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Friday, December 12, 2014

Amherst Woman During Prohibition Era: George Washington was NOT a drunk!



What curious, serendipitous finds one makes when doing research. A week ago, we marked the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Not long before that, I came across a perfect illustration of how American attitudes about drinking have changed since the Colonial situation described in the last post.
 "Local D.A.R. Woman Defends U.S. Ideals.
 Writes Paper Denying That George Washington was 'a Drinking Man'"
Is that one subject or two? readers could be excused for wondering as they picked up the Springfield newspaper in 1930.

The news was that the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution had asked the head of the Amherst chapter to send copies of her paper on cultural conflicts and American ideals to the state and national headquarters. Her point, it seems, was openness to change, provided it occurred within the framework of our founding system: to avoid "letting down the bars to strange and foreign ideas and ideals" and "see to it that the constitution is not wrecked by the addition of weakening amendments." "The American," she said, does not hesitate to change methods if by so doing he can better conditions, but he does hold fast to the fundamentals upon which his country is founded."

A liberal defense of traditional freedoms? Conservative "strict constructionism"? It can be hard to tell from such fragments. For example, many of us now associate the D.A.R. of that period with the notorious refusal to allow African-American singer Marianne Anderson to perform in its Constitution Hall in 1939, and indeed, Amherst itself was hardly free of nativism and racist behavior. However, the author's biography suggests greater complexity.

Estella Adaline Eastman Harris (1880-1974) was a resident of my own North Amherst who married carpenter Charles Dickinson Harris (1877-1955) in 1904. Neither went to college, but clearly, she had intellectual ambitions. She was also proud of her ancestors, who included not only the Pilgrim Roger Eastman and her Revolutionary forebears, but also the great abolitionist Zebina Eastman (1815-83), one of the founders the Republican Party in Illinois, appointed by Abraham Lincoln as Consul in Bristol (1861-69).

The Liquor is the Lede?

"Foreign ideas" and challenges to the Constitutional order must have been among the pressing concerns in the political and economic crisis of the 1930s, but, curiously, the article led with the liquor, explaining that the essay "describes the attempts to discredit the great men of American history, especially George Washington, saying he was 'a drinking man.'" We don't get to the Constitution and Monroe Doctrine until more than halfway through.

The article quotes Mrs. Harris as saying:
In the olden days it was the commonly accepted custom to use liquors. As we know, many of the churches were raised to the accompaniment of strong drink. So why endeavor to dim the luster of a great man's life by accusing him of doing something that everyone at that time accepted as correct. Even in those days, he was rated as temperate.
This could of course take us into the intellectual and moral morass of historicist relativism. After all, slavery was also something that (almost) "everyone at that time accepted as correct." And when she wrote, the DAR itself practiced racial discrimination. That said, her point is quite accurate, and the subject of the previous post.

As Corin Hirsch (@latesupper) explained in her Amherst Historical Society lecture last month, everyone in Colonial America, from churchmen to Founding Fathers, drank like a sailor on leave all year 'round (and often all day). Implicitly agreeing with Mrs. Harris, she said:
  • George Washington "was a man of all things alcoholic, but he was not an alcoholic,"  "a fanboy of small beer . . . and enthusiastic swiller of porter." He also became one of the nation's leading distillers of whiskey. 
  • As for Ben Franklin, he was "a sot, marinating in porter, Champagne, brandy, Madeira and the fine wines of France." 
W. J. Rorabaugh'sThe Alcoholic Republic, (Oxford, 1981), which she used in her research, confirms Mrs. Harris's view that, when it came to heavy drinking, at least, there was no wall of separation between church and state:
New York Governor Georg Clinton honored the French ambassador with a dinner at which 120 guests downed 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch. Even in staid New England the upper classes continued to imbibe; at one Congregational minister's ordination in 1793, the celebrants consumed dozens of bottles of hard cider, wine, sherry, cherry brandy, and Jamaica rum. (48)
Ms. Hirsch provides some specific numbers: "At the 1785 ordination of a Beverly, Massachusetts, minister, the eighty attendees drank seventy-four bowls of punch as well as twenty-eight bottles of wine and eight bottles of brandy."

Lots of Liquor at Raisings. High Church?

Speaking of the church: It is said that when the horse teams brought in the granite for the foundations of our own North Amherst Church, Oliver ("Landlord") Dickinson, who had financed much of the project, rode all the way into town from Pelham atop one such load of stone, moved by drink to boisterous song. And when the church was finally dedicated, Carpenter and Morehouse tell us in their classic history of the town, "The raising was made a gala occasion, liquor being generously provided and consumed, the expenses being met by contributions."

