Founding Drinkers

Life, Liberty, and the Founding Fathers’ Pursuit of Hoppiness

The Constitution was written by men who owned breweries, imported whiskey, and humped cows.

The Daily Beast

He’s In the Sudds.

Tupsy Turvey.

Like in Rat Trouble.

So pervasive was drunkenness in 1787—and the lives of our Framers of the Constitution—that Benjamin Franklin compiled a list of 228 synonyms for it, which is more than an Inuit has for snow. He’s Fishey. Groadable. Nimtopsical. He’s contending with Pharaoh. And my favorite: He’s Been at Barbadoes, which must have been a hell of a tavern.

Franklin might have been describing James Madison, father of the Constitution, who drank a pint of whiskey every day. Or Constitutional delegate John Adams, who began each of his days with a whole draft of hard cider—“imbibing with the birds,” they called it. Or he could have been referring to the entire Continental Army. George Washington gave four ounces of the hard stuff to the soldiers he commanded along with their daily ration, insisting that “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies, and are not to be disputed.” In the decades after the Founding, liquor flowed so freely it became cheaper than tea.

In the first few years of the 1790s, the per capita consumption of alcohol grew to two and a half times greater than it was even in the decade before Prohibition. From the outset of the Founding, we were already becoming the “alcoholic republic” our English foremothers always worried we become. (Even John Winthrop, the English lawyer who brought his fellow settlers to Massachusetts to form a new colony, carried with them a boatload of beer and wine—a liver-whopping ten thousand gallons, in fact—to drink along the way as they traveled across the Atlantic. They may have been Puritans, but they weren’t prudes.)

But it was the men in Independence Hall during the summer of 1787 who really took the cake, especially if it was drenched in bourbon. If they had been celebrating Christmas last week, I’d guess the Framers wouldn’t have put rum in their eggnog; they’d have put egg nog in their rum. And then complained that it tasted “too noggy.”

Madison, who sat at the front of the room hiding his flask, was just the beginning. It was the other delegates at the writing of the Constitution who truly hit the hard stuff. The most tenacious tippler was Luther Martin, a man “of medium height…near-sighted, absent-minded, shabbily attired, harsh of voice…with a face crimsoned by the brandy which he continually imbibed.” Martin showed up drunk so often he became known as the “wild man” of the convention, and when he stood, red-faced, to give one of his usual six-hour speeches the other delegates often knew to tune out. This is a man who once stumbled out into the streets of Baltimore and, when he bumped into the backside of a cow—mistaking it for a woman—he bowed deeply, and apologized to the cow. Now that’s drunk.

As a lawyer, Martin was a valued asset in the convention—when sober. And when his fellow “states men” noticed how passionately he opposed the Virginia Plan that would shift power away from the states, they took a risk and selected him to attack it. They needed a lawyer to give the closing argument of a lifetime. What they got was, in the evocate words of Ben Franklin, a “Prince Eugene” who had “eaten a Pudding Bagg.” Yet he had a hand in the Constitution we know today—one that is a product of passionate debates on both sides, even if those fiery arguments were the product of liquid courage.

Almost all the Framers imbibed. Most didn’t just drink beer, they drank beer for breakfast. They had an excuse; beer was safer than water. They’d tell you they didn’t have a drinking problem, they had a drinking solution. But the fact remains, they drank beer for breakfast.

While writing the Constitution.

Don’t believe any claims they weren’t binge-drinkers and were just letting off a little steam—again, and I can’t stress this enough, they did so while delicately crafting our basic system of laws. After they finished the four months of drunken civic-mindedness, the 55 men who were about to sign the document piled into Philadelphia’s City Tavern on Friday, September 14, 1787 and guzzled enough booze to fell a stack of elephants: 60 bottles of claret, 54 bottles of Madeira, 50 bottles of “old stock,” vats of porter, cider, and beer, and what has been described as “some” bowls of rum punch. So raucous did the celebration get that City Tavern took the unusual step of sending along a bill for “breakage.” The first step is admitting you have a problem, guys.

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To some the following may hard to swallow: Our Constitution was written by men who owned breweries and imported whiskey—fine businesses both—but also imbibed those products to an astounding degree, and then humped cows in the streets. The amount of staggering was staggering.

I like to imagine that’s one reason they call the central tenet of the Constitution the “great compromise.” The men writing it were greatly compromised.

I’ll leave it to others to determine whether that drunkenness shows up in the vital American document—although they did misspell “Pensylvania” and they did keep slavery intact for two decades. So there’s that.

They started the tab; as a country, we have simply, and certainly, continued it. When Prohibition came and went, we were so adamant that we be able to keep drinking, we were willing to repeal one of the few amendments this country has ever seen— the only amendment ever to be repealed, by the way. And when it was, FDR was asked when was going to do next. “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” he said.

But I think the most indicative proof that we the people are we the drinkers is this: the deciding state to ratify the Twenty-First Amendment and repeal Prohibition—the state that could have kept us dry—was Utah. A state that won’t even drink caffeine.

Of course Prohibition wouldn’t last. As might have been pointed out by Thomas Jefferson—a man who made rye whiskey, yet still managed to spell “injuries and usurpations” in his letter to King George declaring independence—it’s not really about the alcohol. It’s about free will. It’s about unalienable rights to life and liberty. It’s about, in Jefferson’s words, “the pursuit of happiness,” via the pursuit of hoppiness.

Think about that the next time you take a drink, like a Rat in Trouble.