Midterm Mixology

Founding Fathers Loved Drunk Voters

The Founders had a sure fire way to get out the vote: get out the beer.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

The results are in. With all precincts reporting, Democracy itself has once again lost its bid for reelection as a top concern in the mind of the average American.

Granted, the election hasn’t even taken place. The ballots haven’t been punched. Not a single Karl has roved. So how do I know this? Of all the questions still lingering about this Tuesday, there’s one iron-clad prediction: a majority of Americans won’t vote.

It’s enough to drive Uncle Sam to drink. And perhaps he should. But I’ll get to that.

Americans won’t vote not because they’re quite happy with government as it is—they’re certainly not—and not because they’re fearful they’ll contract Ebola from a hanging chad—although they certainly seem to be—but because, as per usual in a midterm election, they can’t be bothered. Or they’re dejected. Or they’re disinterested. Call it what you will, the general sentiment held by an average American as he or she considers this midterm election is precisely what the Framers predicted it would be: Politicians may be in it to win it—and yay for them—but what’s in it for me?

It’s become an American tradition every four years. On any given midterm Tuesday, six out of ten eligible voters don’t show up. Despite voting being a Constitutional right, albeit a less noisy one—“the right to vote” doesn’t make its first appearance until in the Fourteenth Amendment, and not until the Fifteenth is it guaranteed not to be “denied or abridged”—it is most definitely one we disrespect. One-hundred percent of us take it as guaranteed; 60 percent of us take it for granted. In America, low turnout is the new black eye for a country founded on “no taxation without representation.” (If I’m truly distressed by this, perhaps I should move to Malta. On that island, 93 percent of voters voted last year, in a country that is 143 percent beaches.)

Both parties have their own (mid)terminal diagnosis. Democrats point to the problem and claim voter disenfranchisement; Republicans point to the problem and claim, “What problem?” Yet both parties also devote millions each midterm to rally their bases and get out the vote. Republicans go on bus tours; this year, Senate Democrats are relying on an “all-encompassing data-driven turnout operation that President Barack Obama used to so much success just two years ago.”

And why not? Dance with the horse what brung ya. Go with what works. But if they were really serious about pulling out all the stops to prod people to the polls, they wouldn’t stop with hand shaking and number crunching. They’d follow the lead of our most cherished Founding Fathers: They’d ply patriots with poison.

The Founders had a sure-fire way to get out the vote: get out the booze.

Consider the cautionary tale of poor George Washington. When he ran for the House of Burgesses in 1755, the father of our nation got a measly 40 votes. The winner that year, who offered voters beer, rum punch, wine and whiskey, lapped him seven times. Ever the quick study, Washington learned his lesson: while one may catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, when it comes to self-interested voters it’s best to “swill the planters with bumbo.” As in rum. As in yum. Three years later, Washington came armed with ample alcohol—enough for a half gallon for every voter—and won with 331 votes. (One can only assume the hangover cries: “whoa, who did I vote for last night?”)

But the headlines revealed: last night, as predicted, 26-year-old candidate George Washington carried the drunk vote. (Where’s your analysis on that metric, Nate Silver?)

Then there’s James Madison, the father of our Constitution. When he ran for reelection to the Virginia Convention, he thought plying voters with beer was “inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican principles.” In response, voters thought voting for Madison was inconsistent with their thirst for free booze. Madison lost. And soon Madison was inconsistent himself; as president in 1809, he tried to establish a National Brewery and a position on his cabinet for a Secretary of Beer.

For teetotalers, it’s an inconvenient truth of American history: booze lubricated the gears of democracy. The Founders drank. The Framers of the Constitution framed the Constitution during one long happy hour, having begun the day drinking beer for breakfast. Come closing time, the Founding Fathers were the Floundering Fathers; John Hancock himself kept a gallon of rum punch within arm’s length at his bedside.

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Centuries before, John Winthrop and his fellow settlers sailed to the shores of the New World with ten thousand gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water. Our National Anthem may sing the virtues of the land of the free, but it ‘s to the tune of an old drinking song. In the last decades of the 18th century, the nation’s average consumption of alcohol was not only far more than we drink now—a whopping six gallons per adult—but also two-and-half-times greater than in the decade before Prohibition, when the country said to itself, uh, excuse me, but you’ve had more than enough. Like it or not, drinking alcohol is as American as apple-tinis.

It’s not up for a vote. “Today,” as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg has said, “prohibition is a byword for futile attempts to legislate morality and remake human nature.” No wonder when FDR signed the bill making alcoholic lager legal once again, he declared, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”

Ask a voter today, and he or she might raise a glass: I’ll vote to that.