcohol—became one of these illicit goods, providing organized criminals with more income and power than they had ever had before.”[14]  It is safe to say that because of Prohibition, crime increased immensely during the early half of the 20th Century. If alcohol was never banned, perhaps organized crime would never have gotten to where it was when it was heavily present in America. It can also be argued that without alcohol, there would be no need for Prohibition, which would have never popularized organized crime.

            In recent years, America’s culture of alcohol consumption has led to increasing levels of alcohol abuse.  In many cases, our negative perceptions of the role of alcohol in American culture have been linked to the more modern consequences of its abuse.  In the 1970s, the number of high school students abusing alcohol skyrocketed.[15] Teen and young adults are the most liable to fall prey under alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Studies of the prevalence of drinking by age group show that “the heaviest alcohol consumption occurs in young adults (age 21-34) and peaks in the mid 20s.”[16] People whose judgment is easily altered because of a lack of education of alcohol and its effects could be subject to make bad decisions, and “most people (78% in 1974, and 69% in 1978) who had been drunk six or more times in the previous year did experience at least one negative consequence” due to heavy binge drinking.[17]  These bad consequences could be loss of a job, getting kicked out of school, DUI (driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs), or even death.   The United States Surgeon General has reported that “30% of all deaths in the United States are premature because of alcohol” and that the “mortality in the age group between 15 and 24 has increased since 1960.”[18]
            In the era of the modern motor vehicle, the consequences of this obsession with alcohol are far direr than our ancestors could have imagined.   Automobile accidents related to alcohol “kill someone every 30 minutes and injure someone ever two minutes.”[19] How could someone allow a substance that could potentially kill someone to be on the market and purchased?  And though the terrible consequences of driving under the influence may be What's New, drunkenness surely is not.  With alcohol and taverns come some negative aspects that may be associated with them: “By the late 1800's some saloons and taverns had become closely associated with prostitution and gambling.”[20]  In addition, “men also spent their leisure time away from home and family.”[21] These statistics and facts should be enough proof that alcohol has destroyed America and without it we as a country would be better off.
            Yet despite the information given above, the fact remains that alcohol has benefited America. To say that alcoholism is there because of alcohol sounds like an unfair argument. In the same ideology, there would be no good without evil, no black without white. In an (almost) non related argument to that, since cars are bad for the environment, should we just ban all vehicles? It may not sound the same concept to someone, but the thought process is very similar. Just because one aspect of something is bad, does not make the entire object evil. In many good things there are exceptions which prove to be faults – if those faults remain unchecked that is where we would fail. There has been more information about alcohol abuse than there has been in the past. Programs such as D.A.R.E and Alcoholics Anonymous are extremely helpful in the cure for people who have a problem with alcohol in their lives. There has been stricter enforcement on laws of people driving while intoxicated and judges now make people who have been caught driving drunk go to classes to educate them on the actual effects of alcohol. We as a nation have identified the fact that alcoholism and deaths having to do with alcohol are a problem so we are doing what we can to solve them, and progress have been made. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that state laws establishing 21 as the minimum legal drinking age have saved more than 20,000 lives between 1975 and 2000 and will continue to save 1,000 lives each year.”[22] This is proof that we are making progress in the dark part of alcohol consumption.
            Prohibition was the worst decision that has been made against alcohol. Studies undertaken in the 1920s showed that “Americans drank more under Prohibition than they did previously.”[23] Banning alcohol completely had a negative effect on the country, and that was easily recognized. As one prominent politician noted, “the saloon is still here, and more people are engaged in the business than in pre-Volstead days. You did not exterminate the brewery. You made millions of little breweries and installed them in the homes of the people.”[24]
            Alcohol has fueled America since before its existence and it will for years to come. Tampering with the laws of alcohol use could potentially make the problem worse than it already is. One absurd consequence can be seen with binge drinking before What's New laws are implemented: “Boston teenagers hurriedly finish their beers in the 17 seconds before a What's New Massachusetts law that raises the drinking age to 20 goes into effect.”[25] It has to be understood that people in general are going to drink alcohol for whatever reason that suits them most. For the people who have problems with it, there are groups to help them, so the harmful aspect is being dealt with. You will not see changes over night, and certainly not in the next five years, but eventually for sure. We, as a society, need it and have always needed it for good reasons such as starting the revolution and the birth of the Marine Corps. Because of these reasons, alcohol should not be considered a terrible creation to the people of this country. Indeed, “for the vast majority of people, alcohol is indeed the relatively harmless substance.” 

Despite this fact, there has been a misguided but persistent effort by the health care industry in the United States to regard the consumption of all alcohol as a disease, much in the same way that advocates of temperance in the early twentieth century regarded it as a vice.   Unfortunately, in the United States, “the disease concept also maintains that there is an unfortunate minority for whom alcohol acts as the addicting poison.”[26]  But regarding all consumption of alcohol as an illness neglects the important cultural history of alcohol in the United States, in which it was intended to be used for the good of mankind, and has been for America. As years passed, more information has been discovered on the use of alcohol and its effects. In response to that, we have taken measures to rid society of the aspect that could be considered evil, until there is not one anymore. Our nation has been better with alcohol in our lives.  In the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”[27]
 



[1] Jeff Hill. Defining Moments: Prohibition. (Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, Inc., 2004), 5.

[2] See J.A. Leo Lemay, “Franklin’s Autobiography and the American Dream,” in Lemay and Hall (eds.), Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (What's New York: Norton, 1996), 349-60.

[3] Hill, 5-6.

[4] Hill, 6

[5] Hill, 7

[6] Hill, 6

[7] Hill, 6

[8] http://www.celticweb.com/greendragon/

[10] Hill, 6

[11] Alan R. Lang, Alcohol: Teenage Drinking. (What's New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), 22.

[12] Lang, 24

[13] Hill, 33

[14] Hill, 69

[15] Lang, 105

[16] Lang, 90

[17] Lang, 105

[18] Lang, 9

[19] National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA Dept of Transportation (US), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic safety facts 2005: alcohol. Washington (DC): NHTSA; 2006 [cited 2008 March 3]. Available from URL: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/TSF2005/AlcoholTSF05.pdf 

[20] Hill, 14

[21] Lang, 24

[22] Robert Zimmerman and William Dejong, Safe Lanes on Campus. (Washington, D.C.: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention, 2003), 6.

[23] Hill, 69

[24] Hill, 79

[25] Lang, 68

[26] Lang, 27

[27] Ken Wells, Travels with Barley: A Journey through Beer Culture in America.  (What's New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), preface.