Dickinson was a tavernkeeper, for like every good New England town, Amherst had its share of taverns. The reason this institution was so popular, as both they and Hirsch explain, is because the "public house," as the name implies, was not just a source of food, drink, and lodging, but also a social center: for meetings, discussion, reading of periodicals, even convening of court. Take the Baggs Tavern (1818 ff.), for example.

source: Wikimedia Commons


In the words of Carpenter and Morehouse:
In 1828, it was the headquarters of the democratic party in town, where caucuses were held and the politicians gathered in the bar-room of an evening to discuss the state of the country. It was famous for the excellence of the liquors served over its bar and the royal good times that were enjoyed by those who loved the liquors, not wisely but too well. It was a favorite gathering place for the old stage-drivers, who found its toddy and its flip a powerful antidote against winter's cold and summer's heat.
The Amherst branch of the D.A.R., to which Mrs. Harris belonged, is the Mary Mattoon chapter, named after the wife of a local patriot. (With characteristic inflation, we generally refer to him as "General Mattoon," but that title came late in life when he led the Massachusetts Militia; during the Revolution, he was a mere lieutenant.)



As it happens, this chapter, founded in 1894, met and now once again meets at the eighteenth-century Simeon Strong House, which was also since 1916 the home of the Amherst Historical Society, where Corin Hirsch demonstrated her Colonial bartending skills last month.


The Cider House. It Rules!

When Simeon Strong--theologian, Tory, and then respected jurist in the new republic--died in 1805 with an estate worth approximately $ 10,000, he was among the ten richest men in Amherst. A glance at his probate inventory provides some hints at the culture of drink among the upper class. It lists, for example,
  • 1 pair fluted decanters (valued at 2.50)
  • 2 pair plain decanters (2.00)
  • 2 pair round-bottomed decanters (.75), and 
  • 1 pair decanter stands (1.25). 
This, in addition to:
  • 16 wine glasses (best sort) (worth 4--)
  • 9 wine glasses (worth .90)
  • 14 tumblers (worth 1.75)
  • 5 pint tumblers (worth .62)
  • 10 tumblers and 2 small glass canns ["cans" were small, straight-sided drinking vessels] (@10, worth 1.00), and 
  • 2 one-quart tumblers (@ .33)
Among the items that his second wife brought to the marriage was a china punch bowl, once again, a luxury item (1.00: equivalent to four chamber pots--or a volume of Foster's Crown Law Reports--in case you were wondering).

At the same time, we are able to discern tastes that crossed class lines. Hirsch tells us that the hard cider "was an almost uniquely New England drink," and Timothy Dwight's account of his travels (1796-1815) described it as "the common drink of all its inhabitants, the rich and poor alike." John Adams found it "mortifying beyond all expression that we Americans should exceed all other eight millions of people on the globe . . . in this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance"--and nonetheless downed a tankard of hard cider at his daily breakfast (yes, breakfast), which speaks volumes about the cultural gap between that era and ours.

In Strong's probate inventory, we thus find 13 barrels of cider, 28 empty cider barrels, 5 old cider barrels, and 1 barrel of old cider. The typical New England farmer, we are told, produced about 10 (50-gallon) barrels per year. According to Hirsch, "By the mid-1700s, the average New England family might consume a barrel of cider a week," which explains her verdict, "Early Americans imbibed hard cider with gusto."

You see how everything comes full circle?

Today, although our drinking habits and mores have changed, cider has been undergoing a revival. Our Pioneer Valley cider business, too, is growing: its products are sold at the Amherst farmers market, the All Things Local Cooperative, and an annual festival dedicated to the juice of the apple.

One is strongly tempted to conclude that Mrs. Harris took much of her argument from Carpenter and Morehouse. They write, somewhat apologetically, before launching into a discussion of the rise of temperance movements:
the drinking habits of the earlier residents of Amherst . . . . were not peculiar, merely following the fashion of their times. It is almost impossible, in later times and under changed conditions, to write of the liquor problem as it existed in the closing years of the 18th and the opening years of the 19th centuries, without doing something of an injustice to those who upheld a system which has since come to be looked upon as pernicious and degrading. The part that liquor then bore in social, business and community life was honored if not honorable. Total abstinence from liquor, while not unknown, was looked upon as an eccentricity rather than a virtue. The minister drank liquor with his deacons, the lawyer with his clients, the doctor with his patients. A 'raising' without the presence of liquor was unknown; ministers drank flip at ecclesiastical councils and ordinations; hardly a trade was made at the village without 'something to wash it down.' . . . Drunkenness, while not encouraged, was tolerated, carrying with it no special disgrace.
Like it or not, heavy drinking was among "the fundamentals upon which [t]his country is founded." As the late historian Eugen Weber wrote, the decent folk in the Anglo-American world of that era were drunk all the time, dead drunk most of the time, and apparently none the worse for it except in the long run, and perhaps not even then. Mrs. Harris--whose drinking habits we do not know (though she lived to the ripe old age of 93)--might not have put it quite that way to the prim dames of the DAR, but her point was the same.


Cheers.


